Max Temkin looks like a reasonably sensible man. As a co-creator of Playing cards Towards Humanity, he’s been on the entrance traces of an enormous renaissance in tabletop gaming. He’s parlayed that success into a thriving coworking and event space in Chicago, a boutique shipping and consulting business, and extra. However why on the earth did he determine to open a restaurant, known as the Chicago Board Game Cafe? Eater Chicago and Polygon teamed as much as discover out.

To listen to Temkin inform it, a spot for nice meals and nice tabletop video games to come back collectively beneath one roof was simply one thing he felt town deserved.

“You go to conventions […] and so they have these superb areas the place individuals go to open up new video games,” Temkin informed us throughout a current phone interview. “They discover ways to play, and there’s sport designers there, and playtesters, and I simply thought there ought to be a very world-class model of that in Chicago.”

Temkin’s imaginative and prescient appears to be taking part in out pretty effectively. We discovered patrons that had been heat and comfortable, sipping specialty cocktails and chowing down on a hearty amalgam of Vietnamese, Spanish, and Mediterranean dishes. On the tables between them had been video games, dozens of various varieties, and an keen workers prepared to show individuals the ropes.

The idea, mixing top-notch meals and repair with the newest in board video games, works fantastically effectively. Holding all of it collectively is an area that you simply wish to linger in, with the added attraction of two high-concept escape rooms within the basement. Time will inform if the concept catches on; Temkin says he’s relying totally on phrase of mouth.

“I want I might let you know now we have, like, a $2 million Fb advertisements program, however we don’t,” Temkin stated. “We simply made a cool factor, and hopefully phrase will get out.”

Pisto manchego, with fried eggplant, Spanish squash, crispy potatoes, and aioli.
Photograph: Ashok Selvam/Eater

The meals

Temkin’s private recognition in Chicago has unfold into town’s thriving restaurant sector, which extends effectively past deep-dish pizza and sizzling canine dragged by means of the backyard. Amongst Temkin’s admirers is Nick Kokonas, the entrepreneur behind Tock, a web based restaurant reservation portal that’s a competitor to OpenTable. He’s additionally co-founder of the Alinea Group, which incorporates Alinea — the one Chicago restaurant with a full three-star score from the world-renowned Michelin Information.

That is all simply to say that Temkin is plugged into the restaurant world. For this endeavor, he’s surrounded himself with expertise. And he’ll want it, as a result of working a restaurant is a mentally draining and bodily difficult endeavor.

Crispy chicken thighs sit on a plate next to a thin, vinegar-based sauce and light noodles with lime. The plate is flat, with a low rim along the edge.

Vietnamese bún, with crispy hen hindquarter.
Photograph: Ashok Selvam/Eater

Enter Aaron McKay, the cafe’s government chef and Temkin’s enterprise associate. Eating places are low-margin companies, particularly with claims of oversaturation in the market by industry insiders. Including a gaming aspect isn’t precisely a boon financially, or Chicago’s massive restaurant teams would have already taken the concept. Chicago Board Sport Cafe is town’s third full-service restaurant that options board video games, and positively the one with essentially the most upscale menu.

“I’m nonetheless engaged on convincing myself it’s a good suggestion,” McKay cracked.

The chef’s most formative working expertise got here at Schwa, a nice eating restaurant in Chicago with a Michelin star that comes at diners with a devil-may-care angle. Schwa’s attraction, partially, comes from a punk-rock ethos the place there are not any guidelines. The cooks are the waiters; there’s no waitstaff. Such a irreverence made McKay match for Temkin’s unorthodox undertaking.

McKay got down to create a enjoyable menu of road meals that prospects might get pleasure from with out diverting consideration away from the video games. Meaty Thai-style beef jerky is marinated with fish sauce offering a luscious funk. Kebab halabi is a combination of beef and lamb with a touch of warmth. Bun cha is a Vietnamese dish that gives an homage to the late Anthony Bourdain, who spent an episode of No Reservations eating with President Obama in Hanoi. The crisp hen pores and skin is a perfect complement to the rice noodles. (Temkin labored on the Obama marketing campaign.) For the heartiest of appetites, feast upon the sliced beef rib-eye. The meat is tasty by itself, however quite a lot of sauces, together with chimichurri, give the dish one other layer of euphoric depth.

