Free Gold Watch: San Francisco’s Pinball Emporium

A few weeks back I reported on my trip to Arcade Expo 5.0 in Banning, California. I was actually there on vacation for a full week, so decided to drive up the coast from LA and check out San Francisco once the Expo’s festivities were over. I had no real plan in San Francisco, other than to do the tourist stuff during my three days there.

I did arrange to drop in on a collector friend for a day who lives in the city. He was the perfect host and gave me a tour of the sights in an amazing 1974 yellow Cadillac convertible. Driving across Golden Gate bridge in this thing with the top down was an experience I’ll not forget in a hurry:

My ride for the day in San Francisco. Check out the number plate!

I was then left to my own devices to seek out some other things to do while in the Bay Area during the time I had left. After a visit to Alcatraz, which is a must if you’re in San Francisco, I hunted down a place that I had heard about via Instagram.

Free Gold Watch is located in the famous Haight-Ashbury district which borders the famous Golden Gate Park, a short Uber ride from the action Downtown.

Free Gold Watch’s unassuming frontage

It’s hard to know what to make of the place from the outside. Located in a residential street, you’d easily pass it by as nothing more than someone’s garage. Suffice to say, there aren’t many clues to what you’re going to find inside.

Seeing the open front on the right there was rather bizarre, but that Williams Cyclone was enough to peak my interest…

From what I could work out, Free Gold Watch is a T-Shirt Printing Shop that doubles up as a pinball arcade. Yeah I know. But hey, why not? And the good news for us is that it claims to host the most pinball machines in the San Francisco area.

Wander inside and you are greeted with the most beautiful sight:

So this is the first thing you see as you walk in. Over twenty classic pinball tables right along the right hand wall. All playable!I didn’t venture in any further until I’d dropped a few quarters into these three great tables. Cirqus Voltaire, Wizard of Oz and Dialed In! Three of my favourite pins!Here’s the view looking back down that row from the other end. Notice the great mix of tables from various decadesIndiana Jones, Theatre of Magic, Funhouse, Twilight Zone, Fish Tales and White Water. Hard to think of a better curated group of six pinball machines

Venture further into the shop and you’ll discover more pinball:

All the tables I played were fully working without issues. Attentive staff were on hand for change and guidance as to what to playThis group of machines showcased some of Stern’s newest releases: DeadPool, Iron Maiden, Batman ’66 and Guardians of the Galaxy. Free Gold Watch is bang up to dateGreat to see a Beatles which had been released literally weeks before my visit, and a Total Annihilation – never seen one before!Another rare one on the right here – Bally’s Centaur II. Really like the design of this table. Awesome art and sounds too

It’s not all about Pinball though. There was a smattering of video games too:

Good thinking here. A Nintendo PlayChoice 10, delivers multiple games in one cabinet. Ideal where space is at a premium. Duck Hunt is always a fun classic. Note the Street Fighter II behind itBig Buck Hunter, Star Wars Trilogy and three-player San Francisco Rush (of course!)Perhaps an attempt to combat the limited space at Free Gold Watch, these playable miniature replica cabinets were cool and pretty solid. Mortal Kombat 3 and Ms Pac-ManMore mini-arcade cabinets. Donkey Kong and NBA Jam

There was a very cool room hidden out the back which hosted several electro-mechanical tables:

It’s really nicely done in here. Check out the cool wall art, and note that each machine has a card above giving a description of the history of each table. Very coolI really enjoyed this table. This is King Pin produced by Gottlieb in 1973. Its design gives the player a perspective of looking down a bowling lane. It has four flippers, and provides a real challenge with plenty of drop targets to hit, as you work through the three main achievements.

It’s easy for players to overlook the electro-mechanical pinball era. But really some of the tables are more challenging and clean than many modern tables. Sometimes all the bells and whistles distract from the essence of pinball.

Some other highlights worth pointing out:

Gottlieb’s Hoops was a new one on me. Known as a “Street level” pinball machine, these were an experiment by Gottlieb towards designing a simpler, single level (with no ramps) table. This strategy delivers a slightly smaller and cheaper game. Compare it’s size with the Attack from Mars on the left. They did not sell very well, and only six models were produced, With Hoops being the very last of themBally’s Baby Pac-Man. Not many of these about. A strange combination of part pinball, part video game. It was designed by Claude Fernandez and is regarded as one of the most difficult arcade games ever created. Notoriously unreliable, it is unusual to see one in a commercial setting and fully operational to boot!And then there was this thing. Williams Gold Mine. Whilst not a pinball, it uses pinball hardware and gives the player a bowling simulator game. Really unusual and great to come across one in the wildAt the very back of the shop were these two beauties. A Taito Ice Cold Beer which is always fun to play, and a Bally Eight Ball Deluxe – truly a classic of the early eighties. In the background you can see Free Gold Watch’s T-Shirt printing operation!

So to summarise – Free Gold Watch is a great find. If you’re at a loose end in the Bay Area, you have to check it out. Quirky, friendly and full of every kind of pinball you would possibly want to play from early electro-mechanical tables right through to up-to-the-minute new releases – this place has it all in an environment I would suggest you’ll not come across anywhere else.

Highly recommended, and one of the world’s pinball hidden gems. Get there before word gets out! Opening times can be found on its minimalist webpage here.

Thanks as always for reading this week.

Tony

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