Geek Gauntlet: A Guide to Cleveland's Genre-Themed Bars and Hangouts

click to enlarge Geek Gauntlet: A Guide to Cleveland's Genre-Themed Bars and Hangouts
All photos by Emanuel Wallace

For some Clevelanders, a dream day consists of catching a baseball game at Progressive Field. For others, a day hiking in the Metroparks or an evening screaming at the TV during a Cavs game at Market Garden. But then there are those who crave a different kind of Cleveland, one tinged with the superhero movies that continue to dominate the box office, the nostalgia-baiting television shows filling our Netflix queues, and mass-produced nerdy pop culture filling aisles at Target.

Cleveland is a subculture in and of itself, so it's no wonder that the city's geek community has continued to grow since the successes of Harry Potter and the Marvel Cinematic Universe made it socially acceptable for people to let their geek flags fly. The strength of fandom lies in the sense of commonality and, luckily, Cleveland is home to a multitude of sanctuaries for anyone yearning for a safe and geeky place to call their own.

We've compiled a guide to the best in Cleveland's genre-themed bars and hangouts — and matched them with the most apt Street Fighter II character we could think of because, much like choosing a character for a video game, each of these establishments has its own strengths and weaknesses — to help you unleash your inner geek, because there's never been a better time to let it out.

16-Bit Bar + Arcade

15012 Detroit Ave.Lakewood

In the hierarchy of geekdom, 16-Bit Bar + Arcade is easily the most popular girl in school. The consistently crowded barcade is home to more than 40 classic arcade games that visitors can play for free while sipping some of the tastiest cocktails in town. Each week boasts theme nights like Deathmatch Monday, Two-Player Tuesday, Way Back Wednesday, Old School Hip-Hop Thursday and High Score Sunday, in addition to special events like gaming tournaments and 16-Bit's incredibly popular Cosplayween costume contest.

STRENGTHS: Between the mosaic walls of pop culture icons, chalkboard scribbled bathrooms, bright drinks and movie-quote coasters, 16-Bit is one of the most Instagrammable joints in Cleveland. This killer date-night spot also includes a heated outdoor patio where players can catch a Cavs or Tribe game on TV or play a game of GoldenEye on Nintendo 64.

WEAKNESSES: 16-Bit's popularity has been fantastic for Lakewood commerce, but it can turn the location into an overcrowded nightmare on peak nights.

COMBO BREAKER: One Sunday a month, 16-Bit offers "Bring Your Shorty Day," where parents can let their children run around like idiots for a few hours, play some games and enjoy non-alcoholic mocktails or slush puppies.

STREET FIGHTER II CHARACTER: 16-Bit would be Ryu. It's the most popular character in town, but that also means everyone wants to play him. You can either be the most powerful player in the game, or you can be a button masher who has no idea what the hell you're doing, but Ryu immediately makes you look cool.

The Side Quest

17900 Detroit Ave.Lakewood

Forged from the ashes of Eddy and Iggy's sports bar, the Side Quest is now where geeks have inherited the earth. This extremely progressive and inclusive utopia boasts more than 300 tabletop board games (and plenty more in storage), a variety of gaming consoles, a to-die-for food menu from Julia Jingle, a Stranger Things demogorgon, and enough special events to please any and every geeky subculture you could imagine. Monday Night Wrassling + Super Mario Mondays, Free Board Game Play (and sometimes Tarot Card reading) Tuesdays, Wednesday's Side Quest Challenge theme trivia, Geeks Who Drink trivia on Thursdays, and Sunday Brunch + Beginner's D&D allow for geeks to develop a communal relationship depending on which night of the week piques their interests.

STRENGTHS: The Side Quest Challenge is easily the best trivia in town. Topics like Harry Potter, Star Wars and Doctor Who are a given, but topics like sex, literature, RuPaul's Drag Race, Studio Ghibli, Monty Python, and even The Golden Girls have been featured. Additionally, the Side Quest has cosplay events, pop culture anniversary parties, gaming tournaments, a book club, a liquor league, a beer society, and incredibly delicious signature drinks.

