Raising the bar: niche hangouts around town


Image via Kickback Cafe

The Kickback Pinball Cafe in Lawrenceville features an assortment of more than 20 pinball machines for visitors to play.

By Thomas Wick, Senior Staff Writer

Brown Chicken Brown Cow, in which players must use modeling clay to construct images of sexual innuendos that other players must guess, is just one of the games available to play at the newly established Mana Boardgame Tavern.

Mana Boardgame Tavern is the creation of couple Shannon and Vince Ebbitt, who both took their passion for board games and bartending to the next level with their new business. Not only is Mana, located on the North Shore, the only board game bar in Pittsburgh, but it is the latest in a trend of niche bars and restaurants in the Pittsburgh area, including Row House Cinema — adjacent to beer distributor and tap room Bierport — and Kickback Pinball Cafe, a pinball arcade, both located in Lawrenceville.

Row House Cinema, which opened in 2014, screens strictly classic films on the big screen, offering popcorn and beer as refreshments. Row House shares its space with craft beer distributor Bierport, which sells individual cans and bottles of beer from all over the country and features a basement taproom with 19 taps.

Delena Obermaier is director of Row House’s film club, a membership service where patrons can pay a monthly or yearly fee for tickets to see a certain number of movies per month and have access to perks like free popcorn. Obermaier said she was drawn to Row House’s weekly themes — like this week’s, which celebrates Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki — and its ability to show films that audiences rarely get the chance to see on the big screen.

“With the way that certain laws and studios are starting to affect theaters, Row House is an exception to those things,” she said. “We aren’t first run so we’re allowed to get around those laws. We’re able to show things that other movie theaters literally can’t show.”

According to Obermaier, the combination of the theater’s film club membership and Bierport’s location next door has helped the theater form a tightly knit community. She said patrons aren’t just coming to Row House alone, they’re coming to see movies with their friends and talking about them over a beer in the taproom.

“We’re trying to branch out and make it more of a film community rather than just coming to see a movie by yourself,” she said. “People go into the taproom now to have discussions.”

Also in Lawrenceville, Kickback Pinball Cafe features an assortment of more than 20 pinball machines for visitors to play. Manager Stephanie Duffield said that people visit Kickback for the pinball machines, then find themselves surprised to discover that the cafe also serves coffee, food and allows customers to bring their own alcoholic drinks. According to Duffield, 70 of the top world pinball players live in Pittsburgh, making the City a hub for the pinball community.

“People come here specifically for pinball and then find out we serve sandwiches and good coffee,” she said. “But pinball is the main draw.”

Across the City on the North Shore, Mana Boardgame Tavern opened its doors last month. Though Mana is located down the street from Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, it’s anything but a sports bar. The tavern sells drinks and a small selection of food and offers board games from the couple’s personal collection for patrons to play.

The idea for a board game bar came from Shannon’s love of games, a need for more space for the couple’s collection and the desire to start their own bar. Shannon said that her love of board games was lifelong, as her parents started collecting rare board games when she was a child.

“My parents were real into board games and we always had a real collection that nobody had ever seen or heard of,” she said. “When I got out on my own I continued that and that sort of became my thing. I always had this huge collection of board games.”

To get more storage for her collection of more than 40 board games, Shannon initially joked about the idea to family and friends, but decided to make the dream a reality. She and Vince both had experience bartending and, according to Shannon, their game collection was quickly outpacing the space they had in their home.

“It kind of came to the point where our game collection outgrew our storage capacity in our house,” she said.

At that time, Shannon said her idea was a joke, but her boss told her it was a brilliant idea. She began a Kickstarter campaign back in April 2017, signed a lease and began constructing the space that would be Mana Boardgame Tavern after she achieved her funding goal of $10,000.

“In a relatively short period of time it went from ‘Hey, this would be a really cool idea!’ to ‘Hey, let’s sign this lease and make a board game bar,’” she said.

Those who contributed to the bar’s Kickstarter take Mana seriously, too. Pittsburgh locals Cyril and Anastasia Tircuit both said they wanted to support a board game bar — and not just for the lifetime membership to cover the $5 fee to play games. Cyril said he has backed several board game bars before and part of the reason they are so appealing is because it gives people who like to game a place to meet up.

With so many of our gaming friends having busy lives, it is hard to find a good time and place to get together regularly,” he said. “With Mana coming to Pittsburgh, we will have a central meeting place, and it’s going to be somewhere that people can just drop in whenever they feel like playing games.”

Seth Neustein, another Kickstarter backer, said he envisioned a place like Mana Boardgame Tavern for a long time because, like Shannon, he’s seen other cities, such as Seattle, with board game bars, and dreamed of one opening in Pittsburgh one day.

“I’m also excited to just play a lot of new interesting strategy and social games I’ve never

played before,” he said. “Oh, and over some craft beer and specialty cocktails.”