The restaurant that serves board games
Max Temkin seems like a pretty smart guy. As a co-creator of Cards Against Humanity, he’s been on the front lines of a massive 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 more. But why in the world did he decide to open a restaurant, called the Chicago Board Game Cafe? Eater Chicago and Polygon teamed up to find out.
To hear Temkin tell it, a place for great food and great tabletop games to come together under one roof was just something he felt the city deserved.
“You go to conventions […] and they have these amazing spaces where people go to open up new games,” Temkin told us during a recent telephone interview. “They learn how to play, and there’s game designers there, and playtesters, and I just thought there should be a really world-class version of that in Chicago.”
Temkin’s vision seems to be playing out fairly well. We found patrons that were warm and cozy, sipping specialty cocktails and chowing down on a hearty amalgam of Vietnamese, Spanish, and Mediterranean dishes. On the tables between them were games, dozens of different kinds, and an eager staff ready to teach people the ropes.
The concept, blending top-notch food and service with the latest in board games, works fantastically well. Holding it all together is a space that you want to linger in, with the added attraction of two high-concept escape rooms in the basement. Time will tell if the idea catches on; Temkin says he’s relying mostly on word of mouth.
“I wish I could tell you we have, like, a $2 million Facebook ads program, but we don’t,” Temkin said. “We just made a cool thing, and hopefully word gets out.”
Temkin’s personal popularity in Chicago has spread into the city’s thriving restaurant sector, which extends well beyond deep-dish pizza and hot dogs dragged through the garden. Among Temkin’s admirers is Nick Kokonas, the entrepreneur behind Tock, an online restaurant reservation portal that’s a competitor to OpenTable. He’s also co-founder of the Alinea Group, which includes Alinea — the only Chicago restaurant with a full three-star rating from the world-renowned Michelin Guide.
This is all just to say that Temkin is plugged into the restaurant world. For this endeavor, he’s surrounded himself with experience. And he’ll need it, because running a restaurant is a mentally draining and physically challenging endeavor.
Enter Aaron McKay, the cafe’s executive chef and Temkin’s business partner. Restaurants are low-margin businesses, especially with claims of oversaturation in the market by industry insiders. Adding a gaming element isn’t exactly a boon financially, or Chicago’s large restaurant groups would have already taken the idea. Chicago Board Game Cafe is the city’s third full-service restaurant that features board games, and certainly the one with the most upscale menu.
“I’m still working on convincing myself it’s a good idea,” McKay cracked.
The chef’s most formative working experience came at Schwa, a fine dining restaurant in Chicago with a Michelin star that comes at diners with a devil-may-care attitude. Schwa’s appeal, in part, comes from a punk-rock ethos where there are no rules. The chefs are the waiters; there’s no waitstaff. This type of irreverence made McKay a good fit for Temkin’s unorthodox project.
McKay set out to create a fun menu of street foods that customers could enjoy without diverting attention away from the games. Meaty Thai-style beef jerky is marinated with fish sauce providing a luscious funk. Kebab halabi is a mixture of beef and lamb with a hint of heat. Bun cha is a Vietnamese dish that provides an homage to the late Anthony Bourdain, who spent an episode of No Reservations dining with President Obama in Hanoi. The crisp chicken skin is an ideal complement to the rice noodles. (Temkin worked on the Obama campaign.) For the heartiest of appetites, feast upon the sliced beef rib-eye. The meat is tasty on its own, but a variety of sauces, including chimichurri, give the dish another layer of euphoric depth.
The running joke with the cafe staff is that customers are expecting a menu filled with finger foods and sandwiches, that board game fans are in some way sloppy and can’t handle an adult meal. That’s not McKay’s philosophy, as he’s embraced the cafe motif, mixing international flavors. It’s approachable for customers who aren’t looking for a fancy fine dining experience, but the menu also throws out enough curveballs to grab the attention of discerning diners. And the cafe serves food on real plates with silverware.
“You don’t have to dumb it down, you don’t have to make it lowest common denominator,” McKay said.
Guests will walk in and feel like they are in a themed restaurant. But it’s not overdone like a Planet Hollywood or Rainforest Cafe. The space was designed to feel like customers were traveling outside America, to an outdoor plaza in Spain or Vietnam, a gathering place for friends.
The dining space is divided into two sections. The back room, called the “Mead Hall,” has a medieval theme and is currently for crowd overflow. The main dining room is surrounded by outdoor cafe-style seats that are more comfortable than they appear. The space is a former bank, and so the vault has been reappropriated as the game library. There are string lights hanging from the fake street lamps. Temkin said much of the lighting design was inspired by Disney theme parks, most notably Epcot’s World Showcase attraction. The entire restaurant feels like a high-end theater set, which is seemingly another nod to Disney. The flooring is tile that looks like cobblestone. The space is filled with fake foliage. It’s a miniature town square with a giant, square-shaped bar dropped in the middle.
The basement houses four private dining rooms, each decorated with a theme (a haunted office, for example). They’re not yet available for rent, but McKay promises special menus for parties and other private events. He’s working on a red curry with oxtail for the right occasion.
The various light sources accomplish a number of tasks. They reduce eye strain for gaming, set the ambience, and help Instagrammers. The latter has become increasingly important for restaurant marketing. Potential customers are looking to social media to help them decide where to spend their dining money. Dark, blurry photos don’t help.
The service is attentive, in the same way Disney workers make sure customers know they’re at the happiest place on Earth. A server will tend to a table’s needs and strategically pace the arrival of plates so they won’t interrupt gaming sessions. Some may find the service system confusing, as there’s also a separate staff member who focuses on gaming.
Those game concierges don’t get a share of customer tips. Instead, they get a percentage of game sales from the retail store, McKay said.
