A lively Friday evening at the Stay and Play Game Cafe finds tabletops busy with block stacking, card flipping and battleship sinking. Owners Yesenia and Jose Maldonado said tabletop games, like the hundreds of games they have stocked for patrons to play, are one of the three great loves they hope to share in their new business.
“First and foremost, we want to represent those three pieces — our Puerto Rican heritage, our love and affinity for Chicago and our passion for board games and how it brings community together,” Jose Maldonado said.
The Maldonados hosted game nights for years before taking the leap and converting a former bar into a bright, tropically tinged haven for game play.
“When we were just dating and we had a little two-bedroom apartment, we would do a cards night like every two weeks,” Jose Maldonado said. “We’d just have folks come and play cards and domino. Literally a decade ago, we were hosting game nights, and we had one of our game nights and it was just a phenomenal event. We left that night and I went to Yesenia, like, ‘We got to take this to a larger scale, give it to the neighborhood.’”
The Irving Park cafe serves up Puerto Rican finger foods like tostones, maduros, and of course, the Chicago-Boricua classic jibarito.
“I always say that our people are everywhere,” Yesenia Maldonado said. “I think our cuisine is so accessible, and it’s delicious, and so I want to make it accessible and delicious.”
“We get some comments about, like, why don’t we have arroz con gandule or mofongo and stuff like that,” Jose Maldonado said. “And while we would love eating that food and we like cooking it, too, I looked at the game boxes and said: I do not want to be going through them and finding little gandules here and there; those are not game pieces.”
The cafe offers a rum-focused cocktail menu to add a little spirit to your game play — something the cafe’s mascot, named Jibi, would approve of.
“He’s named after jibaro, the Spanish word for people who live in the country in Puerto Rico,” Yesenia Maldonado said. “So we designed a meeple and made him a jibaro and named him Jibi, and he be doing a bunch of things — he be playing, he be eating food, drinking cocktails, he be doing everything.”
While the concept of a game cafe isn’t entirely new, the Maldonados said their vision is of a place that is welcoming to everyone — from friends to families — and offers culture and connection alongside Clue and Connect Four.
“We strive to actually build community, so we are no strangers to saying, ‘You’ve got a party of two. There’s a party of three that’s taking up a big table. Let’s go ask them: Can we join tables?’” Jose Maldonado said. “Sometimes, and this really warms our heart, they join forces and play a game together. So complete strangers playing together is absolutely what we want to do.”
“I want [people to] feel like they’re coming into our home and that they’re welcomed and that they can learn something new,” Yesenia Maldonado added. “Whether it’s the food, whether it’s the game, whether it’s just being in community with people, we want them to feel comfortable.”
And so far, the cafe seems to be getting high scores across the board from its clientele. On her first visit to the cafe, Battleship enthusiast Karina Gonzalez said she was excited to find a place to relax with a friend without the complications that can come with bars.
“Chicago lacks that, it really does,” Gonzalez said. “There’s a lot of bars, there’s a lot of lounges, but there aren’t any places like this where you can just hang out, have cafe con leche and you can play a game. It’s like a home vibe. I’m Puerto Rican, and it makes me feel like I’m at home.”
Medical student Meena Moorthy and her table of fellow medical students snacked on cheese fries, quesadillas and maduros while playing a round of Stupid Deaths.
“I loved the maduros,” Moorthy said. “I’ve only had sweet plantains, like, one other time in my life, and I remembered loving them and so it brought me back to that.”
At a table full of her extended family, Serenity Baez said her group was also happy to find a place to spend time playing games together, which she said they usually do at home.
“I think that the fact they have over 600 games to play — two-player games, three-player games, everybody can play, they have the simplest games, old school games — it’s perfect,” Baez said.
And if you’re in the mood for an epic capitalist throwdown or four hours of battling dragons while spending time with family? The Maldonados said they’re staying to true their cafe’s name.
“We say, ‘Stay and play.’ You know, take as many games as you like,” Yesenia Maldonado said. “You can come here, play our games, have fun, eat our food and then go home and not have to clean and wash the dishes or worry about putting away the game pieces.”