Restaurateur Jeff Black grew up on a street in Houston where a neighbor repaired vending machines for a living, including pinball machines, those oversized, pre-video-game toys for boys of a certain generation. The neighbor often stored the machines in his garage, which soon became Black's home away from home.
"It was epic. I'd get up in the morning and ride my bike down to the end of the street," says Black, imitating the sound of his rushing bike. "We'd play pinball for free. We weren't supposed to but occasionally we'd sneak some of the snacks, because all the [vending] stuff was stored in the garage."
All that early-morning flipper action left its mark on Black. At age 53, he's still a pinball junkie. He has an AC/DC-branded machine in his house now, and he's long harbored a desire to build a bar with pinball backglass as the surface.
More than 20 years after he opened his first restaurant in the D.C. area, Black will finally fulfill his pinball dreams: On Friday, he will open Tilt on 14th Street NW in the Black Jack room where folks used to play bocce ball and knock back Peroni. Built by Jeff Dangremond, owner of Atreus Works in Kalamazoo, Mich., the Tilt bar top is not made of mahogany or marble or even zinc. It's made of the backglass from various pinball machines: Attack from Mars, X-Men, Theatre of Magic, Playboy and, yes, even an AC/DC machine (though not Black's).
The bar top will instantly become one of the most Instagrammable spots in Washington, right up there with the "awesome" sign at Rose's Luxury and the pandas at the National Zoo. But only if Black and the Atreus team can figure out how to dim the lights underneath the pinball glass. So far, the bar top's lighting has presented a challenge — at least for the smartphone-wielding patrons who attended a sneak preview of Tilt this week.
"People were complaining about trying to take pictures," says Black. "It's hard to get a picture."
Molly Allen, another partner in Atreus Works, immediately chimed in: "It's not Instagrammable yet," Allen says of the bar. "We need to get the lighting properly balanced."
If the bar still needs fine-tuning, the menus do not. Chef Austin Ginsberg has developed seven dishes just for Tilt, including lobster rangoon, a Korean-style beef sub, a jerk-spiced chicken and a black bean burger. Mixologist George Sault has, likewise, created a seven-drink menu for the bar. It features such slam-tilt concoctions as the PNBL WZRD (peanut butter-washed vodka with lemon and zinfandel) and the Miss Vixen (elderflower liqueur, Aperol and Campari).
The lucky sevens don't stop there, either. There are also seven beers (all local) and seven other things to sip (cider, wine, shared drinks). Your luck, however, runs out at Tilt when it comes to actually playing pinball, the latest trend at local bars.
"We don't actually have any pinball machines, which I've been catching a lot of grief for," Black said. "Last night, we had a party and they're like, 'Where are the machines?'"
Tilt has no pinball machines, largely because the room has no space. Plus, Black enjoys talking to people as much as he likes watching those noisy digit counters fall (requisite Who reference!). But don't fret, even without machines Tilt has plenty of kitsch. The back wall is plastered with movie and classic rock posters, which were hung around a giant steer head, just about the only element leftover from the bocce court era. There's a beer tower outfitted with pinball bumper caps as well as a fish tank in which more bumper caps are submerged. Giant pinball light fixtures hang from the ceiling, as if they're trying to use your head as a bumper. Classic rock from the late '60s to the early '80s — Black's favorite — will pour from the sound system.
Add it all up and what do you have? Beats Black.
"People are like, 'What's the theme?'' the veteran restaurateur says. "I'm like, 'There isn't a theme. It's just weird'."
Or perhaps the theme is so obvious the owner can't see it: It's as if Jeff Black took many of the things he loves (Texas culture, classic rock, pinball and good drinks) and mixed them in a giant cocktail shaker. The heady mixture has a name: It's called Tilt.
Tilt opens at 6 p.m. Friday at Black Jack, 1612 14th St. NW, 202-319-1612. Tilt takes customers on a first-come, first-serve basis but also passes out Tilt cards to loyal customers. The card bumps you to the head of the line.