Oct 21, 2022 - Economy

"Eatertainment" makes a comeback

Illustration of a golfball on a tee sticking out of a burger

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Want to do some ax-throwing over burgers, play pickleball before a chicken dinner, or pair mini-golf with hors d'oeuvres and a craft cocktail? You're in luck: Restaurants that let you play and eat at the same time are expanding like crazy.

Why it matters: After a three-year pandemic hiatus, "eatertainment" is on the rise again.

  • Investments are pouring in to chains that offer sports, arcade games and elevated menus — think Dave & Buster's and Chuck E. Cheese but with chef-driven cuisine, Instagram-worthy decor and modern pursuits.

Driving the news: New "social entertainment" venues are flourishing by offering hip leisure activities — such as darts, ping-pong and shuffleboard — in tech-infused settings that cater to our thirst to socialize even as the pandemic stretches on.

  • The pickleball craze has spawned growing chains like Smash Park and Chicken N Pickle, where you can play in a league, book a party or just drop in for a game and a meal.
  • Puttshack, a brand of "upscale" mini-golf-themed restaurants, opened its 7th location this week in Boston — on the heels of raising $150 million from BlackRock.
    • Its founders are behind the eatertainment chains Topgolf (driving ranges), Flight Club (darts), AceBounce (ping-pong) and All Star Lanes (bowling).
  • In Texas, a new baseball-themed venue, Home Run Dugout, offers augmented reality batting cages alongside tuna poke bowls.
  • TOCA Social, where guests kick soccer balls and order from a "banging food and drinks menu" (heavy on the tacos), started in London and is coming to Dallas.
  • A growing number of chains indulge our modern fondness for ax-throwing (not to mention artisanal flatbread).
    • For example: Kick Axe Throwing — in Brooklyn, D.C. and Philly — welcomes those "ages 8 and up as long as they have the strength and coordination to effectively throw a hatchet."
  • Even shuffleboard has gone hip, as evidenced by newcomers like Electric Shuffle, another London import now in Dallas and Austin.

Older, familiar names are also getting facelifts and a fresh jolt of popularity.

What's new: The latest crop of social entertainment venues feature higher-quality food (begone, frozen nuggets!), tech-heavy games that keep score for you, and a host of diversions beyond Skee-Ball.

  • They're also designed to be eye-catching so guests will plaster their social media accounts with pictures.

Decisions, decisions: Don't care for pickleball? Smash Park, which opened its first location in 2018, also has trivia, bingo, cornhole, giant Jenga and Connect Four, bocce, foosball and arcade games — plus dozens of TVs.

  • It also serves colorful and shareable cocktails in fishbowls ("Sociabowls") and fancy pub fare.
  • "I don't know if new entertainment concepts can survive without a good, solid menu," Monty Lockyear, founder and CEO of Smash Park Entertainment Group, tells Axios. "Some of the legacy brands are seeing that, and they're elevating their menus — people expect that."

No cheating: Puttshack has patented a technology called Trackaball that keeps score — and knows if you pick up your ball and move it.

A guest at Puttshack plays giant beer pong.
At Puttshack, the ball keeps track of your score (and any efforts to trick it). Photo courtesy of Puttshack

What they're saying: "People are looking for ways to connect with each other and looking for something a little more than the typical bar and restaurant," Susan Walmesley, Puttshack's chief marketing officer, tells Axios.

  • "Because we're all carrying our phones around in our pockets, we're looking for something new and different to share."

Also trending: "Clubstaurants," which blend table service and a nightclub vibe — and haven't been a hot concept since 2016.

The bottom line: Expect to hear more about "eatertainment" as these chains expand nationally and add ever-weirder attractions — getting diners to linger and run up bigger food and bar bills.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to remove a reference to Cracker Barrel’s investment in Punch Bowl Social. That investment was canceled in 2020.

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