Fun and (Bar) Games in the East Bay

Life-size Jenga, new-wave bowling, bocce, and more compete with old-school pool, darts, and pinball.


At Portal near Lake Merritt, the friendly staff will set up and also challenge you to a game of grownup-sized Jenga.

Photo by Stephen Loewinsohn

Many bars and restaurants rely on games—from video poker to arcade and board games—to help us kill time while we’re killing time. Such diversions appeal to our competitive nature, and, mercifully, give us something to talk (and brag) about. In the East Bay, such bar games are experiencing a revival, with gaming options abounding in dive bars and upscale joints alike.

The newest example of this is Plank in Jack London Square, potentially the impetus needed for JLS to—finally!—achieve critical crowd mass. A gaming spot to end all gaming spots, swanky Plank opened Oct. 10, boasting a sprawling outdoor beer garden with three adjacent bocce courts, 18 shiny indoor bowling lanes (plus six shorter “boutique” lanes), billards, and 65 flashing video and carnival-style games including crane games, skeeball, and beer pong. Oh, and food, drink, live music, DJs, and probably more.

Possible overstimulation for some. In which case, mainstays like Smitty’s, George and Walt’s, and Luka’s Taproom do their part by offering those old-school standards of pool, darts, and arcade games to attract sporty types. A few newer watering holes eschew tradition, appealing to the nostalgia felt for Jenga and Connect Four and other games known from youth. Others bring the past to the present, kindling new passion for shuffleboard and bocce.

Make Westing in Uptown deserves the credit for getting the bocce balls rolling and making the sport cool again, thanks to two indoor bocce ball courts (if you’re a stickler, be forgiving, as these courts are packed with dirt, not the conventional crushed clamshell), good drinks, and tasty food. The secluded courts present a pocket of calm, where you can catch up with friends—or get to know your date a little better.

If you prefer a lesser-known but up-and-coming spot off the main drag, visit Drexl. While taking advantage of the generous happy hour offerings, you can challenge your companions to a couple rounds of skeeball on a vintage machine. At a dollar a play, it’s worth it. But if skeeball isn’t your thing, Drexl has an old-school Ms. Pac Man game to keep you occupied.

Options are appealing in other parts of town, too. At Portal near Lake Merritt, the friendly staff will set up and also challenge you to a game of grownup-sized Jenga. Steel yourself—smack will be talked, and blocks will fall at this gem, whose outdoor area rivals that of Heart & Dagger Saloon or San Francisco’s Zeitgeist. (Life-size Jenga also occurs at Venga Paella, on the outskirts of JLS.) Just off Piedmont Avenue, Adesso is a stylishly spartan bar/restaurant serving original cocktails and salumi plates, not the type of place you’d expect to find a foosball table, which kids and grownups go crazy over in the back. If you’re in the mood for table shuffleboard, check out The Prizefighter in Emeryville with its airy indoor and outdoor spaces, The Kingfish in Temescal with its classic dingy lowered ceilings, or sports-crazed McGee’s in Alameda, where you can nosh fish and chips, piled-high burgers, and pressed Cuban sandwiches while sliding pucks.

Which is to say, come think of it, there’s a whole new meaning these days when people contemplate competitive drinking.

Looking for more?

Options for board games, trivia, and table tennis.

For a quieter evening, stop by the popular Albatross Pub in Berkeley, Baggy’s by the Lake in Oakland, or The Hobnob in Alameda and take your pick of board games.

Want to test your knowledge? Cato’s, Room 389, and The New Parkway all host regular trivia nights.

On Piedmont, The Kona Club now has a giant Connect-Four game you can play while sipping tiki-themed beverages.

If you’re in a high-energy mood, Lost & Found has a free, first come, first serve, Ping-Pong table.

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