Emporium SF, a local offshoot of a popular duo of Chicago bars, is targeting an October opening after more than a year of delays. But a large truck unloading classic arcade games at the newly repainted space this weekend was the clearest indication yet that owners Danny and Doug Marks aren’t playing around.
San Francisco doesn’t lack for bars with video games, pool, or pinball (all of which Emporium will have in spades). Coin-Op Game Room, a San Diego export in SoMa, and Brewcade before it in the Castro, are just two new examples. But the brothers believe there’s plenty of room for more, especially in a space like the historic Harding Theater space, a 1926 art deco building that’s a beauty to behold.
And besides, gaming in bars isn’t some kind of novelty that people will tire of, says Danny Marks. “Games in bars is nothing new. It’s kind of funny to call yourself an ‘original arcade bar,” he points out. “We call ourselves the original in Chicago,” he admits, and others have used the designation, “but still.”
What Marks means is that the experience at arcade bars might feel new to certain Millennials, but before 1980, when there weren’t video games to play at home, people had to go to an arcade, which would often serve drinks, to play. To illustrate the point, Marks cites Nolan Bushnell, the Atari-cofounder who also founded Chuck E. Cheese. The restaurant would provide a place for people to play Atari games before they became living room fixtures.
Whether it needs to differentiate itself or not, Emporium SF will have something that existing arcade bars here don’t: It’s also a theater, with a classic stage for live entertainment like movie screenings, DJ sets, and full-on shows from bands.
While there will be plenty to drink, the new bar won’t serve food. “Because we have our hands full with the arcade, the bar, and events, food is not our main focus,” says Marks. “We plan to work with all the amazing restaurants in the neighborhood on a bring your own food and catering basis.” Nearby take-out favorites include Souvla, Little Star, and 4505 Burgers & BBQ.
After such a long lull, passersby have wondered at the increased activity in the Harding Theater. The 12,000 square-foot space was purchased by current owner Michael Klestoff of West & Praszker Realtors in 2003, who hoped to demolish the building for condos. But preservationists in the community opposed that plan, and in an eventual compromise, Klestoff sought a tenant for the theater space, with plans to develop a vacant portion of the lot along Hayes Street into seven condo units. That project is also under construction, though separately.
In the end, the Harding restoration process — which took much longer than the Marks brothers anticipated — looks to have paid off. Taps for beer go in this week. Most recently, Emporium Chicago has been in the news for its wildly popular pop-up bar called The Upside Down, inspired by the Netflix show Stranger Things. With Emporium SF hoping to open next month and the show returning October 27, maybe we can expect a dose of the Upside Down here in San Francisco.