Back in Play

Once an elite pastime, lawn games are making inroads with a new generation

When Alex Gara and his friends started American Bocce Co. in Chicago’s Wicker Park back in 2013, he was thinking of something closer to a community garden, a space for locals to come together. But making time for a friendly game was important, too. Over time bocce had garnered a feeling of exclusivity, and Gara was out to change that. “We realized there weren’t a lot of people making bocce approachable for amateurs and young people. That was our first mission,” he says. Today about 80 percent of the club’s members are between 25 and 40 years of age, working mostly in creative fields like marketing and advertising.

It’s not the typical player, and that was the point.

Gara is right: Games like bocce, croquet, and shuffleboard evoke a bygone era, a picture of moneyed leisure straight out of The Great Gatsby. But today a new generation is stripping these games of aristocratic airs. Colored by cocktail party playfulness, lawn sports are making a comeback, geared toward a younger crowd looking for something old-school, tactile, and imbued with a certain pedigree.

“There’s been a resurgence of all things retro,” says Nickie Minshall, co-owner of the bar Track & Field in the Dufferin Grove area of Toronto, which hosts bocce and shuffleboard. For Minshall, these types of activities have an aesthetic advantage. “They’re very pretty games—green Astroturf, rough wood, poured-concrete shuffleboard lanes,” she explains. “We love what they add to our décor. Aside from that, we chose them mostly due to their accessibility. They’re very easy to play, and they work perfectly within a bar atmosphere.” She also points out that they’re one-handed games, so participants, who mostly range in age from mid-20s to early 30s, can keep their libations handy while playing.
                            Often associated with an older generation, games like bocce now attract a younger crowd
Often associated with an older generation, games like bocce now attract a younger crowd

And if a nostalgic pursuit is poised for revival, it’s a sure thing you’ll find it in Brooklyn. To wit, Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club offers the classic deck game as a centerpiece to the traditional bar experience, and it has struck a nerve. For $40 an hour, guests can partake in the delights of a decidedly retro sport, one that’s more commonly associated with retirement communities than metropolitan bars packed with young creatives. The idea came to Royal Palms cofounders Jonathan Schnapps and Ashley Albert when they were visiting Florida and stopped off in St. Petersburg for a playful round. They were surprised to find throngs of young people playing, not blue-haired elders. New York—the incubator for similar drink-and-play establishments centered on ping-pong and bowling—felt like the perfect spot for a renaissance.

The 17,000-square-foot venue, located near the Gowanus Canal, opened just over two years ago and has found a niche within a community constantly on the hunt for something new (even if that new thing is, in fact, old), something to complement a cocktail, and something rooted in kitsch. Shuffleboard ticks off all these boxes, and there’s often a wait at the club, despite its 10-lane spread. Irony is always a draw for the Brooklyn in-crowd, but stop by on a Saturday night and take in the scene: The two packed bars keep the crowd fed and watered, while around the lanes, competitors and spectators cheer with genuine enthusiasm.

Farther north in Williamsburg, the coffee-shop-by-day, bar-by-night Freehold hosts croquet in its expansive outdoor area during the warmer months. And over in Park Slope, Union Hall complements a rotating lineup of live rock performances with two indoor bocce courts (an attraction so popular there’s a separate email list to keep enthusiasts posted on upcoming competitions).
                            Open courts, cold drinks, and vintage décor at Brooklyn's Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club
Open courts, cold drinks, and vintage décor at Brooklyn's Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club

The trend isn’t relegated to the East Coast, though—venues with games like these have cropped up across the country (and the world—London and Berlin both have active scenes). Chicago’s American Bocce Co. has grown from a burgeoning community of enthusiasts to a full-blown movement, and at the nearby Chicago Athletic Association hotel, a former men’s club, its second-floor Game Room (and bar) offers bocce and shuffleboard alongside billiards.

Over on the West Coast, Southern California cities have capitalized on their consistently temperate climate and fully embraced the trend. The recently opened Everson Royce Bar in downtown Los Angeles, a neighborhood enjoying a serious revival, features bocce on its back patio, while the outdoor space at craft beer bar Block Party has been overtaken by lively shuffleboard games. In Palm Springs—where old-school appeal keeps the city vital—the tony Parker hotel already offers up lawn games like croquet and petanque (with instructions cheekily urging participants to first order a pastis, a French anise-flavored liqueur, before engaging in play). “Everything that is done at our hotels stems from what we like and what we find fun,” says the Parker’s Marisa Zafran. “Everything great circles back again, doesn’t it?”

Beyond good old-fashioned fun, the hidden draw of lawn sports lies in their ice-breaking energy. They’re a respite from the stand-around-and-drink, junior-high-dance feeling that can dull an otherwise social event. Instead, these games prompt us to engage in some friendly competition and elevate the tone of an evening. And maybe there’s a kind of magic in the pace, too—the slide of a disc across the shuffleboard court, the roll of a ball through the wicket—that recalls an earlier, less frenetic time.

Whatever the reason, new converts have taken up the hobby with more than a passing interest. Back at American Bocce Co., Gara says a lot of people end up joining on a lark—“They start by not taking themselves or the game seriously”—but retention rates are approaching 90 percent. In an age when a night out can easily become a hypermediated stream of Instagrams and hashtags, there’s great value in putting down the iPhone and picking up the ball.
Max Berlinger is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. He has written for various publications covering fashion, grooming, and culture.
  • (c) Brad Wieland
  • Photograph by Clayton Hauck; courtesy of Chicago Athletic Association
  • Courtesy of Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club
  • Courtesy of the Parker Palm Springs