By Chris McCollum and Micah Hanks
One of the finest and most exclusive patios in downtown Asheville has always been at 130 College Street. A large, brick-floored area with a sweeping view of nearby Town Mountain, the patio is surrounded by wrought iron fencing, which helps maintain a feeling of exclusivity and security for its patrons. This patio alone has been a staple for summer bar-hoppers for a number of years already, since the Joli Rouge, a pirate-themed private club with alternative looks and an exotic draw, had occupied the location previously. Though the building had remained vacant for the better part of three years since Joli Rouge closed, the property’s new owners have decided to save that great patio for last; after all, the buzz they’re generating has more to do with what’s kept inside.
The new Asheville Arcade at 130 College Street, according to owners Josh Aaron and Leonard Poe, was built on a simple premise: they wanted “a cool place that people would want to go to.” Combining vintage arcade consoles and a bar area outfitted original NES game systems, the Arcade has quickly launched itself as one of the most popular spots in town, despite having only been in business since New Year’s Eve. Promoting their operation with Facebook, Twitter and good old-fashioned word of mouth, a loyal group of followers had already begun to emerge prior to their grand opening. Poe and Aaron, along with bar manager James Browne, were stammered when a line had formed by early evening on December 31; the building remained at-capacity for the rest of the night as the trio brought in the New Year with their new friends.
And things have yet to slow down for the Arcade since then, though Asheville’s recent “Snowpocalypse” has kept many folks indoors the last few days. Creating opportunity for fun and mischief from the inclement weather conditions, an impromptu patio snowball fight broke out recently on the premises, helping keep local spirits high and patrons active.
As the name implies, the Arcade is not only a bar, but also a nostalgic paradise for gamers. The bar’s Nintendo systems are equipped with platform favorites that include the legendary Super Mario Bros, as well as Kirby’s Adventure, Contra, and several others available on request. Arcade staples also line the walls both on the ground level and upstairs, including games like Donkey Kong, Burgertime, Time Crisis, and iconic Tron (no doubt expected to see a renaissance with renewed interest spurred by the release of the new film Tron: Legacy). Asheville’s first (and only) “barcade” provides anyone who grew up gaming in the 80′s and 90′s with a trip down memory lane.
Naturally, the idea of a bar filled with arcade games will appeal to a broad demographic. Aaron and Poe say they expect families during the daytime, and of course, the evening bar-goersa and socialites once the sun goes down. However, delivering to such a wide demographic comes with its difficulties; in order to serve liquor while remaining a public venue, a hot food kitchen had to be included, so patrons could be offered a restaurant menu. “So far, we’ve chosen to focus on American fare,” says Browne, who lists items ranging from hot dogs and corndogs, to “tachos” (tater tot nachos), and a variety of sandwiches. During our visit, Browne invited us to join them for lunch, and sampling the menu ourselves revealed a delicious-looking Pizza Panini sandwich, as well as standards like the Cuban and Club, which we chose to order for ourselves (and yes, they were delicious).
But of greatest interest to Culture of Spirits was the Arcade’s reasonably priced and well-stocked bar. According to Browne, the Arcade’s drink menu will soon feature a variety of custom cocktails inspired by the gaming atmosphere. “The ‘Yoshi’ will be a unique specialty drink,” he told us, all the while prompting us to try and guess what ingredients he planned to use. Browne’s creative character is apparent as he talks about mixology and cocktails, and it is clear that in the coming months he will hope to share some of his creativity in this area with future patrons.
“I think we’ve touched a nerve,” Aaron tells us. It certainly seems so: everything about the location, right down to the décor, is fun but tasteful, adventurous but comfortable. “If you think about it, part of the appeal is the arcade games themselves,” Poe adds. “They’re like artwork, and having them all around is just part of the scenery.”
But the gratitude is what has truly humbled the trio. “There have been so many people who come in and tell us ‘thank you’,” Browne says shortly after admitting to having a Nintendo controller tattooed on his leg. “You just don’t hear that working in bars… it’s ‘have a good day,’ or maybe ‘nice place.’ Here, our patrons thank us for bringing a place like this to Asheville.” That gratitude was evident even while we spoke, as parents were bringing their children in to play games and enjoy family time together. One young girl in a pink winter coat and galoshes—probably not yet seven years old—exhibited incredible skill as she guided Super Mario from pipe-to-pipe across a brickyard covered in diminutive mushroom-like foes and devilish winged-terrapins. At the far end of the bar, two sisters in their early twenties sat together pouring over the menu and the game selection. Upstairs a young couple eyed a curious looking Japanese import called “Guitar Freaks” which, though similar to the now famous Guitar Hero, actually pre-dates the series by several years. And with Browne’s plans to remain open from noon until 3:30 AM Thursday through Saturday, becoming the area’s best new late-night food serving hub will no doubt garner more thanks from locals as well. All the proper elements seem to be coming together, and the future does indeed look promising for this new venture.
“Yeah, we definitely get a lot of thank-you’s,” Browne says with a laugh. With a rich, jovial environment like this, it would have to be hard not to.