Monday, May 20, 2019

A New Quest at the Dragon and Meeple

It was sometime last year, October or November.  Football season.  The leaves had just began to turn.

In LA, of course, that means something different.

I was driving to a therapy appointment and realized, too late, my grave mistake.  My therapist's office at the time was inconveniently located within walking distance of the stadium, and I had scheduled an appointment at the same time as the Rams game.  Parking was nowhere to be found; the streets were packed.  A few people with large driveways, paved yards, or empty lots were sitting by the gates, entrepreneurially holding signs.  $60, $120, even $150 for a day's parking.  My anxiety bubbled to the surface as I circled the block fruitlessly searching for a spot, well aware that every minute that ticked by was cutting into my time, and that if I missed the appointment, I would be charged a $100+ no-show fee.

Finally I drove up to a lot that was only half-full.  Sitting outside was a man with a pale copper beard.

 A ray of light shone upon him, indicating he might have a quest for me, if I chose the right dialogue options.

"Listen, I have a doctor's appointment across the street.  I really, really, really need to park.  I swear it'll only take a half-hour.  Can I park here?" I asked.

He frowned.  "I usually sell all the spots in the lot... it's a game day," he said.

"I know, I know, but I'll be out before the game even starts, I swear.  If I'm not out in forty minutes you can tow my car.  Please," I begged.  "I'm gonna get charged a huge no-show fee."

He wavered and finally said, "...alright, fine."

Heart pounding, I parked in the back of his lot and ran into my appointment.

When I emerged a half-hour later, I tried to give him the money I had on hand (a paltry $3) but he refused.  I thanked him profusely; he brushed off my gratitude casually, as if he hadn't just saved my ass.

We got to talking, and at some point he noticed my tattoo, a dragon and D20 on my left leg.  I was wearing cargo pants, my keychain dangling at my hip, also displaying a D20.  He mentioned he was opening a restaurant, a "nerd bar," and told me to swing by sometime.  He handed me a palm flyer, which I took.  It was pinned to the cork board in our kitchen.  I followed the social media pages; it was six months before the restaurant opened.  When the "soft opening" weekend was announced, I went there, feeling that I had to debt to pay to the man who had done me a kindness.

When we came to the bar we discovered a massive space and, happily, excellent food.  In fact, after having an appetizer, a half-pound sandwich, and dessert, I promptly went home and puked.

Undeterred, like some sort of modern-day Bacchus, I stomped back the next day to ask for a job.  I had joked, when I left my job as a research scientist, that I would probably end up being a taxi driver or a bartender.  Well, the Lyft gig was getting old and, knowing my freelance contract work would dry up, especially since Disney had acquired Marvel, I had decided to get a "real" job.

Months later, I am pleased to report that serving and bartending turns out to suit me wonderfully.  Who doesn't love slinging drinks and playing board games?

"I would like to finish my funnel cake."
"But you already ate several pounds of food."
"I want to finish my funnel cake."
"Fine.  Roll for will."
"...nat 20!"
"You finish the funnel cake despite already being full.  ...roll me a constitution save."

Without further ado, here's a piece I started for journalism class about the Dragon and Meeple, but later abandoned, as I felt my position there would compromise the integrity of the piece.  (Names have not been changed.)

One last thing: in case you are wondering what a Meeple is, it's the little wooden people in the board game Carcassonne (though it can also refer to any token piece in a board game, such as the top hat in Monopoly or the mice in Mousetrap).

Here is the unfinished first draft of my article on the Dragon and Meeple, complete with bracketed notes to myself.  If you'd like to read something that was finished but not written by me, check out Geek& Sundry's review here for more info. 

[TITLE PENDING - Chris Buskirk, and the Dragon and Meeple gastropub]


The Dragon and Meeple

There are easily over a dozen bars in and around USC’s southern campus, but the bar model isn’t what Dragon and Meeple is aspiring to as a business. Certainly, it is listed on Yelp and Google Maps as a gastropub, and its business license lists it as a restaurant. But the Dragon and Meeple is a different sort of bar. The Dragon and Meeple is defined by the adjective that precedes its noun; D&M is a gaming bar.

With the recent surge in popularity of superhero movies and fantasy franchises such as “Harry Potter” and “Game of Thrones,” it is unsurprising that other elements of what some call “nerd culture” have entered the mainstream entertainment industry. Dungeons and Dragons, a tabletop roleplay game, experienced record sales in 2017 after its feature in the Netflix series “Stranger Things” the year prior. But for those who are only just discovering the niche community of tabletop gaming, the learning curve can be steep.

