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Special When Lit: A pinball crawl across South Williamsburg

By Jay Sterkel · Aug 15, 2018 · ·

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Mark Twain said that being a good billiards player is a sign of a wasted youth. It’s implied that the sharks spent their time playing games at a public house while their peers were out whitewashing fences or something else that supposedly fortifies character. As a writer of belle lettres, Twain might also have been poking fun at kids with a propensity for vector math.

I think it’s best to ignore that sentiment. From Skee-Ball to darts to ping pong and pool, bar games have long been a way of enjoying laughs and drinks and (hopefully) encouraging friendly competition.

But the pinball machine in the corner is its own peculiar product of designers, engineers, coders, and individual quirks. Plan on playing with someone else and figuring it out together. It doesn’t have to be the only activity for the evening, but it does make for a good pastime long after operating other heavy machinery is ill-advised.

Fair warning: this is a rabbit hole if there ever was one. There’s a great deal of fun in wandering around playing bar games and drinking beers with your friends, but a casual game of pinball is the tip of the iceberg. There are leagues, weekly tournaments, family friendly arcades, international destinations, and museums galore. Most machines in NYC are at bars, but certainly not all. There are maps and apps. There are local, state, and international rankings derived from your finish in anything from a quick one-day tournament to the largest tournament in the world. Should you stumble into an enduring enthusiasm for pinball, there are plenty of avenues available.

Right now, there are 60+ locations in Brooklyn alone with 130+machines — and more than enough options are in South Williamsburg. So I had a big lunch, grabbed a pinball buddy and some singles, and proceeded to hit every spot between Metropolitan, the bridge, Graham Avenue, and Domino Park.

5:19 PM: Second Chance Saloon

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Pinball machines: 2
Games played: 4
Beers consumed: 1

Note, all stats are for both myself and my friend

The Second Chance calls itself a saloon, which is pretty accurate — there’s a pool table, goofy decorations, a jukebox, and traces of an old Southwest. There is an enormous pair of bull horns above the window and there are TVs everywhere if you need to watch a game. In between games, slide onto a barstool and enjoy a bottle of beer.

The pinball machines are visible from most spots in the bar, and unless anyone’s sitting in the window well, no one’s going to bump into you while you’re playing. A tip — if you’re walking up to a machine that you’ve never played before, only put in enough for one credit at first to see if it’s functioning. These machines have some character to them but still make for a good time.

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5:47pm: Ontario

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Pinball machines: 2
Games played: 5
Beers consumed: 2

The group that owns Ontario has a couple of different bars around town (and later on in this crawl), so it feels familiar walking in. Christmas lights, handmade drawings behind the bar listing drink specials, pool tables, and Big Buck Hunter. In here, I’ve definitely had the experience of looking up and noticing that the sun has set completely since I last checked.

The machines are toward the back and are kept in decent shape. They are not next to each other, which is rare but not necessarily a problem. Neither has cup holders, which leads to tip #2: Never set your drink on the machines. Imagine setting a beer on a piano’s keyboard and playing — see how long it takes until you’ve incurred thousands of dollars in damage. It looks like anyone playing pool might bump into someone playing one of the machines, too, so you might have to stake some space.

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6:29pm: Barcade

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Pinball machines: 4
Games played:9
Beers consumed: 2

If you haven’t been, Barcade is like the coolest place you heard about in high school; all small batch brews and arcade cabinets from back in the day. Skylights. Token based games. It’s essentially everything that you would want in your hangout when you were 14 and dreamt of being 21. This is the spot to get choosy about your beer and figure out an old arcade game that you might remember from, say, the local movie theater when you were a kid.

The machines are smack dab in the middle of the room, and there’s plenty of them. A couple of these games are going to pop up later tonight at other venues, but they play very differently. Tip #3: every machine plays differently.

My companion has started to wax poetic about his philosophy about accuracy with pinball flippers, which means that we should probably get food soon. (He’s also playing one-handed, which you might try for a challenge.)

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7:20pm: Flyrite Tattoo

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Pinball machines: 1
Games played: 0
Beers consumed: 0

The pinball machine in the window of Flyrite Tattoo is the closest to the Lorimer stop, and has long tempted me as I’ve walked past. The machine is owned by one of the artists in the shop, and was acquired in a barter for a tattoo. Unfortunately, on this day, the machine is out of order. Which happens, and you should be prepared.

One of the many reasons video games overtook the market is that a pinball machine is ultimately mechanical, and as such is subject to a gajillion technical problems. If there’s no sign, do the establishment a favor and let them know — playing a broken machine could cause more damage.

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7:29pm: RockaRolla

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Pinball machines: 1
Games played: 3
Beers consumed: 1

RockaRolla is on the same block as the tattoo shop, and I’d never known there was a back room perfect for the bar gamer. The bar itself smacks of a bygone era, hostile to both cold brew and dog yoga. Lots of pictures of rock and rollers around. There’s a jukebox in the corner so retro it scares me. Booths and badasses. Neon signs. It’s the kind of place I wanted to know about when I was 22. Tin ceiling. Giant mounted buffalo head on the wall. Loudest music. Metal. Stickers and graffiti everywhere. Definitely the most punk rock of the stops I’ve had thus far.

