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Wild game on the menu at Bushnell’s new eatery

Times Staff Writer

With Chuck E. Cheese’s, Nolan Bushnell created a place where a kid can be a kid. At his new restaurant in Woodland Hills, an adult can be a kid.

UWink Media Bistro is a mash-up of Bushnell’s greatest hits.

As founder of Atari Inc., he created the electronic table-tennis game “Pong” and the Atari 2600 game console, which together jump-started the video game industry in the 1970s. His next commercial venture, Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater, proved that the unlikely combination of animatronic mice and pepperoni could indeed mix.

His new restaurant in the Westfield Promenade, uWink, distills the two ideas, seeking to re-create the infectious fun of early arcade games while serving food for a more mature palate -- such as slow-roasted pork and crispy calamari.

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At uWink, food and frolic are delivered through interactive touch-screen displays, which stand back-to-back like pup tents in the center of every table. Guests can use those screens to place orders, challenge one another to a quick trivia game or giggle about a palm reading. It’s designed to appeal to women, who flock to such computer games as solitaire and “Bejeweled” but have been largely ignored by console game developers.

The spare, sleek lines of the interior, the angular seats and the light walls that serve as video projection screens lend it a futuristic feel that complements the electronica.

Whether it’s a recipe for success remains to be seen. The company is so strapped for cash, Bushnell had to personally sign the lease for its first location.

Playing games is his life’s work. Now 64 and living in Brentwood, this gray-bearded giant of a man hasn’t let the kid in him die. Respected technologists consider him a one-man incubator, whose agile mind dreams up personal robots, talking teddy bears and other fanciful concepts -- sometimes long before they’re commercially viable.

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“In the early days of the video game business, everybody played,” Bushnell said. “The question is, what happened? My theory -- and I think it’s pretty well borne out -- is that in the ‘80s, games got gory, and that lost the women. And then they got complex, and that lost the casual gamer.”

That nostalgia for simplicity has worked for Nintendo Co., the Japanese entertainment company that courts people who don’t want to devote hours to mastering the complex button-mashing combinations required to play most console games. Its Wii console -- which features a motion-sensing controller that, for example, users can swing to launch a virtual tennis serve -- outsold Sony’s hotly anticipated PlayStation 3 more than 2 to 1 last holiday season.

UWink has taken both design and marketing cues from Nintendo. All of uWink’s short-form games can be played with the most elemental of controllers -- the index finger. And the electronic diversions themselves -- horoscopes, love meters and a trivia game called Zillionaire -- have a slumber-party feel.

Bushnell hopes these casual games bring out the kind of natural interaction that flows when friends or families gather to play board games.

On a Monday night in February, Carol Greenhut, 49, of Tarzana plucked away at a mah-jongg-inspired tile-matching game called “Shanghai Express,” while her 13-year-old son, Henry, and his friend, AJ, watched Kiefer Sutherland’s image projected on three of the bistro’s walls. This weekly viewing party for the Fox show “24" attracted about two dozen people. Bushnell sat alone at the bar and later chatted with guests as he departed for the evening.

Greenhut joked that uWink was the one restaurant where her son willingly accompanied her to dinner. He can get a burger and talk to his mother as they play video games in an atmosphere she finds appealing.

“It’s refreshing to do something different,” she said.

Steve Cannon, 41, of Thousand Oaks invited the three friends who meet at his house each week to watch “24" to instead join him at uWink. He said he loved the techno atmosphere and his ability to control the flow of food.

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“I found out about the place one week ago, and I’ve been back four times,” he said. “I keep bringing new people.”

Not every diner that night was sold on the idea of electronic conversation-starters. Cheryl Liu, 25, of West Los Angeles tested her romantic compatibility with her date, Paul Lee. Although she found meals served in the glow of a computer screen to be novel, she said the restaurant wasn’t compelling enough to draw her back. “It’s not something where I’d say, ‘Hey, let’s drive all the way to Woodland Hills,’ ” she said.

Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president at restaurant consultancy WD Partners, said uWink ran the risk of going the way of other narrowly targeted entertainment-themed restaurants that the public lost its taste for, such as the Fashion Cafe, which was financially backed by models.

“A lot of people play games on the Internet, but usually not in groups,” Lombardi said. “They may play in a virtual environment. But that’s different from saying, ‘I’m going to go somewhere with two or three of my friends and do this.’ ”

More fundamental obstacles could prevent uWink from becoming Bushnell’s next great franchise. UWink Inc. has accumulated losses of $33.5 million, and its accountants have questioned whether it can raise enough money to stay in business or fund its planned expansion, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Bushnell offered an upbeat assessment of the restaurant’s prospects in a recent letter to shareholders. He wrote that the company’s revenue grew steadily from about $30,000 in October, the first month in operation, to $185,000 in January, without much advertising. He said guests were playing 50,000 to 60,000 games a week at the restaurant’s terminals, and he was negotiating to open more restaurants in California.

Bushnell has founded more than 20 companies during a career marked by tremendous success for some while other concepts, such as the Androbot mobile companion, never caught on.

He sold Atari to Warner Communications in 1976 for a reported $28 million. Shortly after that came a business Warner wasn’t interested in developing: Chuck E. Cheese’s, the pizza joint where, as its slogan says, “a kid can be a kid.”

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The chain expanded and sales soared to more than $100 million in three years, but Bushnell was forced to resign after two failed reorganization attempts. It has since emerged from bankruptcy and, under new ownership, grown to more than 500 restaurants.

Bushnell also hatched a plan to create talking teddies that could respond to children’s voices. He sold the idea to Hasbro Inc., which a decade later turned the concept into the Furby.

“This isn’t Nolan’s biggest idea -- this is Nolan’s latest idea,” technology forecaster Paul Saffo said. “He always makes money off ‘em.”

dawn.chmielewski@latimes.com


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