Eat, drink, play? The rise of competitive socialising
From ping pong to darts and crazy golf
Do you constantly look for new stuff to do? Are you always searching for a good excuse to see something special on the weekend, or do you love coming home after a brand new adventure?
Since being in quarantine I have realised we are desperate for entertainment. Hungry for a good distraction and a continued reason to live, love and play. Somehow, call it human nature, we gravitate to regular rituals that bring each other together for good. Mostly through food, drink and dance. Whether it's luxury bowling alleys, futuristic crazy golf or glow-in-the-dark ping pong, we are absolutely spoilt for choice on where to spend our pennies on the weekends.
Bet you’ve started making a little list of activities and restaurant spots you want to visit when all this is over.
After you’ve hit up the locals and big-brand restaurants, and when the bi-weekly cheeky Nandos is getting tiresome, the eat-play-hang restaurant concept gives us a new excuse to get out and about again in an environment that promises good, clean fun. You can finally forget dry dinners in badly chosen restaurants. Now, you have dozens of options – and you barely need to leave your own postcode to come into contact with flying balls, vigorous rule book discussions and light 'teasing of paddle' techniques.
All Star Lanes, Puttshack, Bounce and Flight Club are the premier league of a new trend of casual dining experiences that use sports as a way of keeping consumers fed, entertained and spending for as long as possible.
Flight Club London
‘Competitive socialising’ formally hit our shores sometime around summer 2012. How can I be so accurate? Well, by some twist of fate, with a trio of friends and a handful of brilliant managers and marketeers, I was partly responsible for this new wave of eat-play concepts.
Admittedly snooker, darts and ten pin bowling have been around since the dawn of time – they’ve been around so long I can even imagine the first caveman bookies very easily. Grunted bets being taken in shrapnel and marbled coins, hairy crowds surrounding bearskin-covered mountain men – piercing eyes focusing on the cow hide dart board, chicken bone darts rolled between their hunting-hardened fingers... but I digress!
Not much has changed since then, and making more of these old traditions has never been successfully capitalised on. Any indoor sport is merely a second thought to the drink and grub in the bar or pub circuit – and you would certainly never see any type of ball game in a real restaurant. Historically, indoor games were more an annoyance than an attraction for a rising food and drink operator.
Ping Pong was the first to break through into this new uncharted ‘competitive socialising’ scene. But before the angel-investor-heavy Bounce bobbled onto the scene with a fanfare of paid press, there was a small independent bar serving pizza, ping pong and cocktails in Earls Court.
Ping was a basement bar converted from an old, low-ceilinged pool hall. Four professional ping pong tables replaced the islands of green at the centre of the site. Green booths surrounded the action, built so you were always looking into the game – ensuring the customer was involved whether they were playing or not.
Walking down into the adult play pen, you could taste the must of controlled madness. Four young operators delivered the extraordinary within weeks of opening. A carnival of millennial creativity, beautiful people littered the area; all singing, dancing and playing ping pong.
Cocktails in disco balls and ghetto blasters being passed between friends, balls flying everywhere, paddles being tossed between groups of friends as they fight it out to be crowned winner. Dramatic, character-fuelled beer pong competitions hosted by nimble referees in chequered shirts, hot pants and long socks. Competitive friends tussling over whose game is next. Boys breaking the ice with style, sending a loose ball flying over to a flock of girls on the next table. The concept at the time was unique, with a raw energy that ripped through social circles. Ping quickly became the place to be seen in Chelsea.
Ping, Earls Court
Sounds fun, doesn’t it? But nothing last forever – and nearly two years later, neither did the partnerships.
In the meantime, Bounce grew larger in name and bolder in new site footprints across the country. They seemingly kicked down the door for the next wave of competitive socialising. Copycat concepts popped up across the UK – from London to Bristol, Nottingham and Manchester. All added their own touches, giving a new identity and style to the British bar scene.
Fast-forward nearly eight years later, and I found myself booking a 9-hole course of crazy golf on a Thursday night in Shepherds Bush.
Here, against an inky backdrop peppered with a shotgun of stars, I witnessed herds of gawping young professionals, two beers away from wrapping their ties around their heads like the Lost Boys. Brothers banded by regional sales targets bundling together on a mid-week work night out. Rounds of pints peppered with tequila shots before dinner. Less work talk, more bad behaviour seemed the general theme; not too dissimilar to a Benidorm stag do or Dick's Tea Bar.
Smartly set up for large mixed groups, Puttshack was filled with long open tables with brass topped lamps that reminded me of Grand Central Station in New York. Polished, refined, built for speed of service and quick convenience – and designed to get you greeted, seated and back on your way as smoothly as possible. The centralised circle bar Is the beating heart of the venue, and with four sides (and serious bar tenders) serving draft beer and mean cocktails, you can tell this place was built for pounding volume. Seven days a week.
The venue is firstly huge – far larger than your average, and far, far more daunting. Strips of neon lights point you in new directions; each route you take leads you to a new joy. Street food vendors, multiple courses and mini-bar stops map your next destination. Luckily, staff who act like Apple Geniuses (Genii?) are skipping around to guide you on how to sign in and start playing. The support was thankfully swift and much needed. Admin-wise, the whole experience was incredibly easy after a tutorial. Every member of staff I collared was more than willing to help and guide us through whatever issue I came across.
And there were issues.
The wait time for some of the holes was ridiculous – and if I had not requested to move onto a calmer course, our night would have been ruined. Waiting behind a squad of lairy adolescents all pushing and shoving each other in that way that only puberty can do was painful to watch.
Golf is meant to be a leisurely stroll, so I feel in contrast crazy golf must be met at a higher octane. It has 'crazy' in the name after all. The slow packs of hunched teenagers and red-cheeked, shy dates took away from the zany thrill of devouring the concept in a way I would have truly enjoyed. The oversized props, dramatic screens with tailored title sequences and in-game obstacles are hypnotic – a real taste of Futurama.
And when it’s done as well as this, it is a future I could see myself enjoying thoroughly. The evolution of the restaurant scene won’t ever stop. The new will eventually become passé, the old techniques will rise in popularity only to fall again. New gimmicks and marketing slogans will always get the customer to notice – and want to try, at least once. But a return visit, that is a rarity; and it would seem, nearly a decade later, competitive socialising is rightfully here to stay. And we are all the better for it.