In one of his best essays, George Orwell described his ideal pub as a place only "two minutes from a bus stop" where people go "for conversation as much as for the beer," with a "florid ceiling stained dark yellow by tobacco-smoke" and "swings and a chute for the children." Sounds like a dream, right?
Alas, at the end of the piece the great man was forced to admit that no real-life public house met all of his exacting requirements. While the world is in many ways a much nastier place than it was when Orwell was writing for The Listener, I am happy to report that I have found his dream bar. It's called Chuck E. Cheese's.
It's true that you can't actually smoke inside anymore, but otherwise the Irving, Texas-headquartered family pizza chain is the genuine article. It is, simply put, the best place to have a few beers with your spouse while your kids scream their heads off amid the glittering jeweled lights of the arcade games and float leisurely in soft seas of many-colored plastic balls, while the fumes of pizza and draft Budweiser waft upward toward the heavens.
It really is a kind of earthly paradise.
It is also extremely cheap. This is especially the case if your children are too small to want to play any of the games. My not-quite-2-year-old costs me exactly one dollar at each of our visits, for one round of whack-a-mole and one animatronic rodent cop-car ride, respectively. By the time she is 5, enraptured by the azuline vision of a toy shark made of squishy, possibly toxic Chinese plastic, she will probably start to demand a few rounds of Skee-Ball. Indulgent papa that I am, I will probably say "sure." It will still be at least $3,000 cheaper than a family trip to visit that other mouse at Disney World.
The best time to go to Chuck E. Cheese's is on a weekday. Even if you have only an hour for lunch, it's worth it. The place will be almost totally empty, and the table service will be nothing short of amazing. There is a very reasonable lunch buffet and beer specials. In fact, I can think of only one bar in the D.C. area where beer is consistently cheaper, and that is a secret I guard too jealously to share even with my readers. One point is worth making, however: You have to like real non-craft beer — "macrobrews," as I like to call them — to have a good time; they have not, so far anyway, made the leap to Strawberry UFO Woker Than Lady Ghostbusters IPA or whatever.
Chuck's is not only "the coolest place to be a kid"; it is also among the safest. For years now it has been an officially creeper-free zone. When you walk in, you and your child have to get your hands stamped with an identical number in ultraviolet ink. If you walk out for a cigarette, they check it before you go back in; when you leave, they make sure that the kid is in fact yours. The only chubby guy with a receding hairline in wrinkly chinos and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt tossing back Budweisers you are likely to see on an average Thursday afternoon at the Chuck E. Cheese's on Richmond Highway in Alexandria, Virginia, is your correspondent.
Another great thing about Cool Chuck's is that it is almost totally free of upper-middle-class white liberals, the most dangerous and annoying class of persons in America. They would have no reason to go. By the time ordinary people's children are ready to enjoy the lights and ball pit, theirs are already studying for the LSAT and brushing up on calculus at bespoke magnet preschools. Besides, it is a place that serves real pizza, with pepperoni and mozzarella cheese, not the flatbread creations topped with avocados or peaches or goat cheese or broccoli or all four, which they pretend to like for the same reasons they feign enjoyment of prestige cable dramas instead of just watching Sanford and Son reruns. Also: Dylan and Heather already have iPads stuffed with classical music apps, so the games aren't a draw either. More for the rest of us.
The other parents at Chuck E. Cheese's are normal, emotionally well-adjusted, spiritually and morally upright working people happy to have found this little low-cost slice of Eden. We have great conversations about things like God, sports, and the difficulties of raising a family in the country's most expensive metropolitan area. Too bad Orwell missed out.