Pair food with games at these Sonoma County restaurants
The shrieks and laughter could be heard all the way into the parking lot at Bear Republic Brewing Company in Rohnert Park. And as customers made their way through the busy restaurant to the patio, they discovered the source: four men playing cornhole.
Sure, the men were imbibing the various ales and lagers that the Bear brews on-site. Still, the big, sturdy guys were squealing. It would seem it takes a lot to get a grown man to squawk in happiness, but these days, maybe not so much. As more restaurants around Sonoma County add games to their menus, customers of all kinds are cutting loose.
“I think (the trend) all started with the Sonoma breweries,” said Bear Republic General Manager Marcin Furmankiewicz, reflecting on how games like darts and pool have long been popular in drinking establishments in Sonoma County and elsewhere. “We wanted our guests to come together and have fun while enjoying great ales and great food.”
At the 12,000-square foot Bear Republic, which opened in September 2017, games are indeed a big deal on its lakeside patio, beer garden, outdoor kitchen and bandstand space. A fenced area near the parking lot is set with grown-up amusements like giant Jenga, jumbo Connect Four boards standing four feet tall and seasonal diversions that might include foosball and shuffleboard. During good weather, some 40% of customers play games while dining, Furmankiewicz noted, often joining other groups for impromptu communal fun.
Inside, in the pub that nestles next to giant beer brewing tanks, shelves are lined with well-worn board games like Chutes and Ladders, Clue and Bawkugan Brawl, plus a B3 Blitz portable bean bag and pong ball toss game. It's common to see families hunkered over Candyland while noshing on best-selling dishes such as Racer 5 IPA marinated chicken wings, jalapeno burgers and Fontina-Gruyere-béchamel mac ‘n' cheese.
Disconnect from phones
The trend, according to local restaurateurs, comes as friends and family seek to disconnect from phone-driven distraction and frenetic lives.
Visitors to the new Mountain Mike's Pizza that reopened last July on Cleveland Avenue in Santa Rosa, for example, can chill in the new game room that anchors the 4,400-square foot restaurant. The games were installed to make the place more of a neighborhood hangout than a grab-and-go joint, owner Sonu Chandi said.
Few restaurants can match the adventures to be had at Epicenter in Santa Rosa. Opened in December 2016, the 130,000-square foot sports and entertainment palace thrills customers with high-tech marvels like a new Halo Fireteam Raven sci-fi shooting arcade, an Omni Virtual Reality System, laser tag and the XD Dark Ride 3D surround screen game complete with full motion seats, synchronized wind gusts and immersive surround sound.
Made from scratch
That's all set around a notable restaurant, Victory House, overseen by chef Charles Roseneau. In between dining on made-from-scratch fare like poke wontons, short rib and brie sliders and shrimp goat cheese cobb salad, guests can play Esports at the new Game on Garage Xbox center or be a “spy” as they navigate a course while avoiding webs of Laser Frenzy beams. Small children, too, can explore a toddler interactive learning area and the two-story Mega Play Structure with tubes, slides, soft climbing sections and an air-powered foam ball shooter arena.
“We cater from two to 92 years old,” said Jay Ferrick, Epicenter's marketing manager.
“We have 18-month-olds in our trampoline park or a group of elderly ladies playing laser tag and grabbing a drink afterward.”
The 7Ten Social café is another popular dining option at Epicenter, combining bowling with a plush lounge setting complete with easy chairs, cocktails and bites, plus sports and music videos on a 60-foot mural screen over the lanes. About 75% of customers order food or drink while bowling, Ferrick said, stretching the games over several hours.
Giant Jenga, karaoke
Over at Palooza Brewery & Gastropub in Kenwood, games are so popular that owner Jeff Tyler brought them over to his new Palooza Beer Garden & Eatery in Sonoma when he opened that location inAugust. Activities vary between the two restaurants, but favorites include ping-pong, billiards, darts, giant Jenga, karaoke, live comedy and trivia contests.
“Customers enjoy the games because they can relax and be entertained away from electronics,” said Tyler, noting that he's always up for a table tennis match himself.
“It's not just a meal but an experience and a way to meet other people,” he said. “Our customers often play with their groups as well as start tournaments where everyone gets involved.”
Connect over food, game
Keeping phones holstered has been one of the benefits of dining at Petaluma's new Wine or Lose Board Game Café, which opened in August and boasts a massive library of more than 350 board games (see story on page T1).
“We wanted to create a space where people have the opportunity to connect with one another over a great meal and a fun game,” chef-owner Craig Karas said. “Surprisingly, we don't see a lot of phones on the tables. I think people are appreciating having something interactive to do while they engage with their friends and family.”
People love the classic games, he noted, such as Battleship, Yahtzee, Clue and Uno, alongside new favorites including Catan, Unstable Unicorns, and Ticket to Ride. So far, he said, the board games have survived well even as guests nibble on tapas-style American comfort dishes like mashed potato spring rolls, mini meatloaves and chicken ‘n' waffles done with homemade wing sauce and a bioche-like, sugary Liege Belgian waffle.
“Most of our dishes are meant to be used with silverware, but there are some that are finger foods, and people do eat while playing games,” Karas said. “There have been a few mishaps, but overall, people are very respectful of our game library.”
If playing games makes customers slow down and get goofy, then hanging out is a terrific thing, Ferrick of Epicenter noted.
“Places like Epicenter offer easy and fun family time, as parents are frazzled after rushing home from work to cook dinner, and then the kids have to rush to get the dishes done so they can finish their homework before bedtime, and then everybody heads to their rooms to play on their phones or watch their own TVs.
“But we cook the tasty food. We take care of the dishes. We even bring mom and dad a beer or wine if they are in the mood. The family that bowls together or plays laser tag together can relax and have a blast.”