Even in the darkest days of the pandemic, the call to adventure rang out. Amidst the stress of social distancing and economic uncertainty, a select few were able to escape into a world of fantasy. Tiny Minotaur Tavern was a gaming and dining pop-up that quietly emerged in Austin through word-of-mouth at the close of 2020. And now, with popular culture saturated in fantasy franchises and role-playing games (RPGs) crossing over to the mainstream, this pop-up is poised to turn into a permanent fixture in East Austin. The newer Tiny Minotaur will offer a forever home for gameplay, workshops, and a planned food truck on 2701 East Cesar Chavez Street in the Holly neighborhood, with a planned opening date in spring or summer 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. She describes it as an interactive installation where she delves into her love of fantasy storytelling. An outdoor bar and performance space nestled into a set secret location in the heart of Austin, Tiny Minotaur is an experience that brings character-driven fantasy RPGs into reality.
An artist and community organizer based out of upstate New York, Bauerle-McNight moved to Austin in 2017, seeking a much-needed break from contemporary art projects. A fan of the secret event spaces often found in Buffalo, she was originally inspired by the Japanese model of informal bars. But when the pandemic hit, her vision was pushed into a whole new creative direction.
Bauerle-McKnigh began bringing players into her fictional fantasy world of Karth in September 2020. During the first pop-ups, guests enter the space, introduce themselves as their characters, and receive a standard set of adventuring provisions: drinks, bread, and pickles. Groups then navigate a series of quests, culminating in simulated combat with gigantic wooden 20-sided dice, the standard mechanic of many tabletop role-playing games. Even local restaurants, bars, and venues participated in the fun. The businesses would let Bauerle-McNight hide quest items within bars or even under bouncer chairs.
And people loved it. Tiny Minotaur presented roleplaying fans with a fully immersive environment, but Bauerle-McKnight found that the format spoke to casual gamers, too. Participants became deeply invested in the success of their parties (groups of players who collaborate in the games). New players quickly got swept up in the action. “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.”
As for the simple bread menu, Bauerle-McKnight had collaborated with Tyler Carpenter of Abby Jane Bakeshop in Dripping Springs. Carpenter — who also hosts the variety show God Mourning 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 dank,” she explains. “Wheat from Barton Mills, all Texas local ingredients, and yeah, it was fucking incredible.”
The overall success of Tiny Minotaur Tavern inspired Bauerle-McKnight to take an even bigger swing. 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. With this new location, Big Tiny will become the home to everything from large-scale roleplaying sessions to workshops on costume designs and makeup, as well as expanded food offerings.
One of the future things that Bauerle-McKnight is most excited about is the promise of a rotating food truck for 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.
When Bauerle-McNight started Tiny Minotaur, she thought it was just going to be her own project, with a few scattered friends helping every now and then. “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 full group includes Ron Bauerle-Mcknight, David Tarafa, Dana Yanoshanak, Katie Orshaw, Adam Rios, Stefan Wicks, Nick Alemany, Roxy Castillo, and Max Vanderheyden playing somewhat-scripted characters the attendees could interact with.
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.”