Chicago has two other board game cafes. Bonus Round Game Cafe opened in March 2018, while Relo’s Board Game & Dessert Cafe in mid-2019. McKay talked up other cafes in Seattle and Toronto. Chicago Board Game Cafe isn’t the first, but McKay believes they have something special.
“We’re definitely not inventing anything new,” McKay said. “But we’re pushing it a little further than it’s been pushed in the past.”
Getting food out to the tables is really just one of many challenges for the staff at Chicago Board Game Cafe. Another big part of the equation is finding the right games to pair with a great meal. It starts with a short list titled “Games on Tap,” which is presented at the table much like a wine list. The really difficult bit, says co-founder and head of games and retail Eric Garneau, was finding games that fit well into the dining environment in the first place.
“As long as we spent on the design of the space, we also spent figuring out what our gaming program should be,” Garneau explained during a phone interview after our visit. “It has to be accessible — learnable in a five- to 10-minute chunk; it has to have a small footprint so you can eat around it; and it has to be aesthetically attractive and not nerd-coded.”
For its grand opening, the team selected seven titles in all, including Decrypto, a brisk word game; King of Tokyo, a dice-driven game about kaiju portrayed as oversized cardboard cutouts; The Mind, a novel card game played in complete silence; Someone Has Died, an improvisational storytelling game about arguing for your rights to an inheritance; and Wavelength, a new party game by a team of Chicago-based designers. For our two-person party, seated at a round table in the corner, we were directed toward two-player games with a smaller footprint — the tiny tile-laying game Nine Tiles Panic and a chess-like game called Tak.
There to take our board game order, as it were, was Mike Bretzlaff, one of several “board game concierges” working that night. [Disclosure: Bretzlaff is a friend of co-author Charlie Hall. The two played in a Dungeons & Dragons group for years prior to Charlie joining the team at Polygon.] Bretzlaff is more than just your average board game aficionado. He’s actually worked the floor for several years at Gen Con, the nation’s largest tabletop gaming convention, running demonstrations for publishers like Restoration Games.
In between the delivery of our cocktails and our first appetizer, Bretzlaff was there to present Nine Tiles Panic. True to his title, he offered it up with all the panache of an efficient sommelier, arranging the playing pieces for us and quickly demonstrating our first round. Then he was off on his way to the next table to present another game to more guests, before flitting to a third table to handle a rules dispute in a game of Pandemic. While he wasn’t covering nearly as much ground back and forth to the kitchen as our server, he was no less busy.
Much of the success of the restaurant will depend on staff like Bretzlaff, people who are knowledgeable about all the games in the cafe’s massive library. Chicago Board Game Cafe boasts a collection of around 500 titles. You need people who are attentive but not overbearing. That’s why Garneau and his team spent a lot of time hand-selecting staff for their roles.
Of course, it helps that Garneau is also the events director for the Chicago Playtest Society. His semi-secret pop-ups have brought board games to unlikely venues all over the city, from the Field Museum of Natural History to the Harold Washington Library.
“Eric is kind of this beloved figure in the Chicago gaming scene,” Temkin said, “because he’s such a friendly and inclusive, welcoming ambassador for tabletop, nerd culture, and all these things that I really like. So that, to me, is the heart of it. We hired this great person, and then Eric spent literally years building this community […] trying to find the right people and creating all these procedures, etiquette, and methods for teaching people games.”
Of course, not every board game is as light and bite-sized as Nine Tiles Panic, which we polished off in about 15 minutes. The Vault — a stylized Greco-Roman room on one side of the large main dining area where the cafe’s collection is on display — includes some seriously time-consuming titles. What if guests want to put in four or five hours on Fantasy Flight Games’ flagship Twilight Imperium, or the open-world submarine simulation U-Boot: The Board Game from Phalanx Games? For those situations it’s recommended that guests call ahead to discuss their plans, or wait to book one of the themed, private play rooms that will be opening up later this year.
Adding to the fun are two escape rooms, produced in partnership with The House Theatre of Chicago. The first, titled The Last Defender, puts players in the role of nuclear weapons specialists in a race against time to save the city and the world from total annihilation. The 90-minute adventure can be tacked on to a meal or booked à la carte. The second escape room, titled Nova to Lodestar, is a spacefaring adventure set to open soon.
Bringing it all together
The golden era of themed restaurants has passed, with a local Rainforest Cafe breathing its last breaths and names like Planet Hollywood and ESPN Zone serving as faded memories. Here, Chicago Board Game Cafe presents an evolution of the concept, and early on, it’s doing a lot right between the food, the board games, and the escape rooms. The space is inviting, and the staff is helpful, but it’s hard not to get the impression that the team is sort of throwing everything it can at the wall and seeing what sticks.
During our interview, Temkin agreed that the team was casting a wide net. But, he said, the goal is to overdeliver on all fronts. The next step, Garneau said, is spooling up a calendar of tabletop events to keep people coming back for more. He’s already in touch with game developers and publishers for themed nights and takeovers in the future.
Surviving the competitive restaurant business will be tough. But Chicago Board Game Cafe has placed itself in such unique territory, where its success isn’t solely based on the quality of its food. For McKay, success will be measured by the impact the cafe has on the surrounding community, “to subsidize doing really cool events, working with charitable partners, pushing political policies that we believe in.”
These cafes seem to be satisfying demand, and the timing could be right for gaming cafes to take off. But no cafe has Cards Against Humanity’s backing. That support could push Chicago Board Game Cafe into new territory where it could become a linchpin for the city’s booming Bucktown and Logan Square neighborhoods. But Chicago could just be the start.
“Yeah, if things go well here, we’ll come see your friends in New York,” McKay said.
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