STORY BY MOLLY LAMOUREUX
It’s 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night. You open the door to Velvet Coat, a women’s boutique, and make a sharp right turn. The faint smell of hoppy beer gets stronger as you descend a sticky cement staircase.
Where are you?
You reach the bottom of the stairs and are suddenly emerged in a … wait. Seriously, where are you?
To your right, people are sitting at the bar nursing every shade of craft beer and talking about the latest Iowa State upset. Walk in a little further to find some guys immersed in an assembly line of bleeping and dinging arcade games. You turn around quickly as a game of giant Jenga crashes to the floor, and that’s when you see it — the huge “Up-Down” plastered on the wall.
After its startup in October of 2013, Up-Down has become one of the most unique places to hang out in the area, receiving runner up for “the most hipster place in Des Moines” in a recent city-wide awards ceremony.
This place has something for everybody. Up-Down takes pride in their eclectic collection of pinball machines, devoted teams for Monday night skee-ball league and more than 40 classic videogames sandwiched in between Tetris and House of the Dead.
And this is no Dave & Buster’s, so you won’t be getting ripped off. Up-Down uses a simple token system and each game only uses one token per play. Depending on the night, the bar also offers token specials — like two-for-one tokens on Wednesdays. Turning 35 (I mean 28) soon? Mention you’re the special birthday boy/girl and they’ll shell out $10 of tokens as a gift.
“We like to keep it affordable,” manager Eric Harvey said. Along with deals on tokens, the bar also offers free gaming options such as four-player Nintendo 64 on the big screen, giant Jenga and giant Connect Four.
The three guys behind the idea are Sam Summers, Josh Ivey and Rafe Mateer. After visiting a club with some video games at Summers’ Vegas bachelor party in July 2013, the trio knew they had to bring a bar-cade to Des Moines. It wasn’t going to be a club, though. The guys had a different idea in mind.
“The games are a huge part of what Up-Down is, but to me, it was more of this nostalgic vibe where people would (think), ‘Oh, these are the things that remind me of my childhood’,” Summers said.
And yes, it is a bar-cade. Up-Down is known for its classic videogames and its videogame-inspired menu. If you’re into mixed drinks, grab a “Princess Peach” or a “Gamer Fuel.” If you’re more of a shots fan, their candy-infused vodka is a huge hit. If you’re feeling adventurous (and coordinated), stack up those sour-apple Jolly Rancher shots into a “shot ski” and down them with some friends. And if all of this stuff sounds too frilly, Up-Down has over 20 craft beers on constant rotation. Whether you’re a Left Hand Stout guy or an IPA girl, they’ve got you covered.
After you set the shot ski aside, you can head to the games. Or you can kick back and watch some classics. TVs hanging from the ceiling play rotations of classic ESPN, classic UFC fighting, Beavis and Butthead and countless movies from the ‘80s and ‘90s.
As if the TVs weren’t enough, the decoration radiates nostalgia.
“It brings you back to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Harvey said. The walls are plastered with unique retro memorabilia wallpaper. Turn the corner by the Track and Field videogame to see Marty McFly sandwiched in between Space Invaders graphics and then make a 180 to make eye contact with a sexy John Stamos smirk circa his “Full House” era with Peewee Herman collaged beside him.
“It’s a culmination of all of those things together that create a feeling that you have when you’re there,” Summers said. “(It’s) not so much an ‘Oh I’m going to play games,’ thing, it’s ‘I’m going because I like the vibe.’”
You may be wondering what the crowd is like in such a niche place.
“Anyone can really enjoy the atmosphere,” employee Malcolm Smith said. After six months of working week nights and weekends, Smith still has yet to see a “typical” crowd.
“Wooly’s plays a huge part in (our crowd),” Smith said. “You can (bring) your Wooly’s ticket over and we’ll give you some free tokens.” (Summers, Ivey and Mateer also own Wooly’s — the bar/concert venue a few doors down.)
Harvey agrees that Wooly’s is a huge contributor to Up-Down’s profit since it’s an underground bar in a part of town that isn’t known for being part of the party scene.
“During the week, we get the gaming crowd. People just hanging out, playing games,” Harvey said. “On the weekend it’s packed wall-to-wall.”
Because the bar is open in the afternoon until 2 a.m. seven days a week, people can come in whenever it’s convenient for them and expect top notch drinks and service even during the busiest hours.
For the most part, Up-Down is the place to go if you want to drink casually and play some video games. People don’t go there to get belligerently drunk and pass out on the floor. No matter the crowd or concert going on down the street, you can always count on Up-Down as a space to hang with friends or to spend six hours trying to beat your high score on Spiderman pinball.
“Some of the bartenders (at Up-Down) have worked security at more hostile bars,” Smith said. “We have a lot of people with a lot of experience like that. But since we’re such a calm place, usually we don’t require security.”
The bartenders and servers enjoy getting to know the regulars, too, which contributes to the comfortable and relaxed environment.
“Everyone gets along great. We’re like one little happy family here,” Harvey said.
Time to become part of the family.