Flight Club Darts Chicago is a flight of fancy | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Flight Club Darts Chicago is a flight of fancy 

Raw oysters, rosé cotton candy, hookah-smoking sloths, and darts—what more could you and your Anglophile friends ask for?

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click to enlarge The Royal Family seafood tower

The Royal Family seafood tower

Leigh Loftus

There is something delightfully and absurdly random about Flight Club Darts Chicago, as though all the planning for it took place over the course of a long, lazy, mildly intoxicated afternoon in a pub and, in the interest of fairness, everyone got to contribute one element that would make them happy. I imagine it went something like this:

"Darts are really fun, you guys. Let's open a darts bar."

"But a classy one, like, downtown and without sticky floors."

"I've always enjoyed a good raw seafood tower."

"And fancy cocktails with fanciful names!"

"I tried this thistle spirit once. We should use that."

"We should decorate it with my great-auntie Marge's china horse collection."

"That would go great with this adorable wallpaper I saw the other day that has a picture on it of a hookah-smoking sloth."

"Ooooh! And you know what else we should have? Cotton candy! Boozy cotton candy."

"Let's do this!"

OK, maybe it didn't go down exactly that way, but the Flight Club Darts origin story does involve a pub, and cofounder Steve Moore once led an expedition to circumnavigate the globe in a fire engine (for charity!), which suggests a whimsical streak, so why not?

Anyway, Flight Club Chicago is the first American outpost of a British minichain that already has two locations in London with another pending in Manchester. After that comes world domination. I truly hope it succeeds, because in these troubled times it does a soul good to spend time in a place that is unapologetically devoted to supplying as many forms of happiness as possible. It also does a soul good to throw something pointy and sharp.

Flight Club specializes in "social darts." I'm not sure what antisocial darts are—maybe poking somebody's eye out?—but social darts differ from regular darts in that there are sensors in the board for electronic scoring. This eliminates confusion, cheating, and mansplaining. The best part is that when you win, a hidden camera in the board takes a video of your final throw and then a screen over the dartboard shows the instant replay. It's like you did something heroic! I never knew it was my dream to be featured in an instant replay until my friend beat me in our first game, but then that dream was fulfilled two games later, and it was easily one of the best moments of my week.

There are a number of things you can do while you wait for your turn at darts. You can cheer on your companions from one of the padded benches of your assigned darts alley, which they call an oche (rhymes with "hockey"). Technically "oche" refers to the throw line, but the ample spaces, which start at $15 for half an hour, are far too grand to be mere alleys. Equipped with cozy leather couches and plenty of space to rest a drink, they're easily big enough to accommodate an office outing.

You could also admire the decor, which does indeed feature lots of china horses and wallpaper with hookah-smoking sloths (and gin-swigging raccoons and mandolin-strumming squirrels) and also hanging ferns, portraits that look like they were lifted from the Haunted Mansion at Disney World, and 18th-century etchings of dejected poets and their starving families. My friend described the style as English Cracker Barrel. It contrasts oddly with the architecture, which is modern American industrial, with lots of glass and concrete. This means the generic, thumping music reverberates off the ceilings, floors, and walls, and it is very, very loud. Sometimes it's hard to converse, but you can always dance.

Or you can choose a drink from the "Carousel of Cocktails," devised by local bar consultant Peter Vestinos. Each is named after a rare or mythological creature— unicorn, kraken, white tiger—and contains at least one improbable ingredient, such as cardoon-thistle amaro, gingerbread rooibos tea, or artichoke liqueur. The ones I tried were all smooth and balanced and mostly delicious.

You could also eat, though food is not Flight Club's greatest strength. When you're surrounded by so much glorious nonsense, eating is almost beside the point. The menu, like the bar itself, appears to be a list of the staff's favorite things. Some of them, like the kung pao lettuce wraps, made with fried cauliflower, are prepared well. Some of them, like the oddly flavorless tandoori chicken skewers, are not. The most solid section of the menu was the raw seafood. Here everything was as it should be: the oysters were briny, the lobster sweet, the shrimp snappy, the poke tacos spicy. You might as well give in to the spirit of the place and order some raw seafood, a whole damn tower if you can afford it (those start at $65). Or the "Creamy Sexy Mushroom" flatbread because it's actually pretty good, a nice blend of umami and thyme, and sturdy enough to hold in one hand while you hold a drink or a dart in the other, and, obviously, because the name is completely ridiculous.

In the service of journalism, we asked our server what made the mushroom flatbread sexy. She said she'd asked the same thing when she started working there, and no one could give her an adequate explanation. But the willingness of the waitstaff to acknowledge the sheer absurdity of Flight Club Darts—and to sympathize with adult visitors' sorrow or joy about the availability of cotton candy—was one of the most endearing things about it.

There is no reason why Flight Club should serve cotton candy except that it can. There is no reason why you should order it except that it exists. When I visited, the flavor of the day was rosé. It tasted like rosé if we did the taste equivalent of squinting. Which was beside the point. Sometimes the experience of a restaurant is about more than the food. Lately it feels like something horrible has been happening every day, and each horrible thing is an entirely new and absurd form of horrible that no sane person could ever have anticipated. When something is absurd in an utterly benign way, like when you get to see an instant replay of yourself winning at darts or eat rosé cotton candy when you're sitting at a restaurant table like a grown-up, you should embrace it. You should laugh and allow yourself to be delighted for a few minutes. And you should remember it when you have to go back out into the world again.  v

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