Whether Bartending or Babysitting, Jay Cates Is Master of His Realm

Best Bartender: Jay Cates at Vidiot

As soon as I stepped into Vidiot for the first time, I was consumed. There in the corner was Virtual On, the 1996 mech fighting game I spent most of my time huddled against in Godfather’s Pizza during youth soccer league socials. Before reliving those halcyon days, I bought a Rainier from bartender Jay Cates. Then, my ass thoroughly glued to the cabinet’s cockpit-style seat, I spent the next 20 minutes hooting and howling like an idiot as my friend and I shot polygonal beams at each other and sloppily swilled tallboys. Then—the screen froze. Horrified, I timidly returned to Cates and delivered the bad news.

Without a scowl or hint of ill will, Cates smiled, ambled over, climbed on top of a neighboring arcade cabinet, and reached back into a rat’s nest of cables to reset the game. All was well again. I hooted and howled for another joyous 20 minutes, then bought another tallboy from Cates.

A self-described “bigger guy,” Cates has had to limber up quite a bit since January when he started working at Vidiot, a West Seattle bar packed full of new and vintage video games, all free to play. “There’s a few glitchy machines where, basically, every night I have to crawl on top of them to reach the extension cord, shut it off, and reset it,” Cates says, laughing. “It’s not like I’m super-excited about jumping on top of these things and figuring out how to climb them—I’m not really built for climbing—but I’m happy to do it.”

Seattle is full of hip bartenders who can whip up the trendiest new craft cocktail, but Cates is one of the city’s best because he’s mastered the difficult but vital job at the core of bartending: “Being a babysitter of adults who are drinking.” It’s particularly vital in a giant arcade stocked with booze. “People seem to take it well when I tell them they’re too intoxicated for the VR,” he says, “especially when I say, ‘Listen, you’re holding thousands of dollars in equipment, and you’re drunk.’ ”

They probably take it well because Cates has made forming relationships, keeping things relaxed, and just generally “being a good person” the core tenets of his bartending philosophy. “You don’t have to create magic for people at Vidiot; it’s already there. I just enjoy interacting however I can and becoming a brief part of people’s lives.” In the short seven months Cates has been at Vidiot, people have noticed—a feat, considering that “People come up, say hi, have their one-minute conversation while they buy their drink, play games for a half-hour, come back for another drink and one-minute conversation with me, then go away again.” Cates says he already has regulars he feels close to—whether by getting to know them through chats about favorite old video games and comics, or politely declining (usually) when they challenge him to a game—a frequent occurrence. “Just because you like something doesn’t mean you’re good at it,” he says of his competitive gaming skills. “I know a lot of guitarists like that.”

For some patrons, if Cates is working, they already feel like they’ve won. “Two people poked their heads around the corner the other day and yelled out ‘We win!’ at me,” Cates says. “I was like, ‘Win what?’ And they said, ‘We decided we weren’t going to have another drink unless you were still working … we win!’ It felt like a huge compliment.”