Bit Bar Salem: where two bits still buys what it did in 1980
By Shelley A. Sackett, correspondent
You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in economics to realize that 25 cents doesn’t buy what it used to. Armed with a single quarter, you would have to time travel to 1945 to use it to buy a pound of hamburger; to 1960 to buy a gallon of gas; and to 1970 to buy a loaf of bread.
Or, you could just walk into the new Bit Bar Salem arcade-restaurant-bar hybrid at the intersection of St. Peter Street and Bridge Street, plunk your quarter into a vintage Ms. PacMan or Donkey Kong arcade machine, and pretend it was still 1980.
“Yes, it really is a quarter for a game. We say inflation be damned!” Rob Hall, one of the five co-owners said with a chuckle.
The genesis of Bit Bar was Hall’s interest in classic arcade games (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, etc.) The North Shore native, who graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a concentration in programming and media, set up a Facebook page for people who lived in the Boston area and enjoyed talking about these classic games. He met Joshua Allen, a technician by trade whose hobby is collecting and restoring arcade games, through his page. Andrew Wylie, a vintage shop owner who is plugged into the creative and music community in Greater Boston, joined the group. So did Max Clark, the restaurant manager at Trident Booksellers in Boston. Last, Allen brought in a friend of his, Gideon Coltof, who had just earned an M.B.A. at Babson College and was looking for an interesting project.
The group tossed around the idea of doing “Bit Fests”, pop up arcade events that would take place mostly at breweries. The idea was successful in other areas, but untested locally. “We were always interested in having a permanent location, but even before that, we were thinking it would be fun to do a classic themes festival,” said Hall, who admitted that the idea of moving these 300-lb. machines to temporary locations for a day or two was “a totally crazy idea. Totally insane.”
Coltof thought it was a textbook way to get a feel for the market before taking the brick-and-mortar plunge. “It’s not often you come upon a completely unguarded market like this. There was nothing in the Boston area,” he said, referring to the Bit Fests as “three tons of fun”.
In December 2014, the group did its first pop up event. Over the course of a year, Boston Bit Fest had ten events, but as early as last summer, they started looking to make the brick and mortar a reality. Originally they looked in Cambridge, Somerville, Malden and Boston, but it was hard to find interesting, good space.
One day, Coltof saw a listing for the old Salem jail space that had been home to The Great Escape and most recently, A&B Burgers. Hall had been mentioning Salem as a possible location, but this was the first time a potential listing had caught his eye. “Gideon thought it was funny, like ‘Ha, ha, ha. Look at this, an old jail!’, but I live on the North Shore and had eaten here when it was A&B. I told him it was a great space,” said Hall.
Coltof came to Salem and was blown away. “I tried to get a sense of what Salem was like and I thought, ‘This is really cool. We can really make this work.” They signed the lease and began working on Bit Bar Salem in January.
The 3,000 square foot space features two rooms of classic arcade and pinball machines with total capacity of 106, including seating for 70. The outdoor patio accommodates an additional 60 people. There are 30 machines in the bar area and another 30 in a warehouse in Everett, which they rotate for variety. These are the original games, painstakingly restored, refurbished and spit shined to their original glory. Some of the most popular games are Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and pinball machines Cue Ball Wizard, Hook and Cyclone.
Under Executive Chef Eric Hammer, formerly of Tavern in the Square, the attention-grabbing menu features Walking Tacos (“a tasty, traveling taco minus the mess”), snacks, sandwiches, entrees and sweets. Specialty cocktails are whimsically named “Pooka”, “Dankey Kang” and ”Pinky & Clyde”, among others. Local breweries are featured and Maine Root supplies Fair Trade Certified organically sweetened sodas
Most important to Hall and Coltof is that Bit Bar Salem be as green as possible, leaving the smallest carbon footprint and supporting the local community. “We pay living wages. We recycle our cooking oil into biodiesel fuel. Our meat is from Walden Meats (‘happy cows and chickens’). I want to be sure we are building something we can be proud of,” Coltof said.
Mayor Kim Driscoll is excited to welcome Bit Bar to Salem and to stake her personal arcade turf. “This creative business will add to our downtown’s growing reputation as a hip, vibrant and diverse dining destination. Beyond just the new jobs and economic activity this restaurant will bring, its innovative theme will make a real unique experience, not simply in Salem but for the whole greater Boston area,” she said, adding,” I look forward to setting their high score in Galaga.”
After a “soft opening” in June, the group is looking to tweak a few things before hosting its grand opening. Their biggest issue is managing all three things that Bit Bar Salem is: a classic arcade, a bar and a restaurant. During the day, it is more like a restaurant; at night, it feels like a busy bar. And then there are the 30 arcade games. “Our biggest challenge is how much floor space to devote to tables and how much to games. We are loath to give up a single game in our floor-plan, but if a bussing station has to go somewhere, or a server station is needed to make the flow of the place work ten times better, then we have to do it,” Hall said.
Like Mayor Driscoll, Coltof and Hall each have favorite games. For Coltof, it’s Rolling Thunder, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the pinball game Cyclone. For Hall, it’s more personal.
“Altered Beast”, a fun classic Sega game, is not necessarily the best game ever made, according to Hall. But for him, it is especially fun to play because it is one he helped fix and restore. “Just seeing that come back to life after you think it’s dead and gone is something,” he said.