Virtual Murders and Real Food at Peoria's Modern Round

This round's on me.
This round's on me. Todd Grossman
To be fair, I am certainly not the intended audience for Modern Round, a new restaurant and virtual shooting gallery in Peoria. I, a better-than-middle-aged man, arrive there on Saturday night carrying a purse and in the company of my husband, with whom I stop to admire the chandelier in the lobby.

“This is going to be fun,” announces the friend whose idea it was to come here. She’s asked us to call her “Sabrina” this evening, in honor of her favorite Charlie’s Angel. I decline her offer to refer to me as Bosley.

I decline most offers that night, particularly those involving shooting virtual meanies with the very realistic toy firearms we receive well ahead of cocktails and the delicious food we devour later.

“Want to shoot guns while you eat and drink?” is Modern Round’s tagline. I most certainly do not. I don’t like guns. I am here to observe, and to spend an evening watching my spouse and our friend pop cartoon balloons and pretend to murder cybernetic miscreants.

Before all the fake killing begins, we three are asked to come up with a character name (my husband chooses “Taffy” for himself) and fill out a form stating that we are older than 13, which makes Sabrina wonder if 14-year-olds are allowed to come here, unaccompanied, to play at simulated murder. After that, a beautiful young woman named Sophia, who wears a tiny black cocktail dress and carries a silver briefcase full of fake firearms, escorts us to a three-sided “shooting lounge,” where a pair of pleather sofas face a wall-sized TV. It appears we’ll be eating from a low coffee table. The wall art consists entirely of framed photographs of attractive females, pouting and clutching shiny pistols.

“Want to shoot guns while you eat and drink?” is Modern Round’s tagline. I most certainly do not.

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The weapons we’ll be using are called replicas, Sophia yells to us over the cacophony of gunfire from the next room. She opens the briefcase to reveal a pair of handguns, one of them pink, and something resembling a machine gun. There’s talk about the best way to shoot and how to recalibrate if your aim sucks, and we’re told only two of us can kill things at a time, which is my invitation to sit down immediately and refuse to participate in pretend-shooting anything.

There are animated games, Sophie tells us, and some that are “a little more graphic and vulgar.” She leaves and we watch a video in which a man and woman in pale blue polo shirts explain the best ways to fake-murder others.

“Are they real people?” I ask. “They look like line drawings.”

“The guy seems sad,” Sabrina replies.

A few minutes later, she and Taffy are playing a game that involves murdering animated flounder while calypso music plays. The fish scream as they die, and some turn into salmon steaks. A woman named Jenna arrives to ask if we are “interested in drinks all up in here,” and then she shakes her hips and waves her hands near her waist, which makes me think she might start dancing. When she doesn’t, I order a Moscow mule and Sabrina asks for a lemon drop martini without looking away from the screen, where she’s busy blowing the heads off cartoon garden gnomes.

I had poked around online before we left the house, expecting to find that restaurants where one can play at zombie-killing were all the rage. Apparently not. Modern Round, founded four years ago by a former CEO of firearms maker Smith and Wesson, has little in the way of local or national competition. Based in Scottsdale, they have a place in New York, and are about to open a second Arizona location in Riverview in Mesa.

I watch as my companions play a trivia game where they murder questions by shooting at the correct answer (“Ellen DeGeneres voiced the character Dory in what popular … BANG! Finding Nemo.”). By the time Jenna drops off our drinks — my mule is perfect, a spicy combo of ginger beer and top-shelf vodka — Taffy and Sabrina have moved on to murdering cartoon villagers in something called Gnome Slayer in Neuschwanstein Castle. Halfway through my first cocktail, I am suddenly desperate for a second.

I’m clearly not the only customer who’s unnerved by all the virtual murder going on here; alongside the 16-foot video screen, a smaller TV plays nonstop videos of cute kittens and puppy dogs wearing adorable bow ties. “It’s just for something else to look at,” Jenna tells me when she comes to take our dinner order. “You know, if things get too intense for you.”

click to enlarge A spread at Modern Round. - TODD GROSSMAN
A spread at Modern Round.
Todd Grossman
Modern Round offers the sort of American fare one might expect from a place where people go to pretend-kill cartoon animals. We order a burger with fries, the chicken and waffles, and something called Hot Dog Wellington, which I hope is an ironic name for a pig in a blanket.

While we wait for dinner, Sabrina and Taffy switch from shooting cartoon duckies to executing bad actors in scary live-action stuff. Each video is preceded by an on-screen “debriefing” that reminds players not to shoot unarmed people, and is followed by a “summary debriefing” in which players are chastised for doing just that.

The only thing more unsettling than watching your best girlfriend hold a toy gun on a Central Casting bank teller who’s pleading for his life is how badly acted these live-action clips are. I wonder aloud if the guy Sabrina just mowed down includes Slain Security Guard Number Seven on his acting resume.

If the crummy acting is no surprise, I’m startled by how tasty the food is here. We’d ordered the Big Shot Burger cooked medium, and it comes nicely pink in the middle and crispy outside, atop a fluffy, garlicky brioche bun fresh from the oven. A side of skin-on fries are hot and crispy and perfectly salted. The Hot Dog Wellington is a fat and juicy frank swaddled in cheddar and baked in fluffy puff pastry.

click to enlarge Those thought-provoking waffles. - TODD GROSSMAN
Those thought-provoking waffles.
Todd Grossman
I suppose no one is coming to Modern Round for the chicken and waffles, but they certainly should be. A buttermilk-marinated breast and two drumsticks are tender and moist, served with a generous smear of bourbon cream sauce and stacked atop the best sweet-cream waffles I’ve ever eaten. They are deep-fried crispy, moist and sugary inside, and drenched in a perfect combination of fryer grease and jalapeno maple syrup. I’ve thought of these waffles almost hourly since eating them.

Not long after our hourlong virtual killing spree ends, Jenna returns with a check and questions about how much fun we had.

“It was unnerving watching my husband mow down a bunch of people in a shopping mall,” I reply. “Usually after dinner, he knits.”

I ask Jenna if it’s weird to wait on folks who are pretending to kill other people. “No, not even a little,” she says, and wiggles her hips again. “I mean, it’s just pretend, right? Plus, you get to drink a little bit and eat a little bit. So, what could be better?”

“Leaving,” I announce, and we do. On our way toward the keyhole-shaped exit, we pass through Modern Round’s richly appointed lounge where people play billiards and canoodle on cozy banquettes. There are no firearms present here.

Perhaps, I think to myself as we glide past a gaggle of Bond girls, this is where customers come to slip pretend poison into one another’s drinks.
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela