- CHUCK E. CHEESE FOR GROWNUPS: D&B's beef burgers (top left) are slightly better than fast food; the veggie mushroom burger (below) needed some char. There are games, too.
More than 30 years after it was conceived in Little Rock and funded with Arkansas money, Little Rock (and Arkansas) has its first Dave & Buster's, the supersized sports bar and arcade chain often described as "Chuck E. Cheese for grown folks." Can you still see its roots? We missed the '70s and early '80s in Little Rock, but something tells us you'd have to squint pretty hard to see through the layers of private-equity tinkering that have optimized every aspect of the chain to better separate you from your money.
Dave Corriveau and Larry "Goose" Garrison opened Slick Willy's World of Entertainment in Union Station in 1977. It was 10,000 square feet and full of air hockey, backgammon, billiards, foosball and snooker tables; darts, pinball machines and a miniature golf course. It billed itself as "Little Rock's funkiest game room" and helped spawn a derisive nickname for a future president. A year later, Corriveau and Garrison put money in with Buster Corley to open Buster's, a bar and cafe also in the train station that was "a favored haunt of politicians, bond daddies and cocaine whores," as one businessman described it in Arkansas Business. In the early '80s, Corriveau and Corley decided to combine Buster's and Slick Willy's and scale up (Garrison went on to own The White Water Tavern). They took the concept to Dallas, where the first Dave & Buster's opened in a 40,000-square-foot warehouse in 1982. The company, now traded on the Nasdaq, has more than 70 locations today. Corriveau and Corley got out of the business in the mid-2000s. Corriveau died in 2015.
The new Dave & Buster's is way out southwest near the new outlet malls and the Bass Pro Shop. It's 30,000 square feet, which is massive as far as restaurants go, but somehow smaller than we had imagined based on marketing and word of mouth. "Who Let the Dogs Out?" was being piped out to the parking lot when we arrived on a hot weekday at lunchtime. That turned out to be an appropriate soundtrack for what was waiting inside. Dozens (hundreds?) of school-age children were hollering and bouncing around. Televisions, few of which would fit into any average-sized living room without requiring some demolition, lined all available wall space. A kaleidoscope of flashing lights inspired a conversation about the symptoms of epilepsy and how they manifest themselves. Even near 1 p.m., there were few seats available; our party of eight was relegated to the U-shaped bar.
The menu at Dave & Buster's is like any gut-busting chain, but with more bright colors and complicated gaming and food combo meals. The Classic Goldfingers were just regular, almost certainly frozen, chicken strips. The Dave's Double Cheeseburger was just slightly better than fast food. We got both of those from the Eat and Play combo section of the menu, which has 17 entree options and is available all day Sunday through Thursday and until 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. So that means we got the burger and fingers for $16.99 a piece and with them came a $10 game card. We may have further upsized the game card for $2 extra. Like we said, it was complicated.
Ordering the grilled Portobello and veggie mushroom sandwich was, admittedly, like asking the restaurant a trick question: That is, will it be treated with the same char and reverence as its beefy correlates? In this case, the answer was no, but its presence on the menu was appreciated nonetheless, and the salad alongside was much more than an afterthought, topped with tangy roasted tomatoes and a mild vinaigrette.
The Buffalo Wing Burger was one of those last-days-of-Rome menu items that begged to be ordered just for the sake of experience — if for no other reason than to tell your future grandchildren, huddled around a post-apocalyptic campfire, that there was once a place where human beings ate their hamburgers topped with chicken strips. Plus a thick patina of blue cheese and a side of tots, served in a miniature fryer basket. The two chunks of celery — pinned to the bun with a bamboo skewer — were a pleasant touch, although it really should have come with a full pound of celery for the sake of nutritional counterbalance. Still, we enjoyed the burger. It was certainly better than our companion's South Philly Burger, a deflated affair topped with gooey white cheese and a sprinkling of some chewy meat scrapings masquerading as grilled steak.
Another colleague had the fish and chips and said it paired well with his pineapple-coconut Glow Cone, a martini glass stuffed with snow-cone ice and neon drink. It was a movie tie-in to the new "Ghostbusters," a Slimer cocktail. We suspect that's the deal: The food works better as something to sop up alcohol. But since it was 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, we didn't pound beers or indulge in any more of the menu's sugary cocktails.
Instead, we played arcade games. Everything at Dave & Buster's works on a Power Card, a sort of debit card that you swipe. No quarters allowed. Your card can be "recharged" at any time, natch. We played Pop-a-Shot and football toss and SkeeBall and, as always, had fun. But in a venue as nice as Dave & Buster's, is it too much to ask for high-end versions of each? The SkeeBall was more compact than usual. The basketball and football games were fairly standard, but we longed for bigger and taller. Elsewhere, D&B has just about every multiplayer game that involves your riding on something or shooting a toy gun at zombies or terrorists on the screen. The snowmobile game is highly recommended. And we wanted to stick around all afternoon to play the Batman driving game that allows you to pick from Batmobiles of all eras. Grim-looking 12-year-olds were always lined up outside the Star Wars BattlePod, a new "immersive" game with a concave screen that gave off a virtual reality sort of feel, so we never got a turn.
Those were all just for fun. Then there's a whole other section of games to play to earn tickets, which can be traded for trinkets. These games, which are loud and bright and arranged in a way that makes the gaming floor disorienting, give the place a Playskool's My First Casino feel. The legislature passed a law specifically to pave the way for this Dave & Buster's, one that allows arcade prizes to reach $500 for facilities larger than 25,000 square feet and with a full menu. Presumably, most of the people that play these games are drunk or children. So if you are one of those people or are the parent of one, be warned. You're not going to win $500 without spending many multiples of that more.
Dave & Buster's
10900 Bass Pro Parkway
Among the somewhat tantalizing menu items we didn't try: Pretzel dogs (pigs in a blanket made with pretzel dough), Mountain O' Nachos (exactly what it sounds like) and the Caveman Combo (pork ribs wrapped in bacon, four mini-cheesburgers and fries). Dave & Buster's knows drunk food.
Full bar, credit cards accepted, available for parties of all stripes