WEAKNESSES: As the most "authentic" version of a geek bar, the Side Quest can sometimes host events that aren't universally appealing. Considering that it's a bar catering to multi-generational geeks (over 21, of course), the theme celebrations can sometimes fly over the heads of more casual geeks. The intimate size can be slightly detrimental for bigger events, but it weirdly adds to the charm.

click to enlarge A night of gaming at the Side Quest.
A night of gaming at the Side Quest.

COMBO BREAKER: There is absolutely no other bar in Cleveland that is as non-discriminatory or welcoming. The entire staff of Side Quest is dedicated to providing a safe, harassment-free experience for everyone, regardless of sex, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, nationality, or religion. And they mean it. If you start bro-ing out about Mario Kart and spouting offensive slurs, your ass is tossed to the curb.

STREET FIGHTER II CHARACTER: The Side Quest is without a doubt Chun-Li. It's the most true-to-form geek bar in the city, breaks down barriers with representation and deserves to be the most popular joint in town, but people are still going to push for the sleek and easily marketable locations rather than the one with all the kickin' characteristics.

B-Side Liquor Lounge & Arcade

2785 Euclid Heights Blvd.Cleveland Heights

The former full-scale arcade bar has undergone a transformation of epic proportions and has become the go-to source for geeks with flow and rhythm. While B-Side has only four vintage arcade games and five pinball machines, the allure here is that it caters to the more extroverted geek. Monday Night Shit-Show Karaoke, Tuesday's live band open mic poetry #LyricalRhythms, Open Mic Wednesdays, the Hookup College ID night on Thursdays, Friday DJ Dance Nights, and Second Saturday Gumbo DJ + Brass Band all align to make B-Side the place to be for hip and intellectual geeks.

STRENGTHS: B-Side has a massive drink selection and is connected to the Grog Shop. This basement bar is a fun and frenetic part of the eastside's nightlife and able to house massive group outings. Events change monthly in addition to special theme nights, including the recent Silent Disco.

WEAKNESSES: Rebranded as a barcade before 16-Bit showed up and sweeped its leg, B-Side is now less of a geek bar and more of a party environment. But the access to arcade games and the emphasis on live band open mic poetry keeps this venue accessible to people interested in more than just screaming at a Cavs game in a crowded bar.

COMBO BREAKER: B-Side boasts an extremely diverse clientele, and offers a far more "active" night on the town than most of the other locations on this list. Shit-Show Karaoke is also one of the most entertaining ways to spend a Monday in Cleveland, and the monthly Gumbo DJ + Brass Band is a must-attend event for everyone.

STREET FIGHTER II CHARACTER: B-Side Liquor Lounge & Arcade is easily Vega. After 14 years, B-Side has continued to "claw" its way to survival and has done so with one of the most beautiful overall looks. If you're a fleek-looking geek, B-Side is the place to be.

Full Spectrum: GamerHaven

818 East 185th St.

The creative community hub Full Spectrum: GamerHaven is truly unique. This is not just a geeky cafe; rather it's a coworking 'makerspace' to encourage productivity from Cleveland's most creative. Stocked with recording devices and computers equipped with animation programs, Adobe Creative Suite and VR capabilities, GamerHaven allows like-minded geeks not only to interact but work together to create something fresh and exciting. Outside of the makerspace membership opportunities, GamerHaven's coffee gathering spot is open to the public.

STRENGTHS: GamerHaven definitely lives up to its name with the resources available. Every gaming system imaginable is at your disposal for enjoyment and the membership access to programs that allow geeks to make their own games is pretty incredible. Individually purchasing all of the tools available at GamerHaven would cost someone a fortune, but splitting it across a number of members allows everyone to use materials they'd otherwise only dream about utilizing.

