Dropping our first few quarters at I/O Arcade Bar
Initial impressions of the new Willy Street spot's game selection, drinks, and spacious layout.
Madison has arcades and it has bars, but rarely do the two intertwine in a fully symbiotic relationship, even as grown-up gaming establishments spring up around the country. The Plaza has an acceptable bank of machines (and bubble hockey!), Dave & Buster's is an option for brutalizing the senses, and Art In has a rotating array of pinball machines to explore between bands.
This past Thursday, November 8, Madison welcomed a new arcade bar, I/O Arcade Bar, which opened at 720 Williamson Street. The new establishment is tucked into a newly refurbished warehouse space and maintains a bit of that utilitarian charm, albeit with splashes of color like a massive mural behind the bar depicting the Capitol blasting space invaders over Madison.
Owner Mitch Turino says the space is 3,200 square feet and packs in about 30 arcade machines, a mix of classics like Ms. Pac Man and newer games like Gauntlet Legends. The spot will also have 11 pinball machines and a Killer Queen cabinet—moved over from its initial location at ALT Brew. Turino said I/O will host Killer Queen league nights on Wednesdays and people who want to play or check out the unwieldy 10-player wonder are encouraged to stop in. All the games take quarters, instead of the flat-rate system employed by local spots like Geeks Mania.
Turino also said that about one-third of the space will be dedicated to board gaming. I/O will have a library of board games available, but patrons can bring in their own if they want.
On opening night, I/O had most of its games up and running, filling out a spacious and thoughtfully configured open space. All of the cabinets have small shelves in between them for setting drinks down, and all the pinball machines have cup holders. The games run the gambit from obvious crowd pleasers like Street Fighter II and Donkey Kong to forgotten classics like Ivan Stewart's Off Road, which asks for a fairly ridiculous amount of personal information before it lets you start racing. The pinball machines include oldies like The Machine: Bride Of Pinbot and elaborate new models like Game Of Thrones. All the games are arranged with plenty of space between them, so if you are chasing a high score on Dig Dug and a crowd gathers, it won't throw off the gamer next door.
As for the bar itself, Turino plans to have about 20 taps featuring a lot of regional craft beers and domestic tallboys like PBR and Hamm's. The place also has a full liquor license, so it can sell cocktails. Turino says that I/O will feature two house cocktails per week, each based on a different franchise (i.e. Star Wars, Harry Potter), and the two drinks will face off to see who wins.
I/O's tap list on Thursday included welcome standards like Lake Louie's Warped Speed and surprises like Three Floyds' Zombie Dust. The pints we bought ranged from $5.50 to $7, which are not outrageous costs, but since the tap list didn't mention prices (at least not that we remember) there was some mild sticker shock involved.
Of course, with alcohol comes responsibility and that means no kids in the arcade—I/O is a 21-and-over establishment. But on the first and third Sundays of each month from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., I/O will shut down liquor sales and turn into an all-ages arcade.
Along with the bar and arcade, I/O offers modest food service. Turino said there will be personal and full-size pizzas along with snacks like pretzel bites and chips.
For Turino, who previously worked at Rockhound Brewing and Mackesey's Irish Pub, I/O is his first time building a new business from scratch. And it took a little bit longer than expected.
I/O originally planned to open during the summer but, the rapid state of development in Madison being what it is, the date got pushed back. Turino said that many of the permitting and other official processes a new establishment goes through with the state and city took longer than usual.
But now Madison has a new choice for plunking down some quarters while downing some drinks, and so far I/O strikes a promising balance.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that I/O’s Killer Queen machine was Madison’s second. It has been corrected to reflect that I/O’s Killer Queen machine was in fact moved over from ALT Brew.