Enter the Chris Buskirk. Chris has a vision: a “country club for nerds.” Two months ago, Buskirk’s vision became a reality when he opened the doors to the Dragon and Meeple, a 7,8000-square-foot gastropub that features a 400+ game library. Half “gaming space” and half restaurant, the Dragon and Meeple is in its infancy, but gaining attention. Its development, opening, and growth is more than a story of a pub opening; it is also a look into the rise of “nerd culture” and the entrepreneurial spirit of a man who is working to monetize his passion.

A Country Club for Nerds

Upon entering the Dragon and Meeple, the first things one sees is, of course, the bar. It is made of unfurnished wood and sits fairly high up; the area behind it is likewise made of beams of unfinished wood. Six hexagonally-shaped wooden shelves show off the dozens of soda and beer options. In the center of the wall behind the bar is a massive metal sheet cut into the silhouette of a dragon, with a hexagonal shape in front of it, backlit by a red light.

The dragon silhouette is Dragon and Meeple’s logo; the reason for the hexagonal motif is that this is the shape of a 20-sided die if one were looking down at it. The 20-sided die is the most common die rolled in the game Dungeons and Dragons. For those not in the know, Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop roleplaying game, in which players roll dice to determine the success of their actions as they navigate through a “campaign,” or story, told to them by the DM, or dungeon master.

There is no board for D&D, though most campaigns feature maps and small figures to help communicate player positions as the players navigate their characters through a fantasy world of medieval villages, haunted crypts, and castles guarded by foes to be defeated. As such, the tables at Dragon and Meeple are enormous; made of wood with a black finish, they can easily fit six to eight people each. One table in the corner has the capacity for double that. The large table is made of unfinished wood, like the bar, and calls to mind a pub from another era, one where beer would be served in steins and lighting would come from candles instead of electric bulbs.

Chris spent a lot of consideration (and money) on the decor for Dragon and Meeple. The wooden bar and long table are there by design. In the center of the dining room is an iron chandelier, and though there are no candles along the walls, the sconces are shaped like dragons. The dragons hold chains in their mouths, from which dangle round lamps that provide soft mood lighting. The wall that the gaming library rests against is all exposed brick. The overall ambiance is that of a traditional tavern, which makes sense, since most D&D campaigns begin in taverns, where heroes are given quests to complete.

Upon entering the Dragon and Meeple, guests are asked to pay a five-dollar gaming fee to access the library of board games. Five dollars reserves a table and purchases a minimum of three hours, though if it’s not busy, patrons may linger longer. While customers play board games, they can also buy food or drink. Two of the full-time staff are “gaming concierges,” who can recommend board games and help customers set up and learn how to play. The range of games is extremely broad, including classics like Monopoly but also modern indie games like Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, and Betrayal at House on the Hill. It’s not all board games, either. One shelf in the library is dedicated to card and word games; in this area, party games like Jenga have also found a home. In the front of the store is a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robot set on a small table, alongside a placard asking patrons to check in with the bar.

“There were struggles to open and even now that it's open, it's not of interest to a great deal of people that walk by,” admits Chris. Certainly, when I walk in on a Friday evening, the large space is almost entirely empty, except for one couple playing a game that looks similar to Yahtzee. A sandwich board outside of the Dragon and Meeple advertises that the pub now has beer and wine, and a bouquet of red and yellow balloons bobs merrily above it. But the target clientele is mostly young adults and college students, and now that it’s May, USC’s campus population has shrunk dramatically for the summer. Nonetheless, Dragon and Meeple has many regulars, including indie game designers. The restaurant drives business by hosting meet-ups such as gaming tournaments and contests; on the weekends, the back room has a Dungeons and Dragons league open to anyone who wishes to play, and on Friday, one of the gaming concierges hosts a large, restaurant-wide Family Feud-style game, with an ice cream sundae for the winner.

There’s a strong sense of community here. While I’m sitting at the bar, a lone patron comes in, and after sitting at the bar for a few minutes, wanders off to a table to ask some other patrons to join in their board game. These people don’t known each other, but within a half-hour, they are sharing food and cheering loudly as they roll dice and move tokens around a board.

This was Chris’s vision: a place where like-minded people could find one another and bond over a shared loved of games. Although beer is on the menu, it was never intended to be the central draw; the bar was meant to be a space for nerds to mingle over their shared love of board games and cultural interests such a sci fi, fantasy, and superheroes. Every employee and patron I talk to has fairly strong opinions on Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and Marvel movies. Clearly, walk-in clients aren’t the target audience of D&M; most patrons have sought out this place specifically for its atmosphere. The beer is just a bonus.