WEAKNESSES: It's a coworking space, so you have to pay up. Yes, even for WiFi. Monthly memberships are the most common, but daily passes are available for those just looking to try the space on for size.

COMBO BREAKER: GamerHaven is an incubator for all types of creatives and the membership aspect develops a sincere and strong sense of community. This communal feeling is not exclusive, however, as the venue does provide special events from time to time like last fall's Stranger Things' Eggo-battered wing night.

STREET FIGHTER II CHARACTER: Sagat. Once an unplayable boss, Sagat is revered and respected. GamerHaven seems like an impossibility, but just like Sagat, a little membership gives you the chance to dominate the world.

Common Grounds

17104 Lorain Ave.

Cash only. Free WiFi. Coffee 24/7. The golden jewel of Kamm's Corners, Common Grounds is one of the hottest geek spots around. This coffee shop and gathering place is covered in local art and offers old-school video games, pinball, and weekly Wednesday chess meetups. Common Grounds has been around for nearly 22 years and is a place remembered fondly by West Park residents and something like 87 percent of everyone who had a little geek in them during high school.

STRENGTHS: Everything about Common Grounds caters to the counter-culture, but its 24/7 hours of operation has built a diverse community solely on accessibility. When there's nowhere else for legions of Clevelanders to go at 3 a.m., they all wind up at Common Grounds and form unlikely bonds.

WEAKNESSES: Common Grounds is cash only, which can be a total pain for the debit-card clinging masses. But in a weird way, being cash only forces your interactions with baristas to be a little more intimate and less manufactured. But when you're coming in buzzed at 4 a.m., the last thing anyone wants to do is try and count change.

COMBO BREAKER: The longevity and accessibility of Common Grounds shows the location can withstand the test of time and changing trends. The roots of this spot are deep within the city of Cleveland, and long after other geek locations have fallen by the wayside, Common Grounds will stand strong.

STREET FIGHTER II CHARACTER: M. Bison may be the criminal leader of the Street Fighter world, but he's also the character Common Grounds most closely resembles. It's the leader of the pack and was ahead of the curve long ago. In fact, it could be argued that without Common Grounds, many of the geek hangouts we enjoy today would not have been possible.

click to enlarge A pair of pinball wizards at Superelectric.
A pair of pinball wizards at Superelectric.

Superelectric Pinball Parlor

6500 Detroit Rd.

In the heart of Gordon Square bustles a bright and cheery wonderland of bells, chimes, flippers and metal balls. Superelectric Pinball Parlor is a token-operated gameland where Clevelanders can take a trip back to yesteryear and enjoy the frustratingly fun pastime of pinball. With more than 20 games ranging from the 1950s to the latest releases, Superelectric is a must-stop location for a night in Detroit Shoreway. Over the years, Superelectric has acquired and restored more than 80 vintage games and continues to preserve these special slices of American pop culture. The walls are decked out with new and vintage art, and the Superelectric Press offers some really rad hand-screen-printed products for purchase, including the now iconic "Make America Cleveland Again" shirts. Bonus: They've recently added a small menu with Korean fried chicken. Just be sure to wipe your hands before heading back to the machines.

STRENGTHS: Superelectric feels like you've jumped out of a time machine, and truly allows for an experience of escapism. Whatever bad shit you're dealing with in your personal life is immediately washed away the second you put your tokens into the pinball machine. Superelectric transforms your world into one that's focused solely on keeping that silver ball away from the hole at the bottom, which is basically a great metaphor for getting through our days. It's cathartic, really. They have pinball leagues, monthly events and the games frequently rotate in and out of the space, meaning there's always something new to play.

WEAKNESSES: Given that many of these pinball machines are kept in their vintage form, the place may not have the ability to hold the decreasing attention spans of generations raised surrounded by 3-D movies and first-player video games. Pinball isn't an easy style of gaming and doesn't offer the instant gratification so many crave.

