Matt Gross, Bon Appetit
When I read the news last week that Chuck E. Cheese's had been bought for $950 million by an affiliate of the Apollo Management Group, it triggered a flood of memories: skee ball, prize tickets, animatronic mammals, and uninspiring pizza. Thing is, I wasn't remembering my own childhood (I think I only went there once as a kid); I was remembering my trip -- with my wife, our two daughters, our friends, and their two kids -- to a Chuck E. Cheese's branch in exurban Pennsylvania, at the end of December 2013.
And amazingly, it wasn't a nightmare! In fact, I would not even mind going back there, now that I know precisely what to expect:
1. You're not there for the food. I can't imagine anyone at Chuck E. Cheese will be offended if I say that their pizza is not great. It's not inedible, of course. I mean, it's pizza! So stop worrying that it doesn't measure up to the $25-per-pie artisanal Neapolitan joint. Enjoy it for what it is -- and, like me, bring along a little packet of good (i.e., truly spicy) hot pepper flakes, plus maybe a nub of pecorino romano and a tiny microplane grater.
SEE MORE: The Importance of a Proper Family Meal
2. Not all Chuck E. Cheese's serve beer. Like, say, that one in exurban Pennsylvania. Next time, I'll pack a small flask -- not of whiskey but of gentler, pizza-friendly liqueurs, like a half-and-half blend of Campari and sweet vermouth, which might go well with a bit of Sprite from the soda fountain. And be smart: If one parent has to drive home, that parent drinks root beer.
3. You know the slogan "Where a kid can be a kid"? This turns out to be true -- you can let your kids roam, pretty much unsupervised, through the entire place, and be fairly well assured they will come to no grievous harm. Just set them up with a ton of game tokens, and you won't see them again for a whole hour. (Grant Achatz does not work here.) This is the one place you won't have to rely on the iPad to keep them out of your hair.
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4. While the kids are busy, you actually get to engage in adult conversation with other adults. So choose your companions wisely. If you get stuck in a Chuck E. Cheese's with, say, the Real Housewives of New Jersey at your table, then maybe you do want to fill that flask with whiskey. Or Drano.
5. Play some games! Seriously, when was the last time you had a good air-hockey match? Or tried your hand at skee ball? These things are really quite enjoyable, and they have a charm and innocence that's missing from Dave & Buster's standbys like Big Buck Hunter. Bonus: Your kids will be amazed at your gaming skills.
6. It will all end in tears. Everything does when kids are involved, but especially when your 5-year-old approaches you with a handful of hard-won prize tickets and wants to trade them in for a Barbie Dream House that costs tens of thousands of tickets. Telling her no is the only thing you can do, but you can alleviate her misery with one simple phrase: "Sweetie, if you stop crying, I promise: I'll bring you back here next week." Even better, you won't be lying -- you'll be looking forward to it.
See more from Bon Appetit:
25 Quick and Easy School Lunches to Pack for Your Kids
8 Recipes Kids Can Bake
How to Eat with Your Kids Without Losing Your Mind
7 Babysitting Options So Parents Can Go Out (Minus Kids)