Our first indication that we were amongst our nerdy brethren was when we pulled up and parked next to this motherfucker.
You can just make out the corner of MrH's red Nissan Juke next to it.
The AFK Tavern is, as the name implies, a gamer bar. Upon our arrival - and after about a half an hour on the wait-list - we were given the "grand tour" by a maitre d' in a sparkly top hat and bow-tie: stations are set up throughout the bar featuring classic (Atari 2600) to contemporary (PS3) consoles and PCs for gaming purposes; a vending machine in the back offers polyhedric dice, bags and Magic cards; the majority of the tables are either four-person booths or long tables that seat a minimum of six (and from what we saw, more like eight to ten). Along with our food and drink menus, we were given a menu of board games, RPGs and videogames that we could check out. Our wonderfully ridiculous maitre d' gave us a quick rundown of the house rules: GMs can order from the Happy Hour menu, wireless internet is fast and free, and had we arrived on a quieter night, we would have had our choice of table to suit whatever game we intended to play.
A small sampling of some of the games on tap at AFK.
Given that it was a Saturday night, the place was absolutely crammed full of more nerds than I've ever seen in one place at one time, and as mentioned, it took a while before we got a table. This gave us the opportunity to check out the Delorean, along with a pretty bad-ass Akira street bike and any number of vehicles with undercar LED lighting kits. Seriously, I didn't know that was a geek thing, but we saw at least three newer-model cars in the parking lot with lighting kits installed. After about half an hour, our names were called and we were shown to a table. Since most people had arrived in large packs, the four of us ended up jumping the line and getting in, much to the chagrin of the group of ten ahead of us who had been waiting for roughly an hour already.
This was not our line, but ours was pretty much identical.
Half of the fun of AFK is perusing their food and drink menu (which you can check out in PDF form here). After debating between a ULT (with real unicorn bacon!) and an Iron Dragon Steak, I ended up going for the Street Samurai - a burger with pineapple, provalone and wasabi mayo. Heather got the Triforce of Taste (cucumbers and cream cheese on a ciabatta) and MrH got The Reaver (an open-faced chili burger). We also went for the Dragon's Hoard, an appetizer combo platter featuring deep-fried dill pickle chips, mozza sticks, +2 tots, and pita and hummus. Drinkswise, I started off with a Werewolf lager before moving on to a Spires of the Morning and a Critical Hit.
It may have been the fact that it was insanely busy, but truthfully, our food was not great. My burger was passable but definitely nothing special, while MrH's Reaver, while definitely looking the part (it resembled an eviscerated corpse on a plate) was more presentation than taste. And I can't honestly say that we did any better with drinks. The Spires of the Morning doesn't appear in the current drinks-menu patch available on the AFK website, but from what I recall, it was comprised of tequila and lime in a glass rimmed with smoked sea salt. The smoked salt was without question the most memorable part of the drink, and not necessarily in an entirely good way. Our Critical Hits were somewhat more palatable, if only because they were a little bit less consciously self-aware (it's essentially a barley wine). By that point, however, after the incredibly high alcohol content of the SotM, I was no longer in a position to objectively judge (and I'm hardly a lightweight). This was by far our biggest criticism of the drinks at AFK: rather than offering unique cocktails based on a particular theme, the drinks at AFK are apparently made by throwing a ton of liquor into a glass on the basis of color. As Heather pointed out, they really need to hire a talented mixologist.
AFK, NOT on a Saturday night. We were seated just off to the right of this.
Another thing the AFK needs to work on is their service. Our server, nice a guy as he seemed, was without question the worst I have ever had. Even taking into consideration the fact that it was clearly peak hours on their busiest day of the week, and that we were seated next to two long tables with about ten people sitting at each, we were astounded by his lack of due capability and basic respect. When Heather pointed out, rightly so, that her sandwich should have contained avocado, he bluntly replied, "No it doesn't" before racing off to wait on our neighbors. It took 15 minutes for us to flag him down again and point out that, according to the menu, it should in fact contain avocado; rather than offering to replace the sandwich, he simply brought over a few slices of avocado with a very perfunctory apology.
Not only that, but as the night progressed, we saw him less and less. It's important to understand the context of AFK Tavern: the appeal of the place is that you and your friends can sit down, have a bite to eat, and then hang out drinking and playing games at your table for as long as you like. Unlike certain establishments where, once they get busy, they use various polite techniques to move you out the door and free up your table for the next group waiting, the AFK is built on the principle of getting a table and staying there until your game is finished and you're ready to leave. This is precisely why the line-up and wait-list were so crowded when we arrived - once inside, every group had a minimum three-hour stay.
Closer to the kinds of crowds we experienced when we visited.
Having said this, there was a sort of "changing of the guard" effect with regards to the patrons of the place that we noticed around 10:30pm. While the place hardly cleared out, the groups that had gathered around 7:30 or 8pm wrapped up their games and headed up, and a different sort of customer - the regular, apparently - showed up and took their place. The regulars arrived in singles or pairs rather than in packs, but mostly knew one another and congregated together once inside. This amounted to a much less chaotic atmosphere, but also meant that most tables were occupied by faces familiar to the staff of AFK.
By about 10:45pm, we were ready for our next round of drinks. We looked around for our server, who was over by one of the regulars' tables, chatting away with them. We waited patiently until he was done, and were determined to flag him down as he passed, but... rather than making his established rounds, after about 20 minutes of chatting he instead took a route along the front of the place, directly to the bar, and returned momentarily with the regulars' drinks. At this point, after dropping off the drinks, he went to the next table - also people that he appeared to know - and repeated the process. Only this time, when he returned with their drinks, he sat down with them and started to play whatever game they were setting up. We tried flagging down someone else, but from between 11pm and midnight, not one server passed by within waving range. I would have loved to try one of their Sonic Screwdrivers, or a Miskatonic Martini, or any one of a number of drinks, and never got the chance.
So given the mediocre food, strange drinks and appalling service, why would you ever want to go there? Hell, why would I want to go back? Well, simply put, it's the atmosphere. This is a geek's paradise, like your friendly neighborhood games store only with bigger tables and tableside drinks service (well, sort of). Everyone in there were Our People, like-minded nerds who had carved out their own niche and were loving it. Even the bathroom graffiti was clever and nerdy, referencing Portal and Star Trek transporters (the girls' washroom had poems about unicorns and rainbows apparently), and the walls of our entire section of the pub were covered with similar permanent-marker mottos, tirades and references. Rather than playing the games available there, we brought our own (Last Night On Earth, a zombie survival board game) and once we got that going, surrounded by similar groups playing similar games with a similar degree of enthusiasm, nothing else really mattered. There's a powerful sense of community and goodwill at AFK Tavern that I've never encountered in a bar before, where everyone is on the same page and all the competition is friendly.
A couple of years ago, I worked in China for about a year as an ESL teacher. One of the most incredible things that I experienced while I was there, that would have been impossible to explain to me prior to going, was the bond and sense of fraternity amongst members of the ex-patriate community, almost all of whom were geeks and gaming nerds. One of my best friends there owned a bar himself, and had dedicated one small room upstairs to gaming activities (which typically took the form of either Magic: The Gathering or Settlers of Catan games). I spent five nights a week at that bar, and is one of the things I missed the most when I came home. The AFK Tavern is the closest I've come to recapturing that - bad food, shitty service and all. I'm willing to forgive AFK for its faults (and yes, it has many) as long as it never sacrifices its core qualities and continues to cater to gamer geeks.