You can drop quarters in places besides the laundromat and gas station air pumps now that The Baxter and Boxcar Bar + Arcade have come to town.
Both spots—The Baxter in Chapel Hill, and Boxcar in Raleigh—offer a trip back in time to play the arcade games of decades past, along with plenty of libations to keep your trackball spinning, button-mashing hands limber and loose.
Actually, at Boxcar you'll spend tokens instead of quarters, but, hey, you can always use quarters to buy the tokens. And you'll want plenty to play on arcade games such as X-Men, Big Buck Hunter and Frogger (or you can opt for slightly more strenuous Skee-Ball). A dollar gets you five tokens, $5 gets you 25, $10 gets 55 and $20 gets you 120 tokens and serious hand cramping.
When it opened a few months ago, Boxcar got a bit of a chilly reception because its games were a mix of originals and emulators (a computer program of the game, but not the actual game cabinet/parts from back in the day). For some people this didn't matter, but it ticked off the purists, who complained. To Boxcar's credit, they listened and are busily replacing the emulators with originals.
Give them points for responsiveness. Throw in a bonus power-up too for their practice of selecting a charity of the week. On "Drink for a Cause" Thursdays, 15 percent of proceeds go to that week's charity. A recent one was the SPCA of Wake County. If you're feeling less altruistic, such specials as "Moonshine Mondays" and "Tall Boy Tuesdays" may be more to your liking.
Bartenders are friendly, and happy to help you pick from the variety of craft beers, even offering a sample taste of ones you may be unsure about. Many local brewers are represented, so you're likely to find familiar favorites. There is a decent selection of bourbons as well, including Knob Creek and Woodford Reserve.
One low-key evening, a college basketball game played on TV while a dude playing the NBA Jam arcade game was saying "booyah!" more often than Stuart Scott used to do. A couple flitted from one game to another, trying to find a comfort zone. Three women sat at the bar and had a couple of rounds of beers before venturing toward the glowing screens. (The room has a generous number of flat surfaces for placing your drinks.) I discovered that my putting skills on Golden Tee had not miraculously improved with time and dormancy. Left with a solitary token, I gave it to the couple.
It's a big room—great for busy nights, but it can feel a little cavernous on slower evenings. Boxcar can be enjoyable, but the games are why I would go there.
Games are a draw at The Baxter too, but, beyond the chance to save the world from Space Invaders or duke it out in Mortal Kombat 2, it feels like a bar I could sit at for hours without ever pressing a "Fire" button.
That's partly because the room is more intimate. It's also because The Baxter hits all my geek buttons. There is enough comics-related memorabilia and kitsch behind the bar to hold your attention for a couple of rounds of drinks, at least. A Galactus from the Marvel Legends Build a Figure series stands tall. A tiny and cute Groot sits a couple of shelves below the Eater of Worlds. There's a Q*Bert lunch box, a Spider-Man bust and all sorts of other fun items to look at.
The bar itself will keep you mesmerized long into the night. A multitude of panels from comics through the years are painstakingly arranged beneath the clear top. Some are instantly recognizable (such as Rocket exclaiming "I got a plan!") while others are more obscure. The scenes lean toward Marvel and independent comics because Danny Miller, who assembled it, prefers those over DC.
Miller is co-owner of The Baxter along with Joe Miller, Alex Joustra and Nick Stroud. Yes, that adds up to four owners, which might tip you to the origin of the bar's name. If you guessed it's in honor of the Baxter Building, home of the Fantastic Four, proudly exclaim "Excelsior!"
Don't get me wrong—games don't get short-changed by the small space. The Baxter houses almost 50, all originals. You can choose from the likes of Punch Out, Donkey Kong, Tron, Dig Dug, Moon Patrol and Centipede. (Try to avoid knocking my initials off the high score list.) They operate on quarters, so scrape the loose change off the top of your dresser or use one of the change machines scattered about the room.
Metal stands that you can move from game to game hold a couple of drinks. My companion dubbed them "the greatest invention ever," but we had been there a while so that may be overstating it a tad.
Miller and the folks at The Baxter also listen to their customers. Originally they had three pinball games but because of high demand now have six. "Family day" on Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. stemmed from parents wanting to bring their kids in to play their games of yore. (The Baxter doesn't serve food, but there's a pizza joint around the corner as well as other options nearby. Pick up something and bring it in with you.) On Sunday nights they've been screening movies but will switch to The Walking Dead once that series begins a new season.
There are a few craft beers on draft, and several more are available by the bottle. If you're feeling adventurous, try a Ghost Rider, a combination of Fireball and Coca-Cola on the rocks, or the She-Hulk, which consists of Absolut, Surge, blue Curaao and lemon.
I tell Danny Miller, who was tending bar, that drinking, comics and games hits the trifecta for me. He laughs and says, "This is what we're into." If it's what you're into, too, The Baxter may become your new favorite place. It's definitely entered a B-A-X on my high score list.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Get your game on."