Patrons entering the forthcoming Chicago Board Game Cafe — the first restaurant, bar, gaming venue, and retail shop from the Chicago-based folks behind the ever-popular card game Cards Against Humanity — will step into a miniature town square. The 14,000-square-foot space is a multi-prong operation where individual “buildings” are set on cobblestone streets with street lamps. It’s design is different than nearly every other restaurant in Chicago.
The main cafe features a 23-seat square bar with 90 booth and table seats surrounding it and sits in the center of the square. The first “building” customers will see is the retail shop, named “Garneau’s Trading Post” for director of gaming and retail Eric Garneau. Other “buildings” include a mock train station ticket booth where customers can find announcements and staff help, and a bank vault that’s also the game library (the building itself is a former bank). There’s also the kitchen building with “Paradise Vendors” signage, named for pop-ups the team previously held.
The “town” is meant to have nods to different classical and modern architecture themes while also remaining vague and ambiguous enough to not feel like a specific city or area.
“We wanted it to be somewhere and nowhere,” chef Aaron McKay says. “[There are] lots of nods to Chicago but [it’s] a blank enough slate so people can fill in the missing pieces for themselves. There will be some interesting stuff that people can become aware of the more time they spend in the space.”
The space was around 85 percent finished during a walkthrough this week. Crews are adding finishing touches and staff training is underway. McKay says he’s confident that ownership will soon open reservations for the main restaurant for late February. A specific opening date hasn’t yet been determined.
Although the design and the games are playful, McKay — who has experience at Mercat a la Planxa, NoMI, and Schwa — says he is treating the food “very seriously.” His menu will pull from a few different cuisines from around the world while remaining casual and in line with the “outdoor” vibe of the town hall design. Expect dishes that are twists on Spanish, Vietnamese, Mexican, and more foods from warm-weather international locales. He highlights a boneless quarter chicken dish that’s braised with Vietnamese herbs, fish sauce, lemongrass, and ginger. It’s served over noodles while the skin is crisped separately.
“We want it to be food you would sit with in a place like this that’s sort of outside, eating casually and enjoying yourself, playing a game,” he says. “And also a way to incorporate foods that we as a kitchen staff like to cook for each other. It can be slightly obscure but it makes people really happy.”
Many of the drinks will also have a worldly theme, as McKay, who is also masterminding the opening beverages, plans to serve a wide selection of vermouths, sherries, and sake. The bar will also offer six beer taps, wines, and cocktails both classically strong and low-ABV. Some gamers prefer non-alcoholic beverages, and they’re a large priority. Alcohol-free options include Four Letter Word coffee, Spirit Tea, house-made sodas, and espresso.
Gaming plays a huge part in the draw. Customers will be able to choose from 400 to 500 titles from the gaming vault. There’s an employee — which Garneau calls a “sommelier for games” — who will be available to help people choose and learn them. This is common place at many game cafes.
“We want to be the place where people play their first game, so we’ve compiled a list of games that are really accessible, easy games to learn that we feel people will really enjoy if they’re new to this,” he says. “We’ll also have games that are off the beaten path that even hardcore gamers haven’t heard of yet.”
Other parts of the space include a large separate room they call the “hall.” It’s a 42-seat spot with long communal tables that’s meant for walk-ins and spillover from the cafe and bar. Four private rooms and two escape rooms — with ‘80s nuclear holocaust and outer-space themes — are downstairs.
Overall the spot fits into and expands on a growing trend of restaurants and bars that offer more than just eating and drinking. It’s a place where people could easily spend an entire evening noshing, drinking, playing games, and exploring the space. The entrance, which is on the west side of the corner building at Milwaukee, Western, and Armitage avenues will also going to house the second Marz Community Brewing and Wormhole locations. It even includes a takeout window which McKay says probably won’t open when the rest of the space debuts. They’re considering using it for coffee or grab-and-go breakfast or gaming releases. It’s yet another interesting aspect shoehorned into an interesting operation: “You have to have something that brings people through the door,” he says.
When the general public is able to come through the door expect its hours to be from 4 p.m. until midnight seven days a week with brunch service starting around a month later. Retail could have different hours and private gaming events could happen in the daytime. Stay tuned for more details on one of the year’s most anticipated openings.
Chicago Gaming Cafe, 1965 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Scheduled to open around late February.