Even during the worst days of the pandemic the call to adventure rang loud. Some people managed to escape the chaos of economic uncertainty and social distancing amid the stress of their lives into a world full of fantasy. Tiny Minotaur Tavern was an example of this. Dungeons & DragonsThe Austin-based gaming and dining restaurant quietly emerged from the ashes of word-of-mouth in 2020. Now, with the popular culture saturated by fantasy franchises, role-playing games (RPGs), this pop-up has the potential to become a permanent fixture of East Austin. Tiny Minotaur’s newer model will provide a permanent home for games, workshops and a planned food truck at 2701 East Cesar Chavez Street. The planned opening date is spring 2023.
Half live-action roleplay, half-experiential dining, Tiny Minotaur Tavern leverages what creator and founder Dana Bauerle-McKnight calls the “age of nerdery” to provide new experiences for curious players. It’s an interactive installation in which she explores her passion for fantasy storytelling. Tiny Minotaur, an outdoor bar and performance area nestled in a secret location in Austin’s heart, is an experience that makes character-driven fantasy RPGs a reality.
Bauerle-McNight is an artist and community organizer from upstate New York. She moved to Austin in 2017 for a much-needed break away from her current art projects. She is a fan of secret spaces and informal bars, which she discovered in Buffalo. Her vision changed when the pandemic struck.
Bauerle McKnigh began inviting players into her fictional world of Karth in September 2020. In the initial pop-ups guests are required to introduce themselves and their characters and then receive an assortment of provisions for adventuring: pickles, bread, and drinks. The group then embarks on a series of quests that culminates in simulated combat using giant wooden 20-sided dice. This is the classic mechanic for many tabletop roleplaying games. Participation was even extended to local bars, restaurants, and other venues. Bauerle McNight could hide quest items under bars, or under bouncer chairs.
It was loved by all. Tiny Minotaur was a gift for its fans. Dungeons & Dragons Bauerle-McKnight discovered that it was also a highly immersive experience. Participants became invested in the success or their parties (groups that play together in the games). The action was quickly taken up by new players. “Ninety percent of the time, the person who was introverted and/or too cool for it, or not necessarily into fantasy, was going the hardest,” says Bauerle-McKnight, adding, “screaming the most for the NPC [non-player character] to die as they’re rolling this dice.”
Bauerle McKnight and Tyler Carpenter from Abby Jane Bakeshop, Dripping Springs collaborated on the simple bread menu. Carpenter — who also hosts the variety show God Mourns Austin on Channel 10 — was given full creative freedom to create the bread served during Tiny Minotaur’s pop-up run. “He came out with this hot honey and garlic sourdough, and it was Thanks!,” she explains. “Wheat from Barton Mills, all Texas local ingredients, and yeah, it was fucking incredible.”
Bauerle McKnight decided to go all out after the overall success of Tiny Minotaur Tavern. In 2022, she and her team launched a crowdfunding campaign for Big Tiny — her affectionate nickname for the full-sized permanent project — with plans to ramp up the production design and offer a wealth of RPG-related activities and training. Big Tiny will be the new home for everything, from large-scale roleplaying sessions, workshops on makeup and costume design, to expanded food options.
Bauerle-McKnight is excited about the possibility of a rotating food truck at the bar. “The goal for this is To have a wide-ranging, constantly fluctuating menu,” she says, noting that Big Tiny will establish its onsite food truck as a co-op for any interested parties.
Under this model — which she describes as an alternative to ghost kitchens, which she doesn’t like because they’re “purely rooted in capitalism” — Big Tiny will be a space for local chefs to bring their own projects and secret culinary ambitions for pub patrons. Chefs won’t be charged to rent the truck, nor have to provide electricity, propane, and other utilities; all they need is their catering licenses.
Big Tiny will also feature a bread and beer program — culinary staples in fantasy adventures ranging from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones — in collaboration with Abby Jane and nearby brewery Central Machine Works. “Both are encouraged to make small-batch odd brews and breads that can push both their bakers and their brewers to their artistic limits,” Bauerle-McKnight explains, noting that the team at Abby Jane has already planned a “beef tallow sourdough feature” for their menu.
Tiny Minotaur was initially started by Bauerle-McNight as her own project with some help from a few friends. “Instead, it became more of a theater troupe,” she says, led by her character, host Oakda, an Orcish half-renegade warrior, half-innkeeper, and storyteller. The group also includes Dana Yanoshanak (Ron Bauerle-Mcknight), David Tarafa and Katie Orshaw.
For now, Bauerle-McKnight will grow Tiny Minotaur’s coffers through a combination of private donations and support for the ongoing GoFundMe campaign.
It’s through community participation, from the game players to the actors to the local businesses to the chefs, that have brought and continue to bring Bauerle-McKnight’s vision alive. And it’s through threading together her backgrounds as an artist, activist, and storyteller, she hopes to create a space that creates and inspires in equal measure. “It feels like a big project, but I think it’s doable,” she adds. “We hope the space fosters the full scope of artistic play for everyone involved.”
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