COMBO BREAKER: Superelectric's location in the center of Gordon Square makes it a perfect spot for a date night. Whether you're catching a movie at the Capitol, a play at Near West Theatre or shoving your face full of Brewnuts, Superelectric is ready and waiting for you to come out and play.

STREET FIGHTER II CHARACTER: The electricity of Superelectric easily makes it Blanka. Scrappy, brightly colored, and bursting with energy, one step toward Superelectric will have your veins glowing with joy.

The Funhouse

1539 West 117th St.

Where the Spitfire Saloon once proudly stood has since transformed into the Tim Burton-striped nightmare of the Funhouse. The carnival-themed bar is one part sideshow attraction and two parts punk rock. Just about every cocktail you can imagine can be ordered as a slushie (complete with whipped cream by request), and festival fare such as corn dogs, hot pretzels, popcorn and cotton candy are available for your drunken enjoyment. A photo booth, skeeball, arcade games, funhouse mirrors, whack-a-mole and the hardest crane game known to mankind all call this rock and roll mainstay on the border of Lakewood and Cleveland home.

STRENGTHS: It's impossible to be in a bad mood at Funhouse. The decor pulls on your nostalgia strings, reminding you of childhood carnivals coming through town, and the slushie drinks are absolutely delicious. It's a solid mix of old and new with the gritty feel of the late Spitfire. Skeeball leagues, 3-D movies, comedy shows and the whack-a-mole league all offer more than enough reasons to keep coming back.

WEAKNESSES: The Funhouse can get pretty damn rowdy, and the music is often so loud it's difficult to hear the people around you. If you're looking for something really chill and relaxed, this is not the bar for you. If you're looking for a wild ride, strap on in because the Funhouse will deliver in spades.

COMBO BREAKER: The Funhouse is dog friendly. You can bring your dog. Dogs are available to be pet. I'm sorry. Did you not hear me? YOU CAN DRINK BOOZE SLUSHIES AND PET DOGS HERE!

STREET FIGHTER II CHARACTER: The Funhouse is totally the Russian wrestler Zangief. Not only does the Funhouse host the after-parties for Absolute Intense Wrestling, but it's the geek bar most likely to punch you square in the face.

click to enlarge Geeking out and drinking out.
Geeking out and drinking out.

Tabletop Board Game Cafe

1810 West 25th St.

Tabletop boasts more than 1,000 games from childhood classics to adult strategy games, and for just five dollars, players can play all day with no limit on the gaming. It also offers memberships for free access to their monthly mixers and other special perks. Events change weekly, so there's always something special to keep you coming back for more. Trivia, gaming tournaments, guided gameplay, local gamemaker opportunities, delicious snacks, killer drinks, and a welcoming environment keep Tabletop a mainstay in Ohio City.

STRENGTHS: With a great staff and a family-friendly environment, Tabletop is one of the few locations that offers options for geeks of all ages. Customers have been known to stay for hours at a time, and it's a local hangout that boasts plenty of regulars. The events held by Tabletop are one of a kind, including serving as Cleveland's qualifier spot for the Catan national tournament.

WEAKNESSES: Thanks to its popularity, Tabletop's service can sometimes be a little slow. It's not their fault; it's just the nature of the beast when you've got an intimate location with a variety of offerings that require hands-on assistance from the staff. Be patient with them; they're here to help.

COMBO BREAKER: For those who want to bring the Tabletop experience to their own party, Tabletop To-Go is exactly what you need. An experienced instructor will facilitate, teach games, and bring along a crate of options curated to fit your group's specific needs. If you fall within the 35-mile radius of Tabletop, you're able to personalize the event to anything your heart desires.

STREET FIGHTER II CHARACTER: If 16 Bit is Ryu, Tabletop has to be Ken. Equal in popularity and a bit more palatable for the less intense geeks, Tabletop brings out a different kind of crowd that's just as passionate and dedicated as the geeks in Lakewood. With an emphasis more on the cafe aspect than the bar, Tabletop is a far more accessible geek bar than some of its cohorts.

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