With a menu featuring items like avocado toast and grain bowls inside a modern and clean aesthetic, Play Cafe, 610 NW 23rd St., at first glance might be the next casual, comforting cafe to open in Uptown 23rd District.
Owner Liz Howald’s favorite moments are when a child enters the family-focused cafe that features a huge play area, a quiet room and a backyard patio stocked with toys and books — but those items remain out of sight for the little ones.
“Watching kids come in, they don’t see the toys at first,” Howald said. “They’ll wander in and think, ‘It’s just another place that my mom or dad are taking me.’ Then they round that corner and they see the toys and their faces are amazing to watch light up.”
Howald has a background in education. She has done everything from teaching and curriculum development to teacher education. She’s taking those techniques and applying them to Play Cafe, which is modeled after similar concepts in larger cities in the U.S. and Europe.
Not only does Play Cafe offer coffee, tea, beer, wine and cocktails centered on a breakfast and lunch menu designed to offer healthy and tasty options that can be catered to dietary needs, it’s an immersive environment for kids to learn while they play.
“The idea came from desperation,” Howald said. “I have two kids of my own, a 4-year-old and a 6 and a half-year-old. There are a lot of great family-focused, kid-friendly places here, but they’re so very focused on the kid’s experience, and I wanted something where the adults were as happy and excited to go as much as the kids.”
Using the Montessori Model of Education as inspiration, the main play area is supervised by attendants that have passed an extensive background check and are trained to let kids gravitate toward certain toys and then help them engage in extension activities that are designed to have a learning element.
There are no battery-operated toys, no large plastic items. Play Cafe works with local retailers like Basal Baby, Plenty Mercantile and Commonplace Books as well as big-box retailers like Target.
“I like that [the Montessori approach recognizes] that children are capable of so much more than a lot of people give them credit for if you give them the space to try it, learn and fail,” Howald said. “They’re capable of more than what we allow them most of the time. It’s about [learning] life skills, but they feel like they’re playing as they learn to be independent individuals.”
Play Cafe opened in early January, so Howald said it’s still getting its footing before unveiling ongoing workshops. It will work with local groups like LAFF Lab, Storyteller Theatre Company and Homegrown Learning Company to host regular music classes, story time and craft experiences.
“We’re working on after-hours programing for parents too, like article club because who has time to read books when you have kids? There will be date night activities like wine and cheese pairings that will coincide with a kids activity so they don’t have to find a babysitter,” she said.
Food for thought
For breakfast, Play Cafe offers pastry from local suppliers along with both sweet steel-cut oatmeal (baked apples with brown sugar, cinnamon and a maple pecan oatmeal square crumble) as well as savory (turkey sausage, cheddar, kale, sliced avocado and an egg). It also has a series of toasts made with everything from regular white bread to vegan and gluten-free versions.
Avocado toast also utilizes pancetta, lemony kale and egg topped with garlic-chipotle dust. The butternut squash toast tops the mash with Boursin cheese, maple pecan crumble and mint. The brûléed banana toast uses almond butter, brûléed bananas and a maple-pecan square, and Howald said it has been one of the most popular items.
Lunch is served until 2:30 p.m. The house vegetable soup has been popular during the early part of the year, but Howald’s favorite item is the grilled cheese with a three-cheese medley that includes Gruyère and goat cheese along with prosciutto, fig jam and basil.
It offers health-conscious items like lemony kale salad and harvest grain salad along with a chicken club toast and a vegetable and hummus toast.
Play Cafe has teas from neighboring Urban Teahouse along with coffee from Sincerely Coffee Roasters. Vanessa House Beer Co. and Coop Ale Works supply beer while wine and sparkling wine are available by the glass or the bottle. Cocktails include bloody marys and seasonal offerings like Cranberry Cheery with cranberry simple syrup, lemon, vodka and egg white.
Play Cafe remains open until 5:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and offers snack boards like a charcuterie board or a Cobb salad board, which is basically deconstructed salad. The space can be rented for after-hours birthday parties and private events.
Children are certainly not required to enjoy Play Cafe’s selections. Howald said people are already getting in the habit of grabbing a salad on their way to work.
“Families are primary focuses, but everyone likes and deserves great coffee and food. [We] want to be something casual, healthy and quick,” she said.
Gardner Studios converted Play Cafe from a former pawnshop that sat vacant for years and outfitted it with a clean and modern design. The Imes group installed the kitchen that has an open workspace and plenty of white tile.
“People worried about me using so much white in a restaurant, and I said, ‘The more we use, the cleaner we have to keep it,’” Howald said.
Neutral colors, which she said are in contrast to the bright and bombarding aspect of many establishments geared toward kids, were an important part of the design. Howald wants parents to be able to turn their back to the play area and relax.
“I’ve had moms hug me with tears in their eyes and say, ‘Thank you for bringing this to us,’” Howald said. “It’s been the most gratifying experience.”