“Eatertainment” is making a comeback

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Want to throw axes at burgers, play pickleball before a chicken dinner, or pair mini-golf with hors d’oeuvres and a craft cocktail? You’re in luck: restaurants that allow you to play and eat at the same time are growing like crazy.

Why is this important: After a three-year pandemic hiatus, “entertainment” is on the rise again.

  • Investments are flowing into chains that offer sports, arcade games, and fine dining — think Dave & Buster’s and Chuck E. Cheese, but with chef-led kitchens, Instagram-worthy decor, and activities modern.

Driving the news: New “social entertainment” venues are flourishing offering hip leisure activities – like darts, ping-pong and shuffleboard – in tech-infused environments that cater to our thirst for socializing even as the pandemic s extends.

  • The pickleball craze has spawned growing chains like Smash Park and Chicken N Pickle, where you can play in a league, book a party, or just pop in for a game and a meal.
  • Puttshack, a brand of “upscale” miniature golf-themed restaurants, opened its 7th location this week in Boston, after raising $150 million from BlackRock.
    • Its founders are at the origin of the restaurant chains Topgolf (driving), Flight Club (darts), AceBounce (table tennis) and All Star Lanes (bowling).
  • In Texas, a new baseball-themed venue, Home Run Dugout, features augmented reality batting cages alongside tuna poke bowls.
  • TOCA Social, where guests kick soccer balls and order from a “striking food and drink menu” (heavy on tacos), started in London and is coming to Dallas.
  • A growing number of chains are indulging our modern penchant for ax throwing (not to mention artisan flatbread).
    • For example: Kick Ax Throwing – in Brooklyn, DC and Philly – welcomes “ages 8 and up as long as they have the strength and coordination to throw a hatchet effectively.”
  • Even shuffleboard has gone hip, as evidenced by newcomers like Electric Shuffle, another London import now in Dallas and Austin.

Older, familiar names are also getting a makeover and a new jolt of popularity.

  • Dave & Buster’s – which was near bankruptcy at the low point of the pandemic – became a stock market darling and recently paid $835 million for the Main Event restaurant and gaming chain.
  • Chuck E. Cheese is expanding internationally.
  • Cracker Barrel invests in Punch Bowl Social, which boasts “scratch food, craft cocktails, and experiential games like karaoke, bowling, and a vintage arcade.”

What’s new: The latest generation of social entertainment venues feature higher quality food (go for it, frozen nuggets!), high-tech games that let you score points, and tons of entertainment beyond Skee-Ball.

  • They are also designed to grab attention so that guests will coat their social media accounts with images.

Ah, making decisions: Don’t like pickleball? Smash Park, which opened its first location in 2018, also offers trivia, bingo, cornhole, giant Jenga and Connect Four, bocce, foosball and arcade games, as well as dozens of televisions.

  • It also serves colorful, shareable cocktails in fishbowls (“Sociabowls”) and fine pub fare.
  • “I don’t know if new entertainment concepts can survive without a good, solid menu,” Monty Lockyear, founder and CEO of Smash Park Entertainment Group, told Axios. “Some of the traditional brands are seeing this, and they’re improving their menus – people expect it.”

No cheating: Puttshack has patented a technology called Trackaball which records points and knows if you pick up your ball and move it.

A guest from Puttshack is playing giant beer pong.
In Puttshack, the ball keeps track of your score (and all efforts to cheat it). Photo courtesy of Puttshack

What they say : “People are looking for ways to connect with each other and are looking for something a little more than the typical bar and restaurant,” Susan Walmesley, Puttshack’s chief marketing officer, told Axios.

  • “Because we all carry our phones in our pockets, we’re looking for something new and different to share.”

Trend also: “Clubstaurants”, which mix waiter service with a nightclub vibe – and haven’t been a hot concept since 2016.

The bottom line: Expect to see more ‘entertainment’ as these chains expand nationwide and add weirder and weirder attractions, forcing diners to linger and driving up food bills. and bars.

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