Game on, San Diego! A look at Hillcrest’s new game-centric “Tabletop Commons”
by Kirk Douglas
Nestled in San Diego’s uptown district a mere 3 miles from the city’s historic Gaslamp quarter, lies Hillcrest.
Offering a charming strip of restaurants, bars, coffee houses and shopping experiences on University Avenue, the area is a generally warm and inviting place of convergence among visitors and locals alike. Part of the allure is perhaps in the neighborly feel among locals, the diverse drink and dining options, the Sunday farmer’s market, the indie theater, or the dance clubs and events. It’s a part of town that I frequent and find offers a break from the bustle of downtown while having nary a dull moment in its own right.
I’ve enjoyed countless Indian and sushi dishes in the area, spent many a “Sunday Funday” among It’s watering holes and entertained many a guest at the beautiful neighboring Balboa Park. It’s due to this vibrancy that it seems the area is always gaining new attractive ways for guests to spend their time.
One of the newest additions to the area is located on University Avenue’s 1200 block between Vermont and Richmond.
Tabletop Commons, a new restaurant and bar is trading in the recent trend of offering arcade classics for the often more accessible and equally nostalgic variety of tabletop and card game offerings. Of course, they aren’t limiting themselves to just tabletop games although it is a primary focus. Guests also have access to an upper level balcony lounge complete with A Nintendo Wii U and a few of the consoles’ most popular titles.
Last weekend I stopped in to talk to the manager, Charlie Vasquez about the company and what they’re hoping to accomplish. I’ve been to Tabletop many times as a customer and a friend to a few of those who work there, including Charlie, who I’ve known for the better part of a decade. I wanted to get has take on how he sees the company making an impact on both the Restaurant/bar scene as well as the local community and gaming community alike.
Charlie poured me a cocktail and suggested I try the newly added chicken wings. A sucker for baked and deep-fried delights, I obliged and he put in an order.
I started with the obvious questions and took a sip of my infused vodka drink while Charlie shed some light on his unique business:
“Tell me a little bit about Tabletop Commons, what are you guys all about?”
“We are all about new and old board games… we have games everyone knows like Life and Operation, Jenga… We have lesser-known games too, niche games and we have companies that have launched games that have even come by. We’ve also got newer games like Cock and Bull, which is a drinking game.”
“So these people are attracted to your business because you’re featuring games?”
“We’re featuring games, we’re encouraging families, groups of friends… …to come in and play — to enjoy a little bit of everything.”
“I see you have mules, infusions, beers and even eats. Do you have anything on the drink menu that is a standout?”
“Mules are really popular lately. We try to keep our offerings in the theme of gaming so we have drinks with names that play off of Smash Bros. and Mario Kart… Our infused vodkas are great and we do it in-house. It tastes natural, as opposed to a more fabricated off the shelf option. We use real fruit and you can tell. We change the beers regularly and we sell a lot of IPA’s. Mother Earth (brewing co.’s) Cali Creamin’ has been one of our main sellers. And people really love Pilsners and Stouts, so we have a lot of options there.”
“Food wise, is it a full menu or more like snacks?”
“We try to keep it simple, but we have a couple of burgers now and a lot of shareables, good for a group. We’ve added a blueberry infused barbecue sauce that we make right here and it’s great with the new wings. Our burgers are a good size and we have some other great sandwiches. We’re most known for our tater tots, which are our main seller. We use them in the poutine and people love it.”
“It looks like you’ve got options. Is there any particular ‘tot’ dish that you’d recommend?”
“It would have to be the poutine, and I’d recommend it with duck. Everyone does it different but ours is made with tots and the way it is seasoned …it’s so moist and flavorful. We use our homemade sauces, and Its tender …really tender. Very enjoyable and hearty. I’d say it’s comforting.”
“I’m not much for duck, but that sounds good. It seems like you’re probably pulling in a certain crowd between the beer variety, the food and gaming, yeah?”
“It’s becoming more mixed, which is great. We started with a Groupon and tried that when we first opened our doors about 10 months ago. The crowd then was more game-specific. Now people are acknowledging us for the food and drink and the sense of community, the fun aspect.”
“Would you say there’s a sense of community here?”
“Oh yeah. People will sit down at a table next to another group. Total strangers, and the next thing you know they’re playing a game together or striking up conversation. It’s very cool.”
“Tell me more about the crowd…”
“…People are finding out that we’re here now. Our initial customers were more of a downtown crowd. But now it’s been more locals, people noticing what we’re doing — being inquisitive about the games and the beers. It doesn’t matter if you’re a so-called ‘geek,’ or not, people sit down and try things out. It’s really mixed and we have nights we’re very busy now. It’s bringing people together.”
“I noticed there’s different groups of folks coming in to what looks like special events or something, care to elaborate?”
“Well, we have a local artist who comes in on the weekends and teaches a class for a small fee about neon painting. That’s been popular and other people who are in here see that too. The people who are playing games see the art and the people doing art see the games, so they sometimes mingle and that’s good.”
“My friend Dan hosts a gaming night here he calls ‘Throwdown Thursdays’ for fighting game enthusiasts – but It’s Saturday and and you have something going on upstairs right now. What’s that about?”
“It’s actually really similar. There’s a group of friends … a meetup, who is doing a Smash Bros. tournament right now. There’s 15 or 20 people gaming and enjoying drinks.”
Mild commotion and occasional cheers simmer in the background above us and the electronic music coming over the loudspeakers.
“You have a sort of lounge of up there. I noticed a TV and a console, right?”
“We actually have a Wii U console. We have Super Smash Bros., Mario Party and Mario Kart. People can bring their own controllers, even their own consoles. We only have one TV open for gaming but we’ve even had people bring their own TV in addition. We’re really trying to bring the community together. It’s about having fun.”
“How did the food come about?”
“We started with a specialty chef who made the whole menu and recently his brother took over. He’s added some great recipes and we’re always changing. Some of our stuff is seasonal so we think about that. We’ve recently added a chipotle burger, a chicken Parmesan melt and a breakfast burger you can get whenever you want …and you can never go wrong with our pork belly. We started making pork belly tacos and they’re delicious.”
“If there’s anything you’d like a passer by to know about Tabletop Commons, what would it be?”
“We’re all a child inside. We all have that part of us. …We grew up with board games and things like that.. But now we’re adults – so why not come in and revisit that? Have a little fun and have a cocktail while you’re at it. You might see the games you used to play as a kid. Grab your friends, grab a bite and come on in and play!”
Charlie looks happy, a smile comes across his face as he completes his thought. A moment later, my chicken wings arrive. I plunge a wing into the short black plastic cup filled with the blueberry-infused barbecue sauce he recommended.
Mmm.. you weren’t kidding about the blueberry barbecue, were you?
“It’s good, isn’t it?”
It’s good. Really good, thanks.
And with that, I was off to finish my wings and introduce myself to the upstairs gaming crowd.
If you happen to live in the area or visit San Diego and you’re interested in checking out all that Tabletop Commons has to offer, please visit the web link below for more info:
Tabletop Commons Official Website: http://www.tabletopcommons.com