By Angela Holmes
IOWA CITY—The Forbidden Planet on the Pedestrian Mall in downtown Iowa City delights the senses with the aroma of coffee and pizza, the sight of retro tables and chairs, and the sounds of pinball games.
Owners Cory Ingle, Luther Moss and Thomas Connolly converted the former Tobacco Bowl space at 111 S. Dubuque St. into the pizzeria after it closed in May after a 24-year presence in downtown Iowa City. The Forbidden Planet officially opened for business on Nov. 6.
Despite the new look, they are no strangers to the spot, as Mr. Connolly owned the Tobacco Bowl and Mr. Moss managed it. Mr. Connolly also co-owns the Bluebird Diner in Iowa City and Bluebird Café in North Liberty.
“The future was hazy,” Mr. Moss said of the Tobacco Bowl and the tobacco business in general.
The men had been contemplating a pizzeria/arcade for some time. In fact, Mr. Moss and Mr. Ingle first came up with the idea while sitting at a cocktail arcade table similar to the Jr. Pac Man table that now sits in Forbidden Planet.
“We always knew an arcade would be a big draw,” Mr. Moss said, adding that pizzerias are fairly common in the college town. “Our thought was, if people come in for the arcade, they would be so impressed by the pizza, they would come back.”
To stand apart from other pizzerias, Forbidden Planet uses “the best flour in the world,” Mr. Moss said. “The dough is where it’s at. It cooked in a very good oven.” They also use a lot of local meats and cheeses, he said.
Mr. Ingle worked a number of years at the Wedge in downtown Iowa City, and brought a couple people over from the restaurant to make pizzas.
“We are really proud of what’s going on in the kitchen,” Mr. Moss said.
They are also proud of their collection of vintage arcade games and pinball machines, which includes Rally-X, Tetris, Pole Position and BurgerTime, among others.
The machines have been sourced everywhere from personal collections to auctions, Mr. Moss said.
“There are people all over the place who collect these things,” he said. “One day you’re pulling something out of somebody’s garage, and the next day you’re in a warehouse with a vast collection.”
More machines stored in the arcade’s basement can be rotated to keep customers interested, he noted.
Just like in the 1980s, all of the pizzeria’s video games will cost a quarter to play. The pinball machines cost 50 cents per play, with the exception of a brand new machine, which costs $1.
“We don’t expect to make money off the machines,” Mr. Moss said. “There here to get clients in the door and keep them engaged.”
He insists arcade games never really went away, but were overshadowed by flashier systems such as the Nintendo Wii, the Sony Playstation and Microsoft’s Xbox platform.
“There is a false notion that the arcade business crashed in 1982 or 1983,” Mr. Moss said. “It stopped growing, and the stuff that replaced it simply is not the same. There are faulty assumptions about these games and how they operate – that they have to be realistic as possible.”
And, he said, vintage arcade games are their own works of art.
“These are expensive, complicated pieces of furniture,” he said. ”These are all antiques.”
Continuing the Tobacco Bowl’s tradition, Forbidden Planet also serves coffee, espresso and tea.
“We want to hit a wide note (of customers),” Mr. Moss said. “Not everybody wants a beer at 11 in the morning.”
Since its soft opening Nov. 6, the Forbidden Planet has had an “enormously positive response,” Mr. Moss noted. “It’s never a great idea to open a restaurant in November, but under the circumstances we were in, we’re thriving.”
Noah Koester, of Iowa City, is a regular at the Forbidden Planet. He recently started playing pinball games, saying his friends have the high scores on the machines.
“This is a good of a place as any to get started,” he said as he tried to master the Doctor Who pinball machine.
While college students are important part of Forbidden Planet’s clientele, the owners were quick to note that the establishment also welcomes everyone from business people to children.
Thomas Sulentic, of Iowa City, a former Tobacco Bowl regular who doesn’t smoke but rather enjoyed the coffee and camaraderie, stopped by the Forbidden Planet for a slice of Neapolitan-style pizza last week.
“I like to come in and talk to Luther,” he said.
After “throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks” to come up with a name for the place, the owners decided on Forbidden Planet, the title of a 1956 sci-fi movie starring Leslie Nielsen.
“It sounds like an old arcade,” Mr. Moss said of the name. “It sounds it has the tail end of 1981 on it.”
The popularity of vintage arcade is blooming in Iowa and beyond. Quarter Barrel, a microbrewery and vintage arcade, has plans to open in Cedar Rapids next spring.
Whether it is their simplicity or the nostalgia they awaken in customers, the arcade games result in a lot of smiles, Mr. Moss said.
“I didn’t know when we started how happy we were going to make people,” Mr. Moss said. “That’s been a great part of it.”