Those of us in the Chicago area, gamers or not, have been excited about the possibilities of Level 257 for some time now. The construction has been hard to miss, if you go out to Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg with any regularity. Level 257, on the side of the mall that already sports Sears and Rainforest Café, is a sprawling and sleek black matte storefront housing a bowling alley, a small but well-stocked arcade, surprisingly well-thought-out eats, and a great Pac-Man theme. It’s now in its soft opening stage.
Because it still isn’t “officially” open, managers and wait staff were totally excited to offer up all kinds of information about this place. Let’s be clear. While Level 257 is family-friendly, it’s truly a place for adults. Specifically, it’s for people like me. People who grew up with games, and who love them – but who usually act like grown-ups now and are interested in enjoying real food and handcrafted cocktails in a fine-dining environment.
Oh sure, there’s a geeky undertow to this place. The Lost and Found arcade lounge has all the cool games I played as a kid – including, and I love this part – Dragon’s Lair, which I remember so well because of all the hype when it was released (back then, it cost two tokens per game so I never got too far into the story). Frogger, Defender, Centipede, Space Invaders, air hockey, Mario Kart, basketball, and many more, are all there, all restored perfectly, available as standing arcade games and installed flat into wooden tables with booth seating. A library with tabletop games is also available, if you don’t want to shell out $15 for 60 minutes of gameplay (other time increments are available also). The arcade also includes “battle pods” – I’m not sure if this is the official name, but that’s what David Bishop, Chief Pac-Man Evangelist, called them when he visited our table, so I’m repeating it. They’re basically step-inside games with a giant concave screen that surrounds and immerses you. I absolutely loved it, even though I left the pod with vertigo. I’m assured by the staff that these pods came off the assembly line pretty much the week previous, and are currently the only ones outside of Japan.
There’s also a giant Pac-Man game, one of the largest in the world, and an arcade machine that has been set up to start Pac-Man at Level 255 – just before the kill screen. And, if you look closer at the décor of Level 257, which was unfinished at the time of my visit, you’ll see lots of great Pac-Man-inspired detail as well. For example, in the bowling alley there are mirrored disco balls, one of which is painted yellow to invoke our pellet-eating friend. Yellow lines and tiny Pac-Man shapes are found everywhere. One temporary wall was covered with Level 256 kill screen graphics. And it isn’t just the décor that’s geeky, either. If you ask around, you might find a server who holds something like 22 world gaming records.
But all this is all almost an aside. The fact is, Level 257 is a theme restaurant created to leverage Namco’s high-profile properties. And the dining here is the focus. The managers here, who have been working on putting Level 257 together for four and a half years, looked at places like Main Event and Dave & Busters and decided they wanted to target an older, more upscale clientele. As a result, they went all out in terms of the food. Chefs from all around the world work here – yes, there’s sushi. The steaks are USDA Prime, the food is organically sourced, the water is filtered on site (both still and sparkling are complimentary), the pizza is tossed within sight of diners, the cocktails are handcrafted on site, and almost everything is made from scratch, with a few exceptions.
The menu’s most popular dishes include lobster mac and cheese, seared trout, “Filet Mig-nom” and the bacon apple pork chop. Appetizers include homemade Italian gnocchi and Tiki Rumaki, bacon-wrapped beef and pork meatballs with pepper jack cheese and a pineapple jalapeno glaze. And, please save room for dessert because the Chocolate Power Pellets are my favorite new thing ever. They’re described as “bittersweet chocolate filled doughnut holes, coffee anglaise, powdered sugar” but this does not adequately describe them at all. You have to eat them in one bite; cut them, and the chocolate squirts out at you like blood from a particularly gory horror film. That’s actually what I thought of. And they’re topped with Pop Rocks.
If the Level 257 concept works in Schaumburg (and there were over 400 reservations on the Friday night that I went, cluelessly not making advance plans and causing us to get to know the gaming lounge quite well for an hour before our table was ready), another Level 257 will eventually open in London. The Schaumburg location will celebrate a ribbon-cutting and grand opening on April 25 and will be the headquarters of Pac-Man’s 35th anniversary sometime around May 23; rumors abound of appearances by championship Bears players and a person who has actually beat Pac-Man’s highest level.
I loved the place more than my kid, who remains a staunch Main Event fan – although here the gaming room isn’t much smaller, and it’s packed with actual games rather than ticket-spewing contraptions. The food was excellent, with entrees in the $20-$30 range and desserts between $6-$8 . The service was very attentive – probably more than will be the norm once the kinks are worked out. We had maybe three people refreshing our drinks, two of which took our order, and we had at least two others come by to check upon our service, one of whom showed up even before we’d taken a bite. The service overlapped a bit, but it was nice of them to come and talk to us about the place and its vision.
The games were all working well and the battle pods were fantastic. Bowling costs $40 a game after 5 p.m., so we skipped that, as there was a waiting list anyway. If you like classic games and enjoy fine dining, I’d definitely recommend a stop here. Check it out at www.level257.com.