Funnily enough, Chris says that the temptation of alcohol isn’t the main draw for people who walk in off of the street. The single biggest reason people wander in is to find out what a “Meeple” is. The answer? It’s the small, wooden, person-shaped game piece for the board game Carcassonne.

Struggles to Open

Dragon and Meeple is not the first of its kind. Gaming spaces have been around for as long as games have, and gaming bars and restaurants soon followed. Long before the modern board game was created, traditional pubs offered various types of tabletop entertainment, including card games.

In fact, Dragon and Meeple isn’t even the first of its kind in Southern California. GameHaus Cafe in Glendale opened its doors in 2013 and has a library of over 1,400 games.

Games and pubs are so entwined that the first historical instance of national regulation of pubs involved pub games; King Henry VII passed a statue in 1495 restricting pub games as they were “distracting Tudor pubmen from archery.”

Henry VII’s statue restricting pub games would be called to mind centuries later as Dragon and Meeple struggled to get its business license. The initial license banned games of all sorts, including anything involved cards or dice; a provision was added later to allow “dice games.”

Chris acquired the space of Dragon and Meeple in October but it would be over six months before he could open the doors. The previous tenants at the location had operated a sushi bar and hookah lounge that nearby residential communities had found highly disturbing; Chris’s business license has dozens of provisions designed to keep the business from making too much raucous in the neighborhood. This includes bans on live entertainment or music, noise ordinances, and a laundry list of do’s and don’t’s, including a ban on the sale of liquor after 11:30 pm, even on weekends

The orc barbarian code: it's not a matter of whether or not you should, but whether or not you can.

Obtaining a liquor license was another sticky matter. The Dragon and Meeple was open for two months before Los Angeles country finally approved its liquor license. For those two months, its row of 16 taps behind the bar sat empty, and its business relied on the gaming fees and food sales to keep it afloat.

The food sales are not negligible. Dragon and Meeple has a full menu and two professional chefs in the kitchen, Rob and Mikey. Chris is a self-described foodie and on every occasion I have entered the bar, he is seated at a table in the corner with a plate of food within reach.

Another source of tales is retail. Dragon and Meeple has a retail space in the back that is about as large as the dining room. Glass cases and black pedestals display board games for sale. Dungeon and Dragon accessories (such as miniatures and dice sets) are also sold here. Retail sales are not nearly as lucrative as food sales, however. People who come to the bar want to socialize, and buying a game to take home removes the socialization component from the equation. Most patrons would rather pay the $5 gaming fee and join a table to play a game from the library instead of purchasing their own; friends aren’t included in the shrink-wrapped boxes.

Chris has been playing D&D since its infancy in the 1980s. (He was born in 1979.) When I visit the bar on Saturday, he is sitting at a large table in the back with a dozen other people, playing Dungeons and Dragons. His character is a paladin.

Chris is a heavyset man with loose reddish hair and a reddish beard. The people playing Dungeons and Dragons are an eclectic bunch; the DM is young enough to be Chris’s son, but he holds his players’ rapt attention as he describes scenery to them and engages them in imaginary battles with hell hounds, skeletons, werewolves, and other baddies. Character sheets, maps, and player handbooks are scattered around the table amidst pints of beer and plates of fries, but I never see a single item get spilled on.

Josh, Rob, and Mikey [title and paragraph in progress]

While Chris spends much of his time rubbing shoulders with the patrons and sitting in the dining area, his general manager, Josh Wolf, spends it behind the bar. Josh is not a gamer, but a restaurateur, who has been in the food business for decades. He has run several restaurants from Las Vegas and seems to be one of the few patrons not completely seeped in “nerd culture.” Wearing a pair of Ray-Bans and a Red Hot Chili Peppers shirt, he plays reggae music from the bluetooth speakers and flips the channels on the restaurant’s flat screen TV between a UFC championship and a Dodgers game.

 A fantasy-based Twitch stream filming at the D&M.
D&M hosts nerd-related podcasts, twitch shows, and gaming tournaments.

Josh seems like an unlikely choice for the D&M’s general manager, but he compliments Chris’s knowledge of gaming with his own knowledge of running a business; it is Josh who hired the waitstaff, created the schedule, and input all of the drink options into the POS behind the bar. Josh typed up the menu and made suggestions on prices. Chris may be the owner, but Josh is the man in charge. He keeps a close eye on the bottom line, and has a million tricks to upsell customers to ensure that the D&M is profitable: pushing appetizers and deserts, offering drink refills, suggesting adding grilled chicken to salads.