If there’s a shuffleboard finals in the city, this back room is where it should happen. It even has its own access to the bar, which keeps you out of the way of the rest of the patrons. There’s a pinball machine in the corner that played kinda rusty when I was there — and it takes a little extra effort to look past the questionable content (Word to the wise: If you have a question about or a problem with the theme of a pinball machine, ask your bartender. Complain. Machines can get changed out easier than you think).

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8:00pm: Commodore

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Pinball machines: 1
Games played: 4
Beers consumed: 2

This place is a gem if it’s not busy. There are a variety of truly odd coin drop mechanisms around the place. A stand up arcade game with two steering wheels for head to head combat. There is a breathtaking diorama of an ocean scene in the top of the defunct jukebox — and it boasts the tag of the artist that made it — another reason I love this town.

It’s also the first stop that serves food, and we are housing fried chicken like we will never eat salt again. The smell of fried fat saturates everything to the point of sheer perfection — the plush booths, mish-mosh linoleum, kitschy accents. My friend makes a note to call his mother to tell her about it. On the way here we talked about how excited we were to make the winding journey through this part of town, see these games, discover places we’d never been.

The pinball machine is evident as soon as you walk in, but it’s easy not to play (someone sitting at the adjacent table rests their arm on the machine, because sometimes at Williamsburg bars people take up more room than they need). With one exception, this is the oldest game encountered so far today, and it’s a machine I’ve never seen before. It’s the best feeling — that sense of wonder, of “how does this work, what is this, what if I hit the ball here?”. Sheer novelty.

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8:31pm: Jackbar

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Pinball machines: 11
Games played: 10
Beers consumed:4

Jackbar might not be the first location mentioned in conversations about pinball in NYC, but it’s bound to come up. The owner, Jon, will assert that it’s a bar with pinball (as opposed to an arcade, or a place interested in anything more than selling beer) but it’s clearly one of the best lineups in the city. It does somehow find a way to have more machines than any other bar with liquor and still not feel like an arcade. The Greatest Hits sit side by side the brand new titles.

This is the first place on our stop where we run into other pinball players we know, and we get to watch them play. We play a game together, relentlessly gossiping the whole time (Don’t let anyone tell you that being a grown up isn’t awesome). If you want to get better, watch other people play. Figure out what they’re doing, and take the opportunity to actually look up at the scoreboard and see what scores big points.

We make a pit stop to grab a slice of pizza — not only because it’s desperately necessary, but also because this is New York City and walking and eating is the best. If you won’t do it, you might as well live in the suburbs.

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10:16pm: Midway

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Pinball machines: 3
Games played: 11
Beers consumed: 4 (and two shots, because knowing the bartender is a double edged sword)

Midway is owned by the same people as Ontario, and feels a little like the island for lost boys where Pinocchio goes and hangs out for 20 minutes before almost turning into a jackass. Prince is playing. I’m starting to feel tired, but I’m almost home.

The pinball machines are right by the front door — there’s plenty of square footage to the place, but the idea that you won’t have to walk more than 15 feet into the bar might be relieving.

We just struck up a conversation with a guy that came from one of the bars that we’ve previously been to this evening. He’s from the same hometown as my companion and is super enthusiastic about pinball. We buy him a beer and a game. After a while, I think he starts to wonder why he started a conversation with us in the first place.

The “tilts” on these machines, meaning their sensitivity to being shaken (or “nudged” as players say), is a little loose — and it’s a crucial part of playing the game. More often than not, you might wish the ball wasn’t heading straight down the middle, towards the outlane, away from the saucer, etc. Give the machine a gentle push — if it’s too much, the machine will shut down and you’ll lose your ball, but not the whole game. Sensitivity is an operator setting, so test the limit. Tilting is trying. Every now and again you’ll find a machine that has no tilt whatsoever (be kind).

My companion is now trying to explain “the way” to play the game to our new friend, who is increasingly looking like he might bolt at any moment.

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11:49pm: Lucky Dog

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Pinball machines: 1
Games played: 2
Beers consumed: 3

This smaller, sister bar of RockaRolla is a dog-friendly hideaway on Bedford — on this hot night, there are enormous, shaggy dogs lying diagonally on the floor, which makes walking through a little more precarious given how long our evening has already been. It’s small and super friendly. When the back is open, it might be the best secret spot of south Bedford.

The pinball machine is in the back by the door to the bathroom, across from the shuffleboard table. It seems compressed at the first glance, but everyone provides plenty of room if you do drop a dollar in the machine. I can’t say that this was the best game of pinball, but it was my first time on this particular machine and in this bar, so it’s worth the stop.

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The final score

That was a full night of walking around playing pinball. Try the whole thing, a piece, or even just one location the next time you’re looking for something fun to do. Remember: a high score only takes one good ball and a little luck. Happy flipping!

Locations Visited: 9
Total Machines Available: 26
Total Games Played: 38
Total Beers Consumed: 19

Want to crawl around South Williamsburg? Check out our new apartment listings at 321 Wythe!

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All photos by Matthew Carlson