Decades ago, the historic building at 438 N. Queen St. would have echoed with the sound of Pennsylvania military troops in training.
Now, Lancaster’s former Stahr National Guard Armory building is alive with the sound of gunfire from video arcade games — along with the clatter of bowling pins and the chatter of people socializing over food and cocktails.
The cavernous space inside the red brick, colonial-revival style building now houses Decades, a venue that’s imbued with nostalgia and contains a bowling alley, arcade, bar and restaurant.
The building’s soaring, arched ceiling and black, metal beams, along with Decades’ black leather and burnt orange upholstered banquettes, crystal chandeliers and striped gymnasium-style floors, evoke a bygone era without projecting the essence of a specific time period.
Decades officially opens to the public Wednesday, but has offered sneak peeks of the venue to friends and other invited guests over the past couple of weeks.
Three of the five partners who developed Decades are men who have been friends since elementary school and who have run city festivals under the Joycat Events banner.
“We came up with the idea quite a few years ago,” says Adam Ozimek, an economist who is one of the partners. “It was around 2013, I think, when we first started talking about it.”
After planning such city events together as the annual Lancaster Craft Beerfest and Sip Wine in the Park, “we got a chance to work together, and thought this was the natural next thing,” Ozimek says.
“There needed to be something to do in downtown Lancaster,” says partner Jonathan Yeager, a graphic designer who will oversee marketing and event planning for Decades. “There are a lot of great restaurants, there are a lot of great bars, but there weren’t enough things to do. So, we started to look for entertainment that could be combined with eating and drinking.
“We thought about bowling, we thought about arcade games,” Yeager says, “so that’s how the vision came together. We really wanted to make everything social, nostalgic and fun.”
“And we did it!” says Chris Trendler, another partner and the venue’s general manager.
Food, games and ambience
The name Decades is designed to evoke a sense of nostalgia, though the vibe of the place is definitely on trend.
The 15,500 square feet of space is divided in half by a partition topped with frosted glass panels.
Little has been changed about the building’s interior color scheme since local restaurateurs Sam Guo and his parents, Perry Guo and Judy Lin, bought it in 2015.
The cream-colored walls have been merely brightened a bit, and the yellow-tiled lower walls — familiar to those who remember the building’s National Guard years — remain.
Look closely, and you might spot the words “Keep Your Armory Clean” embossed in red on one of the tiles near the Skee-Ball lanes.
Hanging above all the buzzing, beeping, clattering and noshing are large spheres of white light, each containing a letter spelling out “Decades.”
On a recent night, as men in suits talked over drinks at the bar and groups of friends shared brisket spaetzle and lump crab dip from a pretzel bowl, adults and kids played “Pac-Man,” “Super Mario Bros.,” “Donkey Kong,” “Mortal Kombat,” “Street Fighter II,” “Centipede” and “Lethal Enforcers.”
Gaming costs about two bits at Decades; tokens are four for $1, and most machines require only one token.
Decades boasts about 20 video games, along with a couple of pinball machines, some driving games like “Cruisin’ USA,” basketball-hoop shooting and Skee-Ball.
To pick the arcade games that fill about a third of Decades’ space, Trendler says, “we chose some of our favorites growing up and then some classics that you are obligated to have, almost.”
On the other side of the partition, couples, families and groups of friends bowled on six lanes, their scores tallied on digital screens above the lanes.
Servers in orange T-shirts took food orders they’d deliver to two-deck tables amid the bowling alley’s brown leather banquettes.
Bowling shoes and balls — decorated to look like colorful, numbered billiard balls — can be rented by the hour.
Food and drink
In planning Decades’ restaurant, the partners found a chef with a unique background in Lauren Yeagle.
Years ago, Yeagle helped open a similar venue in Baltimore, called Mustang Alley’s Bar, Bowling and Bistro, and was chef there for several years.
She says her food is “very heavily influenced by Southern-style comfort food.”
Popular dishes among those who’ve already sampled the food at Decades, Yeagle says, include the crab dip and the fried green tomatoes with a cornmeal crust and bacon jam.