The working joke with the cafe workers is that prospects predict a menu full of finger meals and sandwiches, that board sport followers are in a roundabout way sloppy and might’t deal with an grownup meal. That’s not McKay’s philosophy, as he’s embraced the cafe motif, mixing worldwide flavors. It’s approachable for purchasers who aren’t in search of a flowery nice eating expertise, however the menu additionally throws out sufficient curveballs to seize the eye of discerning diners. And the cafe serves meals on actual plates with silverware.

“You don’t must dumb it down, you don’t must make it lowest widespread denominator,” McKay stated.

Visitors will stroll in and really feel like they are in a themed restaurant. However it’s not overdone like a Planet Hollywood or Rainforest Cafe. The area was designed to really feel like prospects had been touring outdoors America, to an outside plaza in Spain or Vietnam, a gathering place for mates.

The eating area is split into two sections. The again room, known as the “Mead Corridor,” has a medieval theme and is presently for crowd overflow. The principle eating room is surrounded by out of doors cafe-style seats which are extra snug than they seem. The area is a former financial institution, and so the vault has been reappropriated as the sport library. There are string lights hanging from the faux road lamps. Temkin stated a lot of the lighting design was impressed by Disney theme parks, most notably Epcot’s World Showcase attraction. Your complete restaurant looks like a high-end theater set, which is seemingly one other nod to Disney. The flooring is tile that appears like cobblestone. The area is full of faux foliage. It’s a miniature city sq. with a large, square-shaped bar dropped within the center.

The basement homes 4 non-public eating rooms, every embellished with a theme (a haunted workplace, for instance). They’re not but accessible for hire, however McKay guarantees particular menus for events and different non-public occasions. He’s engaged on a pink curry with oxtail for the best event.

The varied gentle sources accomplish plenty of duties. They cut back eye pressure for gaming, set the atmosphere, and help Instagrammers. The latter has develop into more and more vital for restaurant advertising and marketing. Potential prospects wish to social media to assist them determine the place to spend their eating cash. Darkish, blurry images don’t assist.

The service is attentive, in the identical method Disney staff be certain that prospects know they’re on the happiest place on Earth. A server will are inclined to a desk’s wants and strategically tempo the arrival of plates in order that they received’t interrupt gaming classes. Some might discover the service system complicated, as there’s additionally a separate workers member who focuses on gaming.

These sport concierges don’t get a share of buyer suggestions. As an alternative, they get a share of sport gross sales from the retail retailer, McKay stated.

Chicago has two different board sport cafes. Bonus Round Game Cafe opened in March 2018, whereas Relo’s Board Game & Dessert Cafe in mid-2019. McKay talked up different cafes in Seattle and Toronto. Chicago Board Sport Cafe isn’t the primary, however McKay believes they’ve one thing particular.

“We’re undoubtedly not inventing something new,” McKay stated. “However we’re pushing it just a little additional than it’s been pushed prior to now.”

The video games

Getting meals out to the tables is basically simply certainly one of many challenges for the workers at Chicago Board Sport Cafe. One other huge a part of the equation is discovering the best video games to pair with a terrific meal. It begins with a brief listing titled “Video games on Faucet,” which is introduced on the desk very like a wine listing. The actually troublesome bit, says co-founder and head of video games and retail Eric Garneau, was discovering video games that match effectively into the eating atmosphere within the first place.

“So long as we spent on the design of the area, we additionally spent determining what our gaming program ought to be,” Garneau defined throughout a cellphone interview after our go to. “It needs to be accessible — learnable in a five- to 10-minute chunk; it has to have a small footprint so you’ll be able to eat round it; and it needs to be aesthetically engaging and never nerd-coated.”

For its grand opening, the staff chosen seven titles in all, together with Decrypto, a brisk phrase sport; King of Tokyo, a dice-driven sport about kaiju portrayed as outsized cardboard cutouts; The Thoughts, a novel card sport performed in full silence; Somebody Has Died, an improvisational storytelling sport about arguing on your rights to an inheritance; and Wavelength, a brand new occasion sport by a staff of Chicago-based designers. For our two-person occasion, seated at a spherical desk within the nook, we had been directed towards two-player video games with a smaller footprint — the tiny tile-laying sport 9 Tiles Panic and a chess-like sport known as Tak.

There to take our board sport order, because it had been, was Mike Bretzlaff, certainly one of a number of “board sport concierges” working that evening. [Disclosure: Bretzlaff is a buddy of co-author Charlie Corridor. The 2 performed in a Dungeons & Dragons group for years previous to Charlie becoming a member of the staff at Polygon.] Bretzlaff is extra than simply your common board sport aficionado. He’s truly labored the ground for a number of years at Gen Con, the nation’s largest tabletop gaming conference, working demonstrations for publishers like Restoration Video games.

