I am highly concerned about my chips—both potato and poker.
I’ve ventured out to East London to try out a new poker-themed restaurant, aptly named the All-In Kitchen. It’s a concept in which payment for food and drink is channeled through a swift game of bluffs and aces, where cards and a dealer replace canapes and Prosecco. It has promised nothing less than a gambling-fueled carb-and-cocktail session, resolutely rebuking January’s silly alcohol-free propaganda and dietary austerity.
The whole evening is an elaborate facade, naturally; a ploy of enticement. It’s the work of a company called PokerStars, together with a restaurant called Jones & Sons to put on free pop-up poker nights alongside the 2015 UK and Ireland Poker Tour. The idea is to get more people involved in the game, with the cost of dinner going no higher than £10.
The communal spirit of things at All-In Kitchen is surprisingly warming. Tables are made up of individuals and groups of two or three. Together, they play for their pudding. A win means free food—a three-course feast and one of the cocktails, which are called things like “The Bluff,” “The Call” or “The Raise.” Lose, though, and real money takes the place of poker chips.
This is worrisome, because I’m a terrible poker player.
I sit down in front of one of the dealers and try to remember any skill I once professed to have. While at sixth form college, some of us used to try our hands at the hotshot saloons of Reading, England. We’d drive down from the countryside of Oxfordshire to the bright lights of one of the most boring cities in the country. Armed with £50 and snacks aplenty, we’d thrill ourselves with thoughts of Vegas.
But at All-In Kitchen, there’s no actual money to be lost, which is good news for me. Instead, we’re given just three rounds to prove our worth. This is fine, especially considering that we’re all a few drinks in, and brazen acts of adventure are abundant. There’s little time for poker faces—more for desperate bids to secure a replete end to the night.
My cards are shit. And so am I. Totally forgetting to bluff my way to greatness, I seem to think James Bond is in attendance. I fold the first two hands like an IKEA storage container designed for tiny flats.
In the end, gin down, I go all in on the final flurry—a startled amateur. Still, my courage is apparently contagious, and others follow suit. A wave of hunger and hope sweeps by to my left, and we await our fate.
The man sitting to my right—who also happens to be my plus-one—claims victory and rakes in his bounty. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, apparently, unless you win a game of poker.
The game requires a win of 10,000 chips or more to satisfy paying absolutely nothing for dinner; 5,000 means you cough up for half; any fewer and the bill is dished out in full.
We sit down and order wine. There’s already been enough gin and rum and losing to pretend we’re in a high-flying Soho casino. It’s time to eat, which is really why everyone’s here.
The poker experience doesn’t end entirely, though, especially on the menu. “The Flop” lists the starters, where “Jacks” is a bourbon glazed pork belly, and “Kings” a prawn cocktail. “The Turn” features the mains, where options include “three of a kind”—a duck served three ways—and “four of a kind,” which includes four dishes of lamb. You get the idea.
I try “Queens”—queen scallops, har har—and “A Royal Flush,” a crab thermidor with straw fries. My “Blind” side dish is a bowl of very buttery vegetables. Pudding, from “The River” section of the menu, soon arrives. Our earlier losses are easily forgotten in a pear tart and a millionaire’s shortbread.
Savvy marketing abound, it’s a nourishing idea: chips for chips, bluffing your way to a butternut and chestnut gratin and a side of triple-cooked potatoes. It’s the ace of spades in life’s messy pile of cards.
But who knows if I’ll be as lucky next time?