Game On: A Rocket Scientist Opens the Wackiest Bar in Washington
A couple drinking Smirnoff Ice meditates over a Ouija board as the lights of Thomas Foolery fade from green to yellow to orange. Across the small cramped room, groups of 20- or 30-somethings play Mario Kart Wii and Connect 4. Bartenders serve up grilled cheeses and mini-bottles of Bacardi from behind a bar stocked with Jagermeister, Ring Pops, and—no joke—a Bedazzler. A Nerf ball almost hits me in the head.
Running a bar may not be rocket science, but there’s actually a rocket scientist behind this one. Thomas Foolery, the wacky new spot that replaced Zeke’s DC Donutz in Dupont Circle last week, is the brainchild of SpaceX Director of Advanced Projects Steve Davis. The aerospace expert, who also owns frozen yogurt shop Mr. Yogato, is a 10-year veteran of the private space transportation company, which made headlines last year for docking the first commercial spacecraft at the International Space Station. “I’m just a normal engineer,” Davis says. “I work on the capsules, I work on the rockets, I work on the launch sites.” He also has quite a resume for a yogurt shop and bar owner: finance and mechanical engineering degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, a particle physics degree from the University of Durham in England, an aerospace engineering degree from Stanford University, and a Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University.
But Davis is much more eager to talk about walkie-talkies and beer ice cream floats than control systems and jet propulsion.
“This is one of my favorite parts,” Davis tells me during a tour of the space at 2029 P St. NW a couple days before opening. He’s wearing an Adidas cap, T-shirt, and plaid shorts. “This is the King Seat, or the Throne.” The corner wooden booth seat is marked “KING” with giant block puzzle letters. Above it is a walkie-talkie from which only the King can order drinks directly from the bar, or as the writing on the chalkboard notes, communicate with the “girls @ table 4.” A shiny gold plastic crown accompanies the chair. “You have to wear the crown,” Davis says.
He walks over to the bar. “I’ll show you what I think might be the best part of the bar,” he says. “For Smirnoff [Ice], you plinko your price!” He inserts a disk at the top of the carnival game and lets it knock between pegs until it lands in one of the seven slots marked from $1 to $5. Thomas Foolery may be the only bar in town that actually promotes the fact that it has three varieties of Smirnoff Ice—original, green apple, and strawberry açai. They’re part of the crowd-sourced beer menu, for which Davis asked a random assortment of locals to each choose a brew (all of which can be turned into ice cream floats). The 40-drink list includes beers chosen by the stage manager for Jimmy Buffett, the co-founder of DC Bocce League, the owner of Lunar Massage, and me. Before seeing the list, I had asked Davis who could have possibly picked Smirnoff Ice. Turns out it was him—and his parents.
The wine and cocktail lists couldn’t be ordinary either. Wine flights feature reds or whites of varying prices, and guests pay less if they can distinguish the most expensive from the least. Cocktails come in “kits” with one of 15 specialty sodas, mini-bottles of booze, and a choice of candy. (One suggested pairing: Jack Daniels, root beer, lime, and candy cigarettes.)
There are other “Rules of Thomas Foolery” which outline how guests can win discounts: Come dressed as Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and do the running man for 10 percent off any item. Or perform actress Anna Kendrick’s “Cup Song” from the movie Pitch Perfect and get $1 off a cocktail kit. Davis saw the movie in theaters seven times.
After showing off the candy store, the dress-up mirror with fake mustaches, and the wall of Etch-A-Sketches, Davis finishes the tour with the bathroom painted aqua with splatterings of red and white and world maps. “We put,” Davis pauses and starts giggling, “stopwatches in the bathroom. There’s so many ways to interpret it.”
The bar’s absurdity earned it some polarizing comments on social media before its debut, with skeptics rolling their eyes at the infantilism and gimmickry of it all.
