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A large and colorful mural fills a cafe wall.
Stay & Play Game Cafe fuses Puerto Rican cuisine with board game mania.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

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Jibaritos, Cocktails, and Board Games Come Together in Irving Park

Stay & Play Game Cafe unites the neighborhood with Puerto Rican fare and a large selection of games

Prior to December, spouses and Chicago natives Jose and Yesenia Maldonado had no formal restaurant industry experience. The former software engineer and social worker, who met in 1991 in college, did know a thing or two about hospitality after spending decades hosting game nights with friends while feasting on heaping plates of Puerto Rican food.

“As couples tend to, we had kids and our friends had kids so game nights just got bigger and bigger,” Jose Maldonado says. “Then, about a decade ago, we started to see friends of friends who were trying to get in on our game night — even tertiary friends we didn’t even know who heard about what we were doing.”

A triangular corner building.
Stay & Play has replaced half-century-old pub Independence Tap.

The Maldonados’ lives changed significantly over the intervening years as their children grew into adults and pursued higher education. Their empty nest years upon them, the couple returned to the kernel of an idea they’d previously set aside — a cafe with food, drink, and room for old and new friends to gather and play.

Late last year, they introduced their vision to Chicago as Stay & Play Game Cafe at 3932 W. Irving Park Road. The space had housed Independence Tap, which closed in 2021 after more than half a century. The cafe seats around 110 in total and will add another 16 spots on an outdoor patio during the city’s all-to-brief warm weather seasons. Drawing on their experience balancing food and gameplay, the Maldonados selected tables that can comfortably seat eight for large games and erected shelves to display the cafe’s library of more than 500 games.

Chicago artist John Vergara painted a mural celebrating the owners’ Puerto Rican heritage, love of Chicago, and passion for board games.

In the couples’ minds, they’ve effectively run a game cafe out of their home for decades. They’ve strived to create a similarly comfortable feeling in the space and say patrons have noticed their efforts. “One of the best compliments we’ve gotten from folks really captures what we were looking to do: they’re playing in our home — we’ve opened up our home to people,” says Jose Maldonado.

Form also meets function on Stay & Play’s food menu, a lineup of Puerto Rican appetizers and sandwiches (a nod to the couple’s shared heritage) that don’t require cutlery and can be easily shared among a group. These include pastelillos, turnover-like cousins of empanadas filled with chicken, steak, pork, or cheese; ham-and-cheese croquetas, tripleta sandwiches, and jibaritos. Messier finger foods like coconut shrimp and saucy Caribbean chicken wings come with hand wipes so players can clean up mid-round. “We want people to enjoy a bite of their sandwich with one hand and hold a game piece in the other,” says Jose Maldonado.

Jibaritos.
Rum punch (white and dark rum, pineapple, orange, lime).

Grownup patrons can also order off a bar menu that emphasizes rum-focused cocktails like mojitos, mai tais, and piña coladas, as well as draft beers from area breweries such as Twisted Hippo and bottles of Modelo Negro, Corona, and Medalla Light. The co-owners hope the beverages channel a laid-back “island time” atmosphere but want to maintain the cafe’s family-friendly approach, so there’s no bar seating. Servers order and transport food and drink, and serve a dual purpose as “game guides” who can help customers choose among hundreds of game options.

In the coming weeks, the couple plans to introduce a charitable component to the business by regularly donating a portion of proceeds to non-profit organizations nominated by community members. More details will be made available on the cafe’s website. “We feel we’ve been truly blessed with our families, our lives, our network of communities, so we want this venue to be an opportunity to give back.”

Look around Stay & Play Game Cafe and peruse its menu in the photographs below.

Stay & Play has held several private events and hopes for more.
Large decorative game pieces are affixed to a black ceiling.
Two oversize chess pieces hang from a bathroom ceiling.
A wall display of oversize Scrabble tiles.

Here’s a selfie-friendly spot.

Several black shelving units filled with hundreds of game boxes.
A full list of the cafe’s games is also available online.
A black shelving unit is filled with colorful board game boxes.
Novices can rely on “game guide” servers to help them choose a game.
Cubano sandwich and sweet potato fries.
Caribbean chicken wings come with mango or guava sauce.
Pastelillos, maduros, and rellenos de papa.
Mojito (rum, mint, Sprite, lime).

Stay & Play Game Cafe

3932 W. Irving Park Road, Chicago, IL 60618 312-685-2255 Visit Website
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