Gregg McCleary, owner of The Silver Key Lounge in Mesa, is the first to admit opening his new board game-centric craft beer and wine bar in the midst of a pandemic is a roll of the dice.
“Yeah, it’s not the most opportune time right now,” he says. “But it’s taken a really long time to get things going, and it started becoming a ‘now-or-never’ situation where we’re already a year into our lease and being closed wasn’t bringing in any income. So we just decided to go for it.”
The 5,000-square-foot business opened January 13 at 1837 West Guadalupe Road Ste 105/106, near Guadalupe and Dobson roads. It features approximately 600 tabletop, role-playing, dice, and card games, as well as a 1920s speakeasy vibe and more than a dozen craft beers on tap.
“We have a wide spectrum of genres, from fantasy and horror games to miniatures and beyond," McCleary says. "Games that last two minutes long to games that go eight hours-plus. You name it."
McCleary says it took almost two years to get the Silver Key Lounge open, including numerous holdups caused by resolving business and liquor licensing, securing construction permits and loans, and (as you’d expect) dealing with the pandemic.
“This whole process has felt like one step forward and two steps back, and, on top of it, you get punched in the face every once in a while,” he says.
McCleary, a longtime gamer with a background in the bar and restaurant industry, says he’s learned to roll with the punches throughout the process, including adapting the business to be open under COVID-19 restrictions.
Like other bars across Arizona, The Silver Key Lounge currently is operating at 50 percent capacity. Seating in its 3,500-square-foot main room – three booths along the walls, nine dining tables in the main room, and three long gaming tables – has been spaced out to allow for social distancing. Patrons are required to wear masks and remain seated as much as possible. Temperature checks will also be conducted upon entry and each of Silver Key’s games and other touch-points will be quarantined and sanitized after being played, McCleary says.
“We know the virus can't stay on non-organic stuff for too long, but it's one of those things where we're playing it more cautious than not,” he says.
In the before times, opening a board game lounge seemed like a solid bet, given the booming popularity of gaming. The global board game market was estimated to be worth more than $13 billion in 2019, "and with people being stuck at home and turning to board games, puzzles, and stuff like that, it’s only gotten bigger,” McCleary says.
In a post-pandemic world, opening such an establishment is a riskier venture. But McCleary thinks the Silver Key Lounge can offer local geeks a place to drink and game safely.
In addition to all the dice-hurling, card-dealing, and role-playing action available in its main room, the Silver Key Lounge features a retail space up front selling a select variety of games. The lounge area offers a setup with cameras, a mixing board, lights, and microphones where patrons can live-stream their gaming sessions on YouTube, Twitch, or similar platforms.
There’s other geekiness to be found at the Silver Key’s bar, which features a “very eclectic lineup” aimed at beer nerds, including selections from Odd13, Clown Shoes, Belching Beaver, and local companies like Huss Brewing and San Tan Brewing Company.
“We really take our beer seriously and are marketing to drinking connoisseurs and geeks,” McCleary says.
Then there’s its name and Roaring '20s-inspired speakeasy theme, both of which come from “The Silver Key,” a 1926 fantasy short story by H.P. Lovecraft. McCleary says there are a couple of other “very subtle” references to the late author, such as a few pieces of art depicting Cthulu or Lovecraftian-themed games.
“We aren’t Lovecraft-themed by any means; it’s more accentuated and we didn't want to overdo it,” he says. “We have that speakeasy, the '20s, a little bit of art, and horror and fantasy games just over your shoulder. It's more of us showing a particular era of history and a world created in a story more than paying tribute to the person himself. We want to give people a geeky experience, not another theme bar.”