But to Davis, Thomas Foolery is everything he genuinely enjoys. If the 33-year-old seems a little like a 7-year-old, it’s probably because he considers himself a kid at heart. “I guess there’s probably a deficiency of maturity going on here,” he admits later on the phone. “I should probably fix that at some point. As I’m talking to you right now, I’m at SpaceX in shorts and a T-shirt. I guess I should probably get nicer clothes.”
Stephen Richer, one of Davis’ best friends, a former roommate, and an investor in Mr. Yogato and Thomas Foolery, describes his pal as “really smart, really active, and really goofy.” The two play on a dodgeball team (formerly known as the Thundering Yogatos) and compete in the District Karaoke League in addition to hosting an annual karaoke tournament for their friends. They share a birthday, and they make “Steve and Stephen” T-shirts for the occasion. “Between Steve and me, we always have an idea in the air,” Richer says. “Steve has a higher batting average than I do as far as ideas and actuality percentage.”
One of those zany ideas was Mr. Yogato. Davis, a Boston native who’s lived in the District for the past six years, opened the Dupont frozen yogurt shop with trivia and board games in 2008 because he liked frozen yogurt, and well, there were hardly any frozen yogurt shops in D.C. at the time. “It was probably an overreaction to a mild problem,” Davis says.
By the fifth anniversary of Mr. Yogato this summer, Davis wanted to open a new place. Initially, he planned a grilled cheese shop. Then he got the idea to bring in food trucks to do the cooking. He’s partnered with The Big Cheese and Captain Cookie & The Milk Man trucks, as well as Whisked! and Soupergirl, to supply food. The eatery needed something in the evening, so Davis added a bar. “Honestly, it’s no more than some people play golf,” he says of the time he spends on his restaurant hobby. “I like opening fun new places.”
The bar is an extension of the game nights Davis and Richer used to host once a month at their Shaw apartment, where they’d invite friends for drinks and Taboo or Celebrity, says Richer, now a law student at the University of Chicago who’s in D.C. for the summer: “Steve wanted to make essentially a fun bar in the theme of Mr. Yogato where people could go into Never Never Land and play a bunch of games while having drinks.”
Davis’ Never Never Land is big on crowdsourcing nearly everything, from the beer list to the food menu to the funding. Davis assembled a group of 49 investors—mostly friends—whose photos, along with their baby photos, are framed on the wall as “The ‘Fools’ of Thomas Foolery.” (Similarly, Mr. Yogato has 23 investors.) Davis says the total cost of the bar was less than $200,000, with some investors contributing as little as $200. He explains that he likes the idea of owning small parts of things and giving people the chance to invest in businesses they might not otherwise be able to. “None of us are putting in an enormous amount of money, so if we lose it, it’s not that huge,” Davis says. “But what it means is we’re not relying on this for income, so we can price low. We can take risks and do really goofy funny things that you can’t normally do. And if it works, it works. And if it doesn’t, not a biggie.”
Some of the ideas seem to be more about goofiness than profitability. Mini-bottles of alcohol are cute but not cost-efficient. And unlike The Board Room, another game-centric bar up the street, Thomas Foolery doesn’t charge patrons to check out its games.
Part of the reason is that the restaurant and bar doesn’t just have 49 wallets, but 49 minds lending ideas. Even the name of the eatery was crowdsourced. Steve sent an email to his investors asking them for their top five ideas before settling on Thomas Foolery. (A close runner-up was Spin The Bottle.) The large investor group also contributed to the eclectic mix of trivia and games. “If you go in, you’ll see not a lot got cut,” Richer says. “Like basically if there was a game we wanted to bring in, we brought it in.”
Every direction you look, there’s another game: a Velcro dart board, a mini-Skee Ball machine, hopscotch, Don’t Break The Ice, Lite Brite, a limbo pole. Davis even tried to bring in a Dance Dance Revolution machine, but the ceilings were too low. He’s still considering a Kickstarter campaign for a Pac-Man machine and shows no signs of slowing down his quest for more oddball additions.
“I can’t think of a place that has more stuff,” Davis says. “But if you have an idea…”
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Photo by Darrow Mongtomery