Washington area bars where you can be a kid again: Skeeball

Beth Liu, left, of Washington gets a ball in the 100 slot at the Iron Horse.
Beth Liu, left, of Washington gets a ball in the 100 slot at the Iron Horse. (Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)
Friday, April 23, 2010

Skeeball conjures up childhood delights -- a friend's birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese or a trip to a dimly lit arcade on a family trip to Ocean City, when we stuffed quarters into a slot in hopes of winning a stuffed animal.

The game's signature sights and sounds are as much a part of the beach as the smell of taffy and the cries of seagulls. The clack as a row of wooden balls falls into play. The rumble of the rolling ball, the clatter as it hits the barriers around the cups. The clunk as it drops into the machine to be scored. The whirring police-style light and alarm atop the machine that ostentatiously call attention to high-scoring rounds. It's part of growing up, and you can see people wax nostalgic as they talk about it.

No wonder a growing number of bars are installing vintage-style skeeball games.

After rolling a few frames at Iron Horse Tap Room on Monday night, 24-year-old Emily Contillo reminisced about how she spent summers at the Jersey Shore playing with her friends. So when she and her friends from Capitol Hill heard there was a skeeball league in the District -- in a bar! -- they knew they had to join. "When I told my mom I was joining a skeeball league, I had to tell her it was in a bar, not at Chuck E. Cheese, playing against 7-year-olds," Contillo said, laughing.

"It's something we've been doing forever, since we were 5 years old," said her friend Megan Hendricksen, 24. "Now we're all in our mid-20s and playing skeeball in a bar -- what's wrong with that?"

Skeeball is a relative newcomer to the D.C. bar scene; the first establishment to install machines was Rocket Bar in May 2008. "We did the whole thing with pool halls," says owner Geoff Dawson, who counts Buffalo Billiards, Bedrock Billiards and Carpool among his holdings. "But it seemed like the barrier to entry in pool is stiff. With skeeball, people can step up and have fun without having to learn how to hold the cue."

Now three of Dawson's bars -- Rocket Bar, Iron Horse Tap Room and Continental -- have skeeball machines, and Buffalo Billiards, the city's largest pool hall, will get its own in a few weeks. Other bars have followed the trend, including the H Street Country Club, the Pour House, Old Dominion Brewhouse and, as of last week, the Big Hunt.

Four nights a week, the United Social Sports' skeeball league hosts nights at one of those bars, filling them with boisterous 20-somethings who three years ago would have been whooping and hollering on the kickball field. It's a very social atmosphere, with lots of drinking and cheering and quick introductions between members of the opposite sex. (When your game lasts only three to five minutes, there's lots of down time.)

"It sounded like a cool idea, and it turned out to be really fun," says Beth Liu, a 27-year-old Web producer for Kaiser Health News, who bowls as a member of What's Your Fanta-Skee. "It's something different, and there's the potential to meet new people."

The only downside?

"I haven't played skeeball since I was 10 years old," Liu said. "And honestly, [playing on a team] brought back really scary memories of being a kid playing at Chuck E. Cheese and all that pressure of trying to win tickets while your friends are watching.

"But I did okay."

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