I’d first heard about Monkey Town when a fellow Texan called to report that one of our favorite local bands, Black Dice, was gigging there. “Where the heck is Monkey Town?” I inquired. “Not sure,” Andy replied, “but they serve food, too.” That was all I needed to know. So one Friday in March we found ourselves queuing up in front of a former garage in an obscure residential section of Williamsburg. Across the street a family sat framed by a picture window, eating dinner from TV trays and watching The Sopranos.
Trooping upstairs with 30 other guests, all of whom had made reservations online, we found ourselves in a loft lined with projection screens. Inside the screens mattresses were arranged in a square, inside of which ran low tables. Within the ring of tables glowed a pile of electronic gear. As we assumed our seats on the mattresses, the lights dimmed and four nerds took their places in the center and began playing Halo, a shoot-’em-up Xbox game soundlessly projected on the screens. A pair of waitresses in svelte gray jumpsuits with “Monkey Town” emblazoned on the back moved among the guests, taking drink and dinner orders. Black Dice set up in the corner and, bowing their heads over guitar, drums, and synth, began pouring out their trademark cacophony.
A pair of moonlighting chefs from Texas named Josh Cross and Coleman Lee Foster are credited with the food at Monkey Town. That evening we enjoyed a Mexican-themed repast of chicken mole poblano, pork enchiladas, vegetable tamales, and tilapia ceviche at prices that ranged from $6 to $9 per dish. Best of all was a tasting plate encompassing everything for $15. Though the food was somewhat uneven—falling somewhere between haute cuisine and TV dinners—it was playful, satisfying, and occasionally brilliant. It was every bit as good as it needed to be, given the limitations of space and situation, I later told a curious friend. If the food was a good deal, the wine was a better one. A bottle of decent Italian primitivo went for $16, and there were also beer and—in a move that probably makes sense only to Texans—Dr. Pepper.
Monkey Town quickly became a favorite hang of mine. One Saturday in late May, I found myself attending the final event of the spring season, a program of experimental cinema. Directed by Austinite and Monkey Town founder Montgomery Knott, one film featured footage shot in Essaouira, Morocco. It was created with the four-screen format in mind, causing members of the audience to whip their necks back and forth like spectators at a tennis match. In keeping with the theme, the menu included a lamb tajine ($16) poured over a bowl of Israeli couscous—a union that seemed like a blueprint for Middle Eastern peace—and a wonderful dish of zucchini stuffed with fennel-flavored eggplant. As I sat back picking my teeth, I mentally congratulated Monkey Town for reviving the idea of dinner theater. Or maybe just providing the kind of multivalent entertainment craved by hyperactives like me. Returning from the bathroom, a first-timer I’d brought along reported that she’d encountered an extensively tattooed lady taking a shower. I guessed immediately what it was—a performance piece. Just another evening at Monkey Town.