(If you’re looking for the results of the PAX/Colour Bind contest, scroll to the bottom!)
There are a lot of reasons Vancouver’s a great town to be a geek in; aside from the boring old “mainstream” stuff like beautiful sea, mountains, and cityscapes, there are plenty of comic book stores, scores of video game developers, and more anime fans than you can shake a stick at. Now a new reason to embrace Vancouver geekery has emerged in the form of the EXP Restaurant and Bar, one of the first venues to combine casual, chic dining with video games and the gamers that love them.
Sometimes You Want to Go Where Everybody Knows Your Name
EXP was the brain child of Brian Vidovic, former mission designer for Prototype 2 at The Studio Formerly Known As Radical Studios. Looking to create a one-of-a-kind watering hole for gamers – one that actually treated them as sophisticated adults while still letting them indulge in their squeeful side – he and his team (including Julianna Kolakis, Azlan Mustapha, Head Chef Miranda Williams and Bar Manager Jimi Watkins) battled for over two years with various obstacles, not the least of which was the City of Vancouver itself. The simplified version is that the Vancouver Liquor Board refused to grant a liquor license to the restaurant if they went with the original design of having games available at each table… because, you know, video games are only for kids, and you can’t have alcohol and kids mixing! After a lot of frustration, EXP chose the booze over the console boxes, replacing the playable games with video selections of speed runs, game trailers and the occasional surreptitious match of Street Fighter or Halo. A lot of Vancouver gamers were worried that, with the loss of the whole “play games in a restaurant” gimmick, there wouldn’t be much “gamer” content to recommend EXP to people. So, did it manage to bring the “geek”?
On stepping into the restaurant, one is struck by the dim mood-lighting and the functional, modern décor; at first glance, this could be any bar or bistro meant for the young, cool, yuppie set looking for ambiance lit by the glow of the bar. But this bar is a bit different… next to the bottles of Baileys and Jagermeister are figures of FFVII characters like Sephiroth, Tifa and Vincent, a giant gun replica from one of the Gears of Wars games, and several signed Xbox game cases. Each table has a big screen television showcasing the aforementioned videos, while a large projection screen shows off major events such as the Starcraft II national finals. The mood is classily relaxed, a place where you can come in fancy togs or gaming T-shirts and be equally welcomed, often recognized as a regular after only one or two visits. The wait staff are all geeks and proud, eager to show off their Tardis necklaces or gush over their favorite titles. If you’re lucky, you may even catch them dancing along to the infamous Gangnam Style music video on the big screen. All that, and they’re extremely attentive too; while they’re still ironing out some of the kinks during opening, the waitresses always seem willing to bend over backwards to serve, even comping food that was a little late to table due to misplaced orders.
Get In Mah Belleh
Ambiance and geeky waiters are all well and good, but a restaurant depends on its food more than anything. EXP Restaurant is best described as a high-class burger joint with a few esoteric surprises (as well as veggie and gluten-free options) buried amidst the sandwiches, wings, and so on. Everything on the menu is some sort of reference to video games or geek culture, such as the Master Chief Burger (with an onion ring “halo”), Angry Pig Poppers (thick chunks of fatty pork done in your choice of sauces), and the N7 Power Pack (a shared plate of appetizers). Prices for entrees tend to run at about 12-14 Canadian dollars, though the portions are a bit small for what you’re paying. In some cases, that can be a relief as some of the burgers sound a bit, shall we say, calorific? Like the Triforce Burger, a basic burger patty then topped with bacon and a breaded chicken breast. Or how about the Ubi Poutine Burger? By far, my favorite so far has been the Epic Shrimp and Crab Battle for Righteousness, a sandwich with tempura prawn, crab meat and avocado; it’s like someone took the best parts of a California sushi roll and a burger and made some heavenly delicacy out of it. Frankly, I’d have paid double for it. Having said that, my friends’ orders didn’t inspire quite the level of rapture my meal did; while the general consensus was that the food was good, it was more on the “not bad/decent” level as well as the, “not quite worth the price for that quality/portion size” level. Your mileage may vary, of course. Desserts are pleasant enough, with particular mention going to the Choco Island Magic Mushrooms for its meringue mushrooms nestled next to bite-sized pieces of gluten-free chocolate cake.
However, the place that EXP really shines, oddly enough, is in its drink list. Apparently, the choice to embrace the drinks over the playable games was a good gamble, because I think this place has the best cocktails I’ve ever tasted… and I usually HATE AND DESPISE alcohol. Usually, the bitterness ruins any sort of flavor in the drink, but at EXP, whenever I order a drink or sample someone else’s, it tastes really nice. Better yet, the drink menu is even more of a gamer reference trove than the main menu; one fun drinking game a group came up with was going through the list of 20 cocktail names – like Gold Saucer, Mankrik’s Wife, Megaton Punch and Shoryuken – and guessing the game references for each, then drinking the cocktails they hadn’t guessed correctly (NERD ALERT: yours truly only missed four of the drink names, and they were all from the Fallout series)
Not everything is perfect at EXP; the location is a little odd (in a low-rent area near VFS, one of the major game design schools, but a bit off the beaten path for everyone else), food and service can be a bit slow or disorganized at times, and there still seems to be some minor imbalance in the price/portion/quality trifecta. On the other hand, they’ve got great support from not only local gamers but from local game developers, with companies using the restaurant as a location for launch parties, industry events, and so on. And as they are still technically in “beta” (i.e. soft opening), it’s likely a lot of kinks will be ironed out. I really hope they make it in the long run, as the existence of a place like EXP fills a fantastic position in the geek community; a place where we can be adults and kids at the same time, where we can indulge in our hobby and geek out with friends and strangers while still enjoying the same amenities as our sports fan, clubbing or socializing friends. I would love to see more restaurants pursuing this model and offering us geeks a place to eat, drink and game. Until then, if you’re in Vancouver, don’t miss EXP Restaurant and Bar.
EXP Restaurant and Bar, 309 West Pender Street, Vancouver BC.
Any great geek watering holes in your area?
HERE ARE THE WINNERS OF THE COLOUR BIND/PAX 2012 CONTEST:
Let me know if you haven’t received your keys yet, guys!