New Calgary restaurant and lounge Pin-Bar a passion project sandwiching love for food and the arcade era together

How does that go again? Do what you love for a living and you’ll never work a day in your life?

Easy to say, harder to do, especially if what you love are the kinds of things that most people consider hobbies or frivolities.

Take Arlen Smith, for example. His loves?

“For me, it’s always been rock ’n’ roll, barbecue, sandwiches and then pinball,” he says.

Well, for the past six years Smith has been lucky enough to have had the first half of that covered as operating partner of the Palomino Smokehouse, one of Calgary’s best live music venues and the best place for delicious smoked meat in the city.

Now he’s working on the second half.

On Thursday, Feb. 22, Smith will open up Pin-Bar — a superb new high-concept bar, restaurant and pinball room in the Beltline (501 17th Ave. S.W.).

For Smith, who “grew up in an arcade,” it’s the perfect meeting of a pair of his passions.

The collaboration with the Concorde Group — which is behind the Palomino, of course, the National beer halls, Sky 360, Anju, Bridgette Bar, The Palace Theatre and many others — began about three years ago. Smith was having a couple of drinks with his friend, San Francisco artist “Dirty Donny” Gillies, who designed the Metallica, Aerosmith and Pabst Can Crusher pinball machines, who nudged him in the direction of a pinball bar.

Two years ago Smith started putting it in motion and then when the perfect space opened up — it’s the old Tilted Kilt on the corner of 4th and 17th, which has a capacity of 155 — he secured the property, then began working on it “in earnest about 12 weeks ago.”

It’s a fantastic room for the concept, with a bar, high top chairs, flat screen TVs and, lining the walls, 18 pinball machines old and new, including those three aforementioned Dirty Donny designs, and two classic arcade cabinets — a four-player NBA jam and, for the time being, Street Fighter 3.

It’s the perfect time for Pin-Bar, as the game is having something of a revival — there are already two arcade joints in Edmonton — with leagues popping up in most major North America cities thanks to those nostalgic for the long gone days of Tron or newbies looking for something different to do when they head out for a night on the town.

“You’re not just sitting at a table drinking shots and getting loaded with your pals,” Smith says. “The machines create an opportunity for you to get up out of your chair, go play games and enjoy the social aspect of it — because pinball is social. Up to four people can play, and from what I’ve seen there’s a lot of shit-talking going on and friendly discussion and ribbing, because it also is competitive.” 

To that end, in the main part of Pin-Bar, along with the machines, bar and TVs, they’ll also have a board where all of the high scores will be posted, for those needing their mad flipper skills acknowledged and their bragging rights in lights. 

There is also the front space of the venue, which they refer to as “the rumpus room — your grandparents’ ’70s fancy basement.”

“It will be a little bit of a nicer, quieter more relaxed environment,” Smith says, while sitting on a chair in it. “Something where if you don’t want to be surrounded by flashing lights you can sit here, have a cocktail and a delicious sandwich or a good meal and venture out to go play games.”

Which brings us to the second half of completing his passion project — along with the environment of Pin-Bar, Smith is very much emphasizing the eats.

“As much as this is a pinball place, it’s also very food focussed … and what I’m most proud of,” he says.

Helping with that is Geoff Cairns, who Smith is bringing with him from the Palomino, where he’d worked for the past 10 years, been head chef for the last five, and wanted to stretch out when the Pin-Bar opportunity opened up.

Sandwiches are the main thing, with a “Fast” or to-go menu, featuring six that can be ready and wrapped in 12 minutes, including breakfast, veggie and the Italian Grinder.

“This end of 17th (Ave.) doesn’t really have any good sandwiches,” Smith says mentioning a few in the surrounding area. “There’s nothing really in this neighbourhood and it’s something I think this neighbourhood needs.

“And it’s something I love.”


There are also a whole lot more full-meal, sit-down sandwiches on the menu — and ambitious ones at that, such as the Spicy Cuban, fried chicken and apple fritter, cheese steak, a burger, The Hot Club, and a French dip, which is a “tribute” to those L.A. restaurants that claim to be the originators, such as Philippe’s and Cole’s.

And true to where Cairns is coming from there is also a beer butt pulled chicken and a pair featuring housemade pastrami from a recipe he has perfected. The first is one that Smith says is “an ode to the Primanti Bros. sandwich shop in Pittsburgh,” featuring the meat topped with slaw, tomatoes, crinkle cut fries and Russian dressing; and then there’s the F’getaboutit, a “challenge sandwich,” which features two pounds of meat and a whole lotta other toppings.

“We’re going to start a wall of fame,” Smith says. “If you can eat the F’getaboutit on your own in 30 minutes it’s free. But it’s also five pounds of food — so, you know, if you throw up in my restaurant I’ll probably be a little pissed.”

Other foods on the menu include: salads and a soup of the day; entrees such as mac and cheese, a flattop sirloin steak, and chicken fried steak with biscuits and gravy; and some appetizers and smaller fare including homemade pizza pops, pimento fritters, avocado toast, wings, nachos, fries, devilled eggs, and bags of chips and beef jerky you’ll be able to buy “off of a hanging display like arcades from the ’80s where I grew up.”

“We’re not allowed to sell single smokes off the bartop like the arcades used to,” he says with a smile.

Part of that is, well, the law, and another is that it’s “family friendly.”

Pin-Bar will be open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 1 or 2 a.m., with kids allowed until 8 p.m. Sunday to Wednesday, and until 4 p.m. Thursday to Saturday. Along with an impressive selection of beer on tap and in cans as well as some excellent boozy cocktails, they’re also doing a lot of non-alcoholic cocktails and craft sodas, and a brunch Saturday, Sunday and holidays until 3 p.m.

And, again, Smith is hoping that all of these things will help bring in an incredibly diverse crowd, one that may also want to pop a coin or two in the slot and spend their afternoon or night among the flashing lights and in a comfortable and inclusive setting.

He notes that they’re hoping to encourage some groups that may not be among the traditional pinballers, including starting up a ladies and an LGBTQ league, and anyone else who wants to get involved in a growing gaming community.

“It is growing, and I think there’s a whole segment of the population that gets ignored, primarily, who hopefully will get a chance to be exposed to it and see that pinball is awesome …

“Just like the Palomino,” Smith says of the venue where he’ll remain an operating partner, “we want to be inclusive to everybody — everybody who wants to have fun can come down and eat well and play and have good times.”