Arcade bar Bonus Round mixes nerd culture with a 'Cheers' feel

New to the Valley’s ever-burgeoning arcade bar scene, uptown Phoenix’s Bonus Round aims to portray a more home away from home feel to the combination of drinks and games. Located off of Camelback Rd and Central Ave, it's close to ASU's downtown campus via a brief light rail ride or 15 minute drive. 

Having opened just over a month ago, the bar has already seen successes in the form of weekend crowds (standing room only) and the popular “Geeks who Drink” trivia game, which has made it one of their weekly homes every Thursday night.

The deceptively big environment greets you with a choice selection of classic arcade cabinets, all of which are free to play. These range from “Street Fighter II” to the “Jurassic Park” ride game, a rare Japanese import. "Centipede," "Galaga"  and the ever popular "NBA JAM" are also present, but those more interested in a sit down challenge can find board games such as Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan ready to play as well.

Bonus Round was conceived by Jason Rendel, his cousin James Goshow (operations manager and co-owner), and their friend Nick Luis (co-owner and general manager). Rendel said that he always wanted to “create an environment,” be it a coffee shop or a wine bar.

“That’s when in January of last year,” he said, “James asked me if I wanted to grab a beer and play some arcade games. I said 'Yeah – where can we do that?'

He continued, “His response was, ‘At the bar we’re about to build.’”

As the group crafted ideas about how Bonus Round would come about, Goshow researched other bars across the country. He discovered that, at the time, Phoenix was the largest city in the country without an arcade bar.

“Pretty quickly we realized that our experience was limited,” said Rendel. The two quickly partnered with Luis, who had a decade of restaurant industry work under his belt, half of which spent as a server at diner The Place in Phoenix.

“Along the way, we would get to a spot where we’d say, ‘This is kind of outside our knowledge base, here,’” said Goshow, who majored in business management at NAU. “We knew some nerd stuff, but when it got to ‘How do we get a good beer list?’ - we didn’t lie to ourselves and say, ‘Let’s just try to do it and manpower it.’ We got people who could help us.”

Weekly brainstorming sessions amongst the trio occurred at The Whining Pig, a beer and wine bar in Phoenix, and it was there that they found themselves eavesdropped by Pig owner-operator and ASU alum Clayton Steffen.

“He kind of overheard us and started contributing in ideas,” said Goshow. Steffen assisted them with narrowing down a craft beer list for the bar, among the handcrafted cocktails inspired by video game characters and items. The chalkboard menu that hangs above the bar is a nod to the Pig’s chalkboard wall and was sketched out by one of its bartenders.

Morgan Vinson tends bar at Bonus Round, and her passion for working there is immediately apparent. She spoke of an upcoming secret menu of drinks based, one of which being “The Flare Gun,” a reference to the role-playing game “Fallout.”

“It’s a shot of Fireball (whiskey), 151 (rum), lit on fire and dropped into cider,” she said.

Other drinks include the Plasma Grenade, their top seller and reference to first-person shooter “Halo”, and Full Restore, referencing a healing item from the “Pokémon” series. Vinson attributed the cocktail menu to Brad Casey-Wallins, an employee of wine and spirits distributor Young’s Market. Casey-Wallins also trained the bartender staff.

Vinson said that the best part about Bonus Round is that anyone could “nerd out” about their topic of choice, and called it a safe space for such discussions, recalling a 20 minute conversation she had with a patron about tea.

“In terms of video games, board games, cocktails, beer and overall feel, we really try to reach out to the nerds of those subsets,” she said. She added that she enjoyed being a part of local businesses through Bonus Round, citing comic shop All About Comics and record store Stinkweeds.

The trio of owners see Bonus Round as a communal entry into not only the city, but into the growing realm of arcade bars. Rendel said that their sale of game cabinets that were not going to make it into Bonus Round led them to meeting the owners of other bars, including Ariel Bracamontes of Phoenix’s Cobra Arcade and Michael Goosens of Mesa’s The Grid. Those meets became a bit of a learning experience for the owners.

“It led us to – not necessarily how to repeat what they’re doing, but how can we add to the growing arcade bar community,” said Rendel. “If I wasn’t the owner of Bonus Round, I could easily see myself hitting all three spots at night. Each place contributes something different.”

Goshow agreed. “The more of these that pop up, the better it is for Phoenix. We love to see bars that have great craft beer and spirits, but are also themed for nerds.

He continued, “There might be a group that can’t get into The Grid, like the Tron thing isn’t their thing, but Cobra works for them.”

Rendel said they were interested in building a community between the three locations, and hinted at talks with The Grid about events including a pub crawl via the light rail.

Luis said that Bonus Round was, jokingly, “The place you come from your mom’s basement.”

“You’re down with your friends, having some pizza rolls, playing some "D 'n D" ("Dungeons and Dragons") kind of feel,” he said. “We kind of wanted to expand that into a more legitimate sort of setting.”

“We have, and we’re trying for, an environment of comfortability. Of that kind of neighborhood spot,” said Rendel.


Reach the reporter at djulienr@asu.edu or follow @legendpenguin on Twitter

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