LAKEVIEW — After a tumultuous year, Bonus Round Game Cafe is once again bustling with friendly competition over a menu of comfort food and craft cocktails.
Owners Courtney Hartley and Drew Lovell said they are finally starting to feel some sense of normalcy as their regulars return and others discover their quirky business.
The restaurant and bar at 3230 N. Clark St. offers a large selection of board games for customers to play while they eat and drink. Staff will even make recommendations and teach customers how to play. There is also a retail section so visitors can bring home games they fall in love with.
Hartley and Lovell got the idea for a board game cafe in 2012, when they visited a similar establishment in San Jose, California, during their honeymoon.
The waiter “showed us games that both of us could enjoy — because it turns out we have very different play styles — and we loved that so much we decided we wanted to do it ourselves,” Hartley said.
Not long after, the couple moved to Chicago, where Lovell is from, and began running pop-up versions of their concept in local bars. They used the pop-up venture to scope out an ideal neighborhood, and in 2016 they launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund their business. They raised more than $11,000 and, two years later, Bonus Round opened. They just celebrated their third anniversary in March by fully reopening after months of being closed due to the pandemic.
What sets Bonus Round apart from similar spots is its commitment to creating an inclusive community, the owners said.
“We’re trying to create a space where people can play board games, where before they might not have felt comfortable playing them for a variety of reasons,” Lovell said. “Our staff teaches the games so [customers] don’t have to worry about the intimidating part.”
The owners curate their games to ensure they’re being inclusive. Sixty to 70 percent of the games available are easy to teach for less-experienced gamers, the owners said; and Bonus Round is picky about the number of high-strategy games it carries because they can be harder to teach and attract judgier players.
The cafe doesn’t carry games that “punch down” on marginalized groups, the owners said. Games about colonization aren’t featured — and even Harry Potter games were removed last year after JK Rowling posted a series of transphobic tweets.
And Bonus Round is a queer-friendly space year-round. A progress Pride flag hangs in the front window, Pride-themed “Dungeons and Dragons” pins are up for sale and all staff members wear pronoun pins. Before the pandemic, the cafe also used to host monthly Queer Ladies and Non-Binary nights, something Hartley and Lovell hope to bring back when big gatherings feel safer.
“We’re purposefully creating a space where you don’t have to think about those problems,” Hartley said. “We want to make sure everyone feels like they have a place at our table.”
Bonus Round also tries to include people who don’t drink alcohol. While the cafe serves beer, wine and cocktails, there are beverage options for people who abstain from alcohol — and the focus is on gaming, not drinking.
After a dark time in the history of Bonus Round, Hartley and Lovell have bright plans for the future — including possibly expanding.
“We’re at a good point in our business — we came out of the pandemic, we are still surviving, and not every [business] did — and now we’re just figuring out what the future looks like for us,” Lovell said. “If I had my ideal situation, it would be we would keep this location and find another one in another part of town.”
A new location would have the same attention to detail and inclusive vibes, but Lovell wants it to be twice the size with a more upscale menu. He also plans to have more tables and a larger retail space, something that helped Bonus Round make it through the pandemic when food sales weren’t possible.
Bonus Round is open 4-10 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursday, noon-midnights Saturdays and noon-9 p.m. Sundays. Walk-in customers are welcome but reservations are strongly encouraged, especially during the weekends.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.
Already subscribe? Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast” here: