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.”
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.
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.
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.