All summer long, Rogers Park residents have been pressing their noses against the front windows of the cavernous former bar next to the CTA’s Morse “L” station, gaping at the selection of vintage arcade cabinets and knocking on the door to ask when Mission Control Arcade Bar — a venue with beer, cocktails, and pub grub from the former owner of Uptown Arcade — will open. They now have their answer: Mission Control is cleared for takeoff this weekend.
Although it ostensibly has a space theme, the true guiding spirit of Mission Control is nostalgia. The collection of more than 50 vintage video games — plus a dozen more pinball machines, including modern titles like the Mandalorian, lent by Star Worlds Arcade in DeKalb — is guaranteed to remind visitors of some of the finest wasted hours of their youth: Ms. Pac-Man, co-owner Katie McDonald’s own introduction to video games and an integral part of her seventh grade science fair project, occupies a prime position front and center. There’s also a collection of ’80s horror movies on VHS, a stack of well-worn board games for those who don’t like beeps and boops, and a record player set up to play vintage LPs.
The nostalgia extends to the food. Since the space came with a full kitchen, McDonald and co-owner Aaron Allen partnered with the pop-up the Bare-Naked Pole, which serves pierogis inspired by co-owner Nick Druzbamski’s own childhood spent in the care of his Polish grandmother. Druzbamski and partner Carisa Gonzalez, both actors, started making pierogis during the pandemic and expanded into a virtual restaurant and catering business. When Druzbamski and Gonzalez are busy with performances of Kinky Boots at the Paramount Theater in Aurora, McDonald and Allen will serve hot dogs and pizza, a menu designed to remind customers of roller rink snack bars. Eventually, they also plan to open early on Saturday mornings for cartoons accompanied by cereal and French toast sticks.
The walls are mostly bare now, but McDonald and Allen intend to decorate with the work of local artists. At the end of the month, they’ll begin hosting comic book release parties and pop-up galleries, and they hope to collaborate on events with other neighborhood businesses, including Malliway Bros., the magic and witchcraft store across the street. (The owners of the two stores discovered they had a large overlap of clientele.)
“We want to partner with as many people as we can,” McDonald says. “And in January, when it’s cold, we want people to feel like they have a sunny corner where they can play video games.”
Allen was forced to close Uptown Arcade to customers during the pandemic. After the lease ended, he and McDonald put the games in storage — they filled seven storage units — and went off in search of another location that felt more inviting and was less of, in McDonald’s words, “a big, dark hole.” The empty storefront on Morse Avenue appealed to them: the 2,000 square-foot seating area had proven deadly to a series of previous bar and restaurant tenants, but it looked perfect for arcade games. The carved wooden bar, made in 1936 in Durango, Colorado, was a good setting for beer and cocktails. The kitchen, they realized, was unusual for an arcade, but they appreciated the challenge. And they especially liked the windows that both let the light in and allowed passersby see inside.
Allen and McDonald have spent the summer cleaning and repairing the space. One of the biggest challenges was moving in all the video games, which weigh 350 to 400 pounds apiece. But they discovered that the neighborhood was primed for an arcade: many of their former customers actually live there and had been commuting to Uptown.
This is good news for Allen and McDonald. “We’re eager to open and pick back up with the community we built,” McDonald says. “We’re here to succeed. I never want to move those games again.”
Take a closer look at the space in the photos below.
Mission Control Arcade Bar, 1408 W. Morse Avenue, scheduled to open September 17.