When Los Angeles county approved D&M for a liquor license, it only allowed for beer and wine, not spirits. Josh found a loophole: rice wine fell under the jurisdiction of wine, not spirits, and one brand, Sabe Sake, was modeled to emulate the taste of tequila. The D&M now serves sake margaritas.

Josh isn’t the only innovative employee. The chefs are encouraged to experiment. While the menu has plenty of traditional pub fare, such as burgers and fries, it also includes a saltado, three poutines, orange chicken, and a southern-style shrimp n’ grits.

Rob and Mikey are as mismatched a pair as Chris and Josh; Rob is middle-aged and soft-spoken, with pale grey eyes that match his hair. Mikey is short, young, and has gauge earrings; he wears a baseball hat in the kitchen that clashes terribly with his chef’s uniform. Both love cooking and enjoy the freedom Chris and Josh have given them to try out new recipes, but Mikey is vocal about his dislike of some of the menu items. He describes the classic burger as a “pedestrian piece of shit” and says that he didn’t attend culinary school to make such standard fare.

“What’s your favorite item on the menu to create?” I ask, hopeful to pull a less acerbic quote from him.

“Something not on the menu,” he says without missing a beat. “I’m sick of making the same shit again and again.” Rob hides a smile.

Apparently Mikey’s tendency to call everything shit is well-known; later on while we’re chatting, Josh pokes his nose into the kitchen. and instructs Mikey to try to keep his usual running commentary to himself, because a large party will be dining in the back room.

Mikey laughs.

Nerds, he says, have terrible taste in food (“shit tastes”); they are used to eating “cheap shit” and don’t appreciate fine dining. One of the regular’s usual orders is a burger with only two topics: cheese, and mayo. Nerds are apparently picky eaters, and some of the memorable requests Mikey has seen has included orange chicken without the chicken, a poutine with the components served separately, and a request that a chicken sandwich be cooked “medium-rare.” Mikey vocally describes these orders as “the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.” Rob offers no commentary on Mikey’s aggressive stance, but doesn’t disagree with it, either.

When Rob and Mikey get bored in the kitchen because sales are slow, they experiment. Their most recent creation is a cookie sandwich; the filling is a whipped cream infused with the marshmallow stout that’s on tap. Fried food aside, desserts are a top seller; the D&M’s menu includes a sundae served in a glass chalice and an “Elvis funnel cake” that is topped with peanut butter, Nutella, and bananas.

From the kitchen’s perspective, gaming restaurants are no different than regular restaurants. They joined the D&M venture because of the freedom it offered them. Both agree that Chris is easy to work with and that they feel their suggestions on menu items is well-received; every few weeks, they feature a special or two of their own creation. This week, it’s a Swedish meatball poutine. I am disappointed that it isn’t called the Dragon and Meatball poutine and say as much, prompting a soft smile from Rob and a scowl from Mikey.

Final scene [in progress]

There’s a common trope that nerds are social outcasts, lacking in emotional intelligence and struggling to forge relationships.

When I come into the D&M one Sunday, I am startled to find it is packed with people. I find out later why: it’s Chris’s fortieth birthday. This explains the many children running around. Chris’s whole extended family came to attend a birthday party here. His parents, brothers and sisters, nieces, nephews, and cousins easily occupy half of the restaurant. In attendance are many of Chris’s friends: old roommates from college, people he’s met at comic conventions, fellow players from the weekend Dungeon and Dragons league games.

They order an extraordinary amount of food; Chris sits in the middle of one of the tables, talking animatedly about his business with his family and friends.

After an hour or two, Josh comes out with a massive, store-bought chocolate cake. This is the only time Josh will ever allow outside food or drink into the restaurant. He sets the cake in front of Chris and lights the candles; the waitstaff comes out to sing “Happy Birthday” with Chris’s family. He is beaming as he blows out the candles; several of his nieces hug him and wish him a happy birthday.

A signed card addressed to “Uncle Chris” takes a coveted position on one of the hexagonal shelves behind the bar, along with a jar of hand-picked wildflowers that stays there for almost two weeks before finally being tossed out. During that birthday party, I get the distinct impression of the type of nerd Chris is. He’s a social nerd, an often-overlooked class. He is an extrovert and enjoys social interaction; his interest in tabletop gaming and fantasy adventures is not an isolating interest, but a unifying one.

Chris didn’t open Dragon and Meeple for himself; when D&M opened its doors, Chris was already enjoying a vast social support network. Rather, Chris opened the D&M for others to find their own social networks. The Dragon and Meeple encourages people to mingle and play together, to forge the kind of social connections that Chris has already been enjoying for years.
Nerds learning about the D&M be like...

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