One of Yeagle’s favorites is Decades’ grilled cheese charcuterie plate of meats and cheese sandwiches, with pickles, mustard and cranberry jam.
Other offerings include burgers and wings, brisket flatbread and a “nostalgia flight” of desserts including banana pudding and coconut cream pie
Diners can be served sitting in booths and tables in the restaurant section of the venue, at the bar, at other tables amid the arcade games and at the bowling lanes.
The cocktail menu is served up with a twist of nostalgia, as well.
There are classics, such as a Smoked Manhattan and an Old Fashioned, along with “contemporary” drinks such as the Pac-Man’s Margarita with persimmon, cinnamon and chili flavors, and garnished drinks such as a vanilla Caipirinha with sliced mango and passion fruit.
Bri Callahan, another partner in the venture along with her father, Benchmark Construction owner Mike Callahan, was enjoying an Aviation cocktail. It was anchored by a maraschino and creme de violette ice ball that melted and released its flavor into the gin-and-lemon drink.
‘House of Cards’ decor
If there’s something vaguely familiar to you about some of the decor inside Decades, you may be a fan of the Netflix TV series “House of Cards.”
Some of the establishment’s lighting and other accouterments come right from the sets of that Netflix series.
“A friend of us contacted us and told us there was a warehouse full of stuff from ‘House of Cards,’ ” Yeager says, and asked the partners if they were interested in looking at it.
When the Maryland-filmed show about a corrupt senator ascending to the presidency finished production, Yeager says, many of the props and set-design pieces were available for purchase.
They’re now part of Decades.
There’s the ornate, gold-trimmed mirror behind the main bar.
There’s the wooden phone booth that says “Senator Erikson,” on the side — a reference to the fictional character played by John Henry Cox on the show.
Chandeliers and other lights hanging from the ceiling, a white mantelpiece holding a large video-game screen and the wooden podium and concierge desk inside the front door all come from the show’s set, Yeager says.
And, in the men’s room, the piece de resistance: a smiling portrait of President Richard Nixon that was used on the show.
Reuse of a gem
Restaurateur Sam Guo, who co-owns Silantra Asian Street Kitchen on East King Street, remembers the day he was driving his then-girlfriend —now his wife and restaurant partner, Cindy Lam — to the Lancaster train station when he saw a piece of paper taped to the front door of the vacant Stahr Armory building, saying it was for sale.
The National Guard left the armory in 2010, and Lancaster’s Theater of the Seventh Sister troupe performed its shows there from 2007 to 2012. The building, built in two phases in the 1920s and ’30s, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We just fell in love with it,” Guo says. “We saw the beautiful arches, the wooden ceiling, the roof. We just thought it was a beautiful space. We didn’t know what the project was going to be.
“I said, ‘We’ve got to get my family involved in this,’ ” Guo says. “We’ve got to get this place.”
A month later, he says, he and his parents, Perry Guo and Judy Lin, owners of Best China Wok on East Chestnut Street, put in their bid and bought the building.
Soon, the Joycat partners were making multiple trips to Silantra to explain to Guo their vision for the bowling, arcade and restaurant venue.
“We had been looking for a building to fit what we were trying to do,” Ozimek says.
“It was pretty instant that we just kind of clicked, and we were going to be here,” Trendler says.
Mike Callahan, whose Benchmark firm did the renovation of the building, became a partner in the business after being approached by Yeager.
“I’ve known Mike since I was about 12,” Yeager says, since Callahan is a neighbor of Yeager’s uncle.
Callahan says his firm didn’t have to make significant structural changes to the building.
“But,” he adds, “we had to bring up all the electrical systems, the HVAC systems, plumbing systems. They were all antiquated, because it’s an old building,”
The partners say there’s room in the building’s basement, and even on balcony overlooking the Decades venue, to do further renovations for expanded use in the future.
They say they hope to eventually host events in the space.
Trendler notes, however, “We’re going to hold off on (booking) events for the first few months. We want to make sure the general public has a chance to get in here before we start doing those private events.
“We built this for them. We understand that companies and the public will want to rent it out for different parties and such, but let everyone get in here first and check it out.”