If you didn’t look twice, you would think that this place is just someone’s garage. Tucked unassumingly on residential Waller Street (one block away from the bustling Upper Haight), Free Gold Watch is one of the few arcades in San Francisco featuring dozens of machines and screenprinting shop in the back.
Inside, you’ll be greeted by the bleeps, bloops, and whooshes of more than 50 pinball machines, along with an equally enchanting display of flashing lights, Christmas bulbs, and chandeliers. The shop’s primary business is printing custom t-shirts—but when, in 2011, the staff filled some empty space with pinball machines, surprising numbers of customers materialized. So they added more and more, until they ran afoul of arcane arcade laws, and worked with city officials on reforms to legally operate what is now the largest pinball arcade in the city.
Proprietor Matt Henri suggests Monster Bash as the most fun pinball machine. A smattering of arcade games—think Pac Man or Big Buck Hunter—are also on offer, and if you ask nicely, you can play on the staff-only pool table. For a special treat, turn into the small side room, also known as the Secret Juju Room, which contains a rotating selection of historic games on loan from the Pacific Pinball Museum. If your first play goes poorly, don’t give up. Bend your knees, get into a good stance, and smash those paddles early and often.