MY LOVE AFFAIR with pinball started when I was just a few years old. I had to climb onto a folding chair and spread my arms as far as they would reach to use the flipper buttons on the Eight Ball machine in the dingy game room at Godfather’s Pizza.
Forty years later, pinball is back. Pinball machines (or “tables” as some pinheads call them) today are elaborate creations based on themes like Stranger Things, Willy Wonka and Jurassic Park. Players are drawn to intricate playfields, the shine of the silver ball and the mesmerizing array of colorful lights. They deposit handfuls of quarters despite the fact that the pinball machines always win.
Milwaukee has a strong pinball culture. Machines are found in dozens of bars and restaurants around town and tournaments and leagues keep players busy. There are plenty of places to play in Brew City, but a few standouts make up a great bar crawl for silver ball aficionados.
N85 W15920 Appleton Ave.
The Garcade doesn’t technically fit because the family-friendly place doesn’t serve booze, but its sizable pinball offering earns it a mention. Consider it a perfect starting point. The Garcade resides in a nondescript strip mall next door to a vacuum shop, but inside it’s game room nirvana. Roughly 30 pinball options range from newer titles from Stern (the world’s largest pinball maker) like Iron Maiden and The Munsters, to older models like the fun Stellar Wars, a game from 1979. (Garcade also has Pac-Man pinball, a rarity which in my estimation is on the short list for worst games ever made.) Small notecards affixed to each game illustrate a high score to shoot for. For $15 you can play all day, and you’ll likely want to.
701 E. Center St.
Head into Milwaukee for the next stops on the crawl. Riverwest has become a pinball oasis, and the neighborhood includes a trio of corner taverns within walking distance of each other worth visiting. High Dive is pinball served with a side of friendly grit. The dark back room of the aptly name bar is home to four machines and a smattering of wall graffiti.
901 E. Clarke St.
Bremen Café is a three-block walk. The spot has five newer machines in a large room adjacent to the bright and busy bar. On a recent night it also included a gravelly voiced local loudly proclaiming from his bar stool his insanely high scores on all sorts of pinball machines. I had a hard time believing him, but who am I to judge?
2479 N. Fratney St.
Around the corner is Vegga’s Pub, a cozy wood-paneled place where $2 shots of Tullamore Dew are a regular thing. Tucked in a comfortable back room are five games, including the classic Theatre of Magic, a gem that’s in extremely good shape despite being 25 years old. It pairs well with a $2.50 tap of High Life.
Pinball is a solo pursuit, and at its best, meditative. Back rooms like at these three Riverwest shot-and-a-beer joints offer limited distractions and allow you that zen moment when you become one with the flippers.
2220 N. Farwell Ave.
A mile to the east is Landmark Lanes. Walking downstairs into the venerable subterranean playground for adults, you’re greeted by a waft of classic bowling alley wax with a hint of cigarette smoke (a remnant of when smoking in bars was allowed and a perpetual nicotine haze hung in the air). Pinball is nothing new in this East Side staple and the entry area has been adorned with machines for decades. A half dozen pinball machines greet you before you choose from the three separate bar areas and grab a cheap cocktail or a beer from a solid list.
1875 N. Humboldt Ave.
Several blocks closer to downtown is Finks, a slightly more refined pinball bar known for pouring mean old fashioneds and Manhattans. Smartly appointed booths in the large, welcoming back room provide a spot to take a load off while you battle the Creature from the Black Lagoon or try to start the Love Gun multiball on Kiss.
615 E. Brady St.
Just down the road is Up-Down Milwaukee, a bustling spot for those who prefer to play in a more club-like setting. More than a dozen pinball options, many of them newer Stern machines, reside in this lively bar.
Side note: One poster on a pinball message board mentions that the wood floors are well polished, which makes it easier to slide the machines—a necessity for those who employ the skill of nudging.
2801 S. 5th St.
A different kind of energy exudes from Bounce Milwaukee, which expertly combines a great selection of 14 pinball machines—you don’t see Starship Troopers or a perfectly functioning Simpsons Pinball Party everywhere—with the perfect setting on a mezzanine overlooking inflatable bounce houses. It’s also right next to a small bar with a dozen craft beer taps. Bounce regularly hosts official IFPA (International Flipper Pinball Association) tournaments for those who like competition and want to improve their world ranking (mine currently resides at a modest 5,845, but I’m working on it).
3007 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
The last visit on any bar crawl has to be something special. And that’s why Blackbird Bar ends this pinball tour. The six game options in the back vary between extremely new releases like Elvira’s House of Horrors and its not too common, and much older cousin, Scared Stiff. There’s also a Medieval Madness, which ranks first on Pinside’s Pinball Top 100 list. The beer menu is big on Wisconsin brews, the vibe is casual Bay View, and there are three retro chic booths in the pinball room. Blackbird is the type of place where you end your night and spend however many quarter you have left in your pockets.