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Rideau Spotlight: Level One Game Pub

May 15, 2024

There’s so much about life in Ottawa’s Original Downtown that distinguishes it from other neighbourhoods both in Ottawa and beyond! For one thing, there’s an unparalleled richness to Rideau Street’s history with landmarks like the Rideau Canal, Fairmont Château Laurier and nearby ByWard Market each playing their part in telling the remarkable story of how our nation’s capital came to be. Exceptional artists like Anna Frlan (who we wrote about here) have been lending their talents to the city to enrich our streetscapes and further contribute to the area’s vibrancy. And that’s to say nothing of the hundreds of incredible, hard-working business owners and their staff that make up the very essence of Rideau and contribute to its uniqueness!

It’s not every day, however, that a business embraces these ideas of championing history, promoting creativity and striving for excellence as earnestly or as effectively as Level One Game Pub. Located in a building whose history spans more than a century, co-owners Mike Hopkins and Alessandro Argentina have managed to turn their love for all things related to board and video games into one of most creative and talked-about venues in Ottawa.

Alongside his business partner, Mike Hopkins has built Level One Game Pub into one of the most popular eateries in the nation’s capital. (Image: Todd Coopee, source

Insert Coin and Press “Start” to Begin

When Mike and Alessandro made the initial decision to open a business together, they did so with a level of enthusiasm that sharply contrasted their shared degree of business expertise. They had an unyielding love for games and prior experience working in restaurants, but no prior experience running a business. “I had worked a decade in restaurants before opening up – every position from dishwasher to bartender,” Mike recalls. “Working in a number of restaurants did give me the experience and insight that was very helpful in starting my own venture.”

Eventually, they made the decision to set up shop at 14 Waller Street and transform one of the oldest buildings in the city into a thriving and colourful eatery. The building was originally built as a livery stable in 1866 (prior to Confederation!) and upon assuming ownership of the building, Mike immediately made it a priority to preserve the building’s historical importance while putting his own spin on the décor as well.

“We love the building that we’re in,” Mike says. “It’s very unique and has a natural beauty. We were looking for something in the area due to the proximity to the University of Ottawa and the main transit hub of the Rideau Centre from day one! We love being centrally located for so many people to get to.”

Mike and Alessandro opened Level One to the public in 2016, breathing new life into a quaint little piece of Ottawa’s history exactly 150 years after it was first erected. And they haven’t looked back since.

The location in which Level One is housed (left) is emblematic of the area’s rich history, due in no small part to its designation as a heritage building (right) in 1978. (Image: Google News, source)

Murals More Striking Than 16-Bit Graphics

The ambiance of Level One constantly exudes feelings of fun and fantasy from the moment you walk through the front door. Take a look around and you’ll notice how the old stone walls and wooden support beams contrast with the intricate and vivid murals on display throughout the pub. You might even recognize your favourite video game characters in some of them!

“We got Dems & Doll to do all of our murals,” Mike says. “We just thought they were the best artists around, particularly for the style of art that we wanted to go with. We thought the splashes of colour would be a nice contrast to the classic stone and wood decor of the existing structure.”

Does that name sound familiar? If it does, it might be because you’ve seen Dems & Doll’s work scattered all throughout Ottawa’s Original Downtown! Their work can also be seen under the skywalk leading to the Hudson’s Bay Company, on the side of Purple Meadow Cannabis on Rideau and, most recently, they painted a fantastic flowery piece in Ogilvy Square!

Just about every corner of Level One is decked out with stunning murals that feature breathtaking video-game inspired designs, courtesy of Dems & Doll! (Image: Level One Game Pub)

You’re sure to also be taken in by the impressive collection of board and video games on display on both storeys. Stacked from floor to ceiling, their game collection is the result of many years of research and has exceeded an astounding 1600 board games and 800 video games! Amassing such a collection has required that the pub tasks a staff member with constantly seeking out and procuring new games.

“Our Chief Gaming Officer/High Archivist Erin picks out most of the games to get based on industry buzz, or what is getting the most excitement online,” Mike explains. “She researches games that sound like they would do well here, and other times we get tips from our clientele and almost always end up getting the games they recommend if we think it would work well here.”

“We usually get a few new games every week, so we’ve passed a lot of games on to charities, youth clubs, or thrift stores over the years.”

Of course, picking out and learning a game out of a collection of over 1600 can be daunting for even the most passionate board game enthusiast. Those who feel intimidated by Level One’s collection need not fear, as the pub has an effective – and seemingly mythical – solution to that issue.

“The Game Wizards,” Mike explains, “are creatures of myth and legend who are imbued with a mystical knowledge of games granted to them by the gods. They take human form at the start of every shift to impart their knowledge to the mortals that come here, before dematerializing back to their home plane of existence.”

Level One’s game collection is truly an incredible sight to behold. They have more than 1600 board games occupying both floors, which are stacked floor to ceiling!

Power Up With Level One’s Incredible Menu

The only thing that can make a gaming session with friends at Level One even better is by indulging in some of the outstanding menu items that they have available. From house-chipped fries to gourmet nachos to burgers and wraps, Level One’s menu is filled with familiar favourites as well as a wide selection of custom-made exclusive items dreamt up by Chef Evan and Front of House Manager Emma. Such items include their Wild Wild West Poutine topped with red wine gravy and beef brisket as well as their house-made Loaded Six Shooter Dice Candy!

“Evan and Emma are big gamers themselves!” says Mike. “They are in tune with the gaming culture of our clientele and have the leeway to think up their own ideas, so they both enjoy having fun with the creative side of the job!”

Pair your entrée with one of their fantastic house cocktails, such as the “Floor is Guava,” “Cherry Bob-omb” and a consistent fan favourite, the “Vanellopeach Von Schweetz.” New additions to the drink menu compete for a permanent spot on the menu via fan vote, so make sure to cast your ballot and ensure that your favourite drinks survive the gauntlet!

The pub also maintains an active event calendar, filled to the brim with Geek Trivia Nights, Dungeons & Dragons Nights, Industry Nights for those who work in the restaurant business and more! All of the events held at Level One are designed to appeal to players of all skill levels as effectively as possible. “The game wizards, trivia masters and dungeon masters are all good at making sure everyone is comfortable and having a good time,” Mike asserts. “Everything is pretty accessible, although our Geek Trivia nights are challenging for the average individual to be very competitive in!”

Ultimately, it all comes down to the people, and for Mike, the love he and his business receive from customers and staff alike is proof positive that he and Alessandro have crafted a winning formula that they can rely on to carry them into the future. “I usually get at least one or two requests every year for people asking to do engagement photos here because it’s where the couple first met,” he says.  “We’ve seen people from meet-up, trivia, and Dungeons and Dragons groups form great friendships over the years.”

“The other thing that is very gratifying,” he adds “is having staff say this is the best place they’ve worked. They lament having to leave and say they’ll cherish the time they spent here and probably never have another better job. We are happy to remind them that is almost certainly the case, and they should never forget it.”

Exploring Level One’s menu is an adventure in and of itself, with a wide assortment of mouth-watering entrées and shareables as well as custom-made cocktails!

📍 14 Waller Street

Sunday, Tuesday – Thursday: 12 p.m. – midnight

Monday: 4 p.m. – 12 a.m.

Friday – Saturday: 12 p.m. – 2 a.m.

📞 (613) 979-7529

🖱️ levelonegamepub.com