In between the supply of our cocktails and our first appetizer, Bretzlaff was there to current 9 Tiles Panic. True to his title, he supplied it up with all of the panache of an environment friendly sommelier, arranging the taking part in items for us and rapidly demonstrating our first spherical. Then he was off on his method to the following desk to current one other sport to extra visitors, earlier than flitting to a 3rd desk to deal with a guidelines dispute in a sport of Pandemic. Whereas he wasn’t overlaying practically as a lot floor backwards and forwards to the kitchen as our server, he was no much less busy.

A lot of the success of the restaurant will depend upon workers like Bretzlaff, people who find themselves educated about all of the video games within the cafe’s huge library. Chicago Board Sport Cafe boasts a set of round 500 titles. You want people who find themselves attentive however not overbearing. That’s why Garneau and his staff spent numerous time hand-selecting workers for his or her roles.

After all, it helps that Garneau can also be the occasions director for the Chicago Playtest Society. His semi-secret pop-ups have introduced board video games to unlikely venues all around the metropolis, from the Field Museum of Natural History to the Harold Washington Library.

“Eric is type of this beloved determine within the Chicago gaming scene,” Temkin stated, “as a result of he’s such a pleasant and inclusive, welcoming ambassador for tabletop, nerd tradition, and all this stuff that I actually like. In order that, to me, is the guts of it. We employed this nice particular person, after which Eric spent actually years constructing this neighborhood […] looking for the best individuals and creating all these procedures, etiquette, and strategies for instructing individuals video games.”

After all, not each board sport is as gentle and bite-sized as 9 Tiles Panic, which we polished off in about 15 minutes. The Vault — a stylized Greco-Roman room on one facet of the big predominant eating space the place the cafe’s assortment is on show — consists of some critically time-consuming titles. What if visitors wish to put in 4 or 5 hours on Fantasy Flight Video games’ flagship Twilight Imperium, or the open-world submarine simulation U-Boot: The Board Game from Phalanx Video games? For these conditions it’s advisable that visitors name forward to debate their plans, or wait to guide one of many themed, non-public play rooms that can be opening up later this 12 months.

Including to the enjoyable are two escape rooms, produced in partnership with The House Theatre of Chicago. The primary, titled The Final Defender, places gamers within the position of nuclear weapons specialists in a race towards time to avoid wasting town and the world from whole annihilation. The 90-minute journey may be tacked on to a meal or booked à la carte. The second escape room, titled Nova to Lodestar, is a spacefaring journey set to open quickly.

The hostess station features a faux marble counter in front of a dark green wall. Overhead, just out of site, is an elaborate dry cleaning conveyor intended to serve as the coat check.

Bringing all of it collectively

The golden period of themed eating places has handed, with a local Rainforest Cafe breathing its last breaths and names like Planet Hollywood and ESPN Zone serving as light reminiscences. Right here, Chicago Board Sport Cafe presents an evolution of the idea, and early on, it’s doing loads proper between the meals, the board video games, and the escape rooms. The area is inviting, and the workers is useful, but it surely’s exhausting to not get the impression that the staff is kind of throwing the whole lot it may on the wall and seeing what sticks.

Throughout our interview, Temkin agreed that the staff was casting a large internet. However, he stated, the aim is to overdeliver on all fronts. The subsequent step, Garneau stated, is spooling up a calendar of tabletop occasions to maintain individuals coming again for extra. He’s already in contact with sport builders and publishers for themed nights and takeovers sooner or later.

Surviving the competitive restaurant business can be powerful. However Chicago Board Sport Cafe has positioned itself in such distinctive territory, the place its success isn’t solely based mostly on the standard of its meals. For McKay, success can be measured by the affect the cafe has on the encompassing neighborhood, “to subsidize doing actually cool occasions, working with charitable companions, pushing political insurance policies that we consider in.”

These cafes appear to be satisfying demand, and the timing may very well be proper for gaming cafes to take off. However no cafe has Playing cards Towards Humanity’s backing. That assist might push Chicago Board Sport Cafe into new territory the place it might develop into a linchpin for town’s booming Bucktown and Logan Sq. neighborhoods. However Chicago might simply be the beginning.

“Yeah, if issues go effectively right here, we’ll come see your mates in New York,” McKay stated.