Story by Steve Coomes; Photography by Anna May
It’s a safe bet that a restaurant chock-full of arcade games won’t have a great whiskey lineup.
Make that bet against Recbar, however, and you’ll lose—badly. The sprawling bar and restaurant is divided into three, deep rectangular rooms: The dining room and bar in the center is buttressed by side rooms stuffed with 140 video and pinball games.
At full song, the pinball room’s lights and sounds are reminiscent of Raoul Duke’s hallucinations in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s overstimulation worth experiencing, especially when there’s whiskey nearby to calm your X-Men-jangled nerves. Recbar’s list of 150 whiskeys includes 110 bourbons.
“We didn’t set out to have this huge whiskey selection,” said Corey Sims, co-owner of the three-year-old business. “Now we don’t have shelf space for everything on our list.”
Sims and co-owner Tony Thomas were managing others’ restaurants when they began planning to open an arcade bar. Combing eBay and Craigslist, the men bought used game machines until their garages were filled. Luckily, around the time their collection outgrew an offsite storage unit, the building they needed for their business went up for lease.
The business opened in 2016, and sales took off. The only arcade restaurant and bar in town drew critics’ praise for terrific food, but its bar is what raised the owners’ eyebrows. Sims and Thomas expected strong craft-beer sales, but customers demonstrated an unexpected preference for their whiskey selection.
“Louisville is a great town for bourbon, so we wanted to have enough of it to be on the Urban Bourbon Trail,” Sims said, referring to a city-driven marketing program that requires a minimum of 50 bourbons on offer at participating spots. “We just didn’t anticipate it doing so well.”
But it did, and Sims and Thomas kept adding to their list to coax more demand. A clear sign that Recbar’s liquor distributor loves the business is a whiskey list bejeweled with highly allocated bottles like the entire Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and nearly everything from the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery. Sims said such eye-catching names draw drinkers to an area of Louisville not known for selling such sips.
“Out here we’re a little off the beaten path of the better-known bars, restaurants, and bourbon distillery tours, but people seek us out,” Sims said.
As business boomed, game counts grew and the whiskey list ballooned. Sooner than expected, Recbar’s owners were leasing the whole 10,000-square-foot building and planning Recbar No. 2, a 20,000-square-foot site 30 minutes away.
Today, 90-minute weekend-table waits are common, but with games and a well-stocked bar available, no one gripes about circuiting a Mario Kart track—drink in hand, of course. The family-centric spot means children are always welcome, but come 10 p.m., when only guests 21 and older can stay, “kids go home and adults get to be kids again,” Sims said.
By design, Recbar casts a wide demographic net—from birthday parties, corporate events, and gaming competitions to “girls’ night out,” guys up for whiskey flights, and neighborhood regulars in search of a great burger and a stout pour.
“We’ve got a small, but good, cocktail list,” said Sims, pointing to a top-selling Bourbon Slushie. The only other bourbon cocktails on the 10-item list are the Token Old Fashioned and the Always a Classic, a Manhattan riff using 1792 Bourbon. “We’re not smoking sage for craft cocktails here.”
Recbar’s premium position rests solely on its whiskeys, and brands poured neat, on the rocks, or in flights are the most popular. The priciest, a $200 flight dubbed The Elitist, includes Pappy Van Winkle 15-, 20-, and 23-year; while the cheapest, Rye-Diculous, costs $10 for sips of Michter’s Straight, Rabbit Hole, and Bulleit. Customized flights are encouraged. “We price the whole flight based on the most expensive pour you choose,” Sims said. “It keeps things simple and lets people be creative.”
Recbar’s whiskey list is, in fact, so simple that prices aren’t listed. Sims said he and Thomas want guests to review the collection without being distracted by the cost.
“People’s eyes tend to go to a price that makes them think that whiskey’s the best—which certainly isn’t the case,” Sims said. “We want them to ask questions beyond price so we can get a feel for what they’re looking for. When we know that, we can guide them toward something that will give them a value, which is the most important thing to us.”