Beer and brawling: Texas crafter brews go well with playing ‘Street Fighter,’ above; the gourmet version of s’mores, opposite, fuel the kid in you.
With its gamer culture skewed to adults, Frisco-based Nerdvana pioneers the next-gen restaurant
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
“Old-school or new-school?” our hostess asks intently. She’s not asking if we prefer Blondie to Cardi B, or even if we prefer vinyl to MP3 downloads. Nope, she wants to know what type of video games we prefer: Are we the 8-bit PS2 Donkey Kong/Legend of Zelda-type? Or are we, ya know, young and cool? (We went old-school, of course.)
We’re not at a video store or an interactive gamer convention… at least not primarily, although we are comin’ to play. And play for free. While eating. And drinking. We’re entering a state of techie nirvana.
Nerdvana — the Frisco-based concept, which officially goes by @nerdvana.food+spirits, because geeks rule — is in some ways a pioneering next-gen restaurant. Remember when public shops first started providing Wi-Fi, then free Wi-Fi, then charging stations, then…? The culture is moving faster than a 4.2 GHz AMD processor. (You may have to ask a younger person to explain how fast that is.) But our bodies still need to eat carbon-based meals. So why not enjoy a little nosh while hyperdriving into the future?
If you are old enough to have gone to college before being online was emotional oxygen, you may have frequented a coffee shop or Rathskeller stocked with ratty Milton Bradley board games, chess sets and backgammon tables. You’d play games with friends while breaking bread and not staring at your phone, hypnotized by Words with Friends. Nerdvana has just evolved that idea — turning tech into a social interaction, rather than a solitary one.
Diners here actually put their phones down in order to look up at a bigger screen where they can sit face-to-face and engage. Sure, the interface is digital, but the connection is human.
In some ways, this is nothing new; Chuck E. Cheese’s was founded by a former Atari exec as a way to integrate the game and the arcade revenue streams. (Nerdvana itself is owned by Randy and Kristy Pitchford; Randy is CEO of the gaming company Gearbox Software.) But Nerdvana doesn’t require you to dash from one kiosk to another, or endure screaming kids at animatronic birthday parties. In fact, Nerdvana’s main dining room has an age minimum of 17. Here, an adult can be a kid.
You get a game controller depending on what booth you select (there’s an actual menu of which games are loaded at each table), and can choose from a host of games, both single- and multi-player. On a recent visit, I engaged in some hand-to-hand martial arts legerdemain via Street Fighter while we both explored the fare. Nerdvana is a scratch kitchen whose items are campily named — Ate Bits for appetizers, Hand Helds for sandwiches, Cheats for desserts. If you were dining alone you could refuse the controller and spend your meal playing spot the puns. Yup, Nerdvana appeals to all dweebs — wordnerds as much as the game dorks.
The menu reaches out to modern diners with vegetarian and gluten-free specialties, as well as spicy options, and the spice can sneak up on you. We tried the coconut shrimp ($10), which packed an unexpected bite when dipped in the in-house Hadouken sauce. (“Hadouken” is Japanese for “fist wave,” meaning it packs a punch … but is also a signature move of Ryu, the character I played in Street Fighter. See? Even the menu has Easter eggs.) The shrimps were slightly over-cooked, but sizeable and crispy. It’s summer, so we ordered some fried green tomatoes, though they were sliced too thin for a bad veg-to-breading ratio. The flatbreads (like the burgers and the toasts) are create-your-own “kits,” with “platforms,” “operating systems” and “modifications,” for you to compose as you desired.
Virtually all the entrees are priced in the 20s, though all are well-sized and filling meals on their own. My Boss Level charred ribeye ($29), while slightly more than the medium I ordered on the edges, was juicy and seductively topped with chucks of chimichurri chef’s butter that added an herbaceous quality. The brick chicken ($21) is a half-chicken deboned and spread flat then heated under a hot brick to create a scallopini effect. The addition of lemon-thyme butter enriched it.
We swapped out the mashed potatoes with cilantro-lime rice on the ribeye, and the veggie-of-the-day (broccolini) with a barley and mushroom soup on the chicken. I’ve enjoyed their rice before as one of my favorite sides — fluffy with a tang from the citrus, an ideal accompaniment for a host of proteins. But the soup was a discovery: Hearty but not heavy, with a likeable earthiness. The s’mores Duval — a gourmet take on the campfire classic — hits home the retro-appeal of being an adult playing video games.
But the adult element is integral. Happy hour offers half-off beer and wine, and the rotating list of beers is a well-curated selection of Texas brews, from the family (Lakewood Temptress, a Deep Ellum sour blonde) but also a McKinney-based imperial IPA and a ghost pepper porter from Magnolia. That’s a far cry from the root beer and Cheetos in your dad’s basement. It’s good to grow up.