Five O’Clock at Restaurants Is Baby Hour

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Gus’s Chop House, which opened a little more than a year ago on the border between Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens neighborhoods, has a dining room of rustic severity. The bench seats resemble church pews; a Shaker-style monolith of a fireplace broods against the far wall like a disgruntled patriarch. The menu is standard chophouse fare—you could happily make do with a steak and a couple of Manhattans—with occasional dramatic twists and flourishes. An appetizer of octopus dressed with shiso and Habanada pepper is served as a stark, single tentacle, unfurling atop the plate like a cephalopod “Spiral Jetty.” On a recent Sunday evening, during dinner at the ungodly hour of 5 P.M., a surprising number of tables were full. This was not because Gus’s is trendy and reservations are scarce, though it’s a lovely spot, the sort of neighborhood joint that makes you want to move to the neighborhood. Rather, nearly every party at that early seating included at least one patron under the age of two. It was five o’clock, and five o’clock is Baby Hour.

When I became a parent, late last year, I started noticing other babies out in the wild in a way that I hadn’t before. The New York City I’d inhabited for nearly two decades had featured babies as sporadic background characters, being soothed on the bus or playing on a mat at my friends’ apartments. Now, suddenly, they were everywhere: being pushed in prams during morning walks, burbling in carriers on the subway, congregating outside of day cares in my neighborhood that I had never even clocked. The gate to this alternate version of the city opens once a child enters your care; one of its great delights, up there with the baby-supplies aisle at the grocery store and the absurdist chatter on the Park Slope Parents e-mail Listserv, is going out to dinner with your baby at a time when other adults might still be wrapping up a late lunch.

Baby Hour is not an official thing, but it is a real one. Certain restaurants just give off a vibe of baby-friendliness—Patti Ann’s and No. 7 in Prospect Heights, Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Chinatown, Rosemary’s in the Village, most pizzerias, most diners, most locations of the bustling Italian American chain Parm. Maybe there’s enough space between the tables to tuck a folded-up stroller, or a particularly cheery and laid-back waitstaff. (It’s worth noting that a baby-friendly restaurant is very much not the same thing as a kid-friendly restaurant. Once children have verbal and/or locomotive abilities, the entire dining-out game changes.) When I made an online reservation at Gus’s, for the restaurant’s Sunday Roast—a special menu of various excellent hunks of meat and an array of sides including Yorkshire puddings, greens dressed in a tangy mustard vinaigrette, and heaps of golden fries—I mentioned, in the special-requests field, that two of the six members of our party were babies, and that I would appreciate high chairs. (This is helpful information to provide when dining with a baby; if the infant uses a chair, regular or high, she counts as a head for reservation purposes. If she’ll be in your lap, she doesn’t.) Among my many prenatal anxieties was a fear of losing myself to the mists of parenthood, a fear that crystallized into a specific vision of bringing my child to a restaurant and being treated as an object of disdain and exasperation. Not only did Gus’s have high chairs, they were beautiful high chairs—wooden and minimalist, with black accents—that worked in aesthetic harmony with the rest of the room. I found the chairs to be an oddly touching detail: the restaurant expected babies; they’d planned for babies. We weren’t an imposition; we were welcome.

There are countless warring schools of thought on what and how to feed babies. My own philosophy roughly boils down to: feed the kid whatever. My daughter, who is almost one, loved the Panisse and Kohlrabi, an elegant, cerebral appetizer made up of rounds of airy chickpea flan that is quickly fried for a crispy exterior and served with a little pile of dressed kohlrabi and a swoop of hot sauce. We ordered it a second time, and then a third. (The other baby really liked it, too.) Our server congratulated my daughter on her appreciation of the roast lamb—tremendously flavorful, though served a bit on the raw side of rare—and laughed as she watched her furiously slurp the vinaigrette off a piece of lettuce, then hurl it to the floor and gesture intently for another. At other tables, other babies performed their own pantomimes of joy and misery, shrieking and babbling, breast-feeding, bottle-feeding, reaching for their parents’ steak knives and cocktail glasses. At one point, the restaurant’s chef and co-owner, Chris McDade, emerged and made the rounds. His final stop was at the table next to ours, where a woman was eating with a small boy—it was McDade’s young son, Gus, the restaurant’s namesake.

In my brief but intensive experience as a restaurant-going parent, I’ve learned the advantages of bringing the right tools: a waterproof placemat for the baby, a bib with a little pocket for catching dropped food, and a spill-proof sippy cup to avoid water hazards, plus the usual arsenal of face wipes and baby utensils and formula and a bottle and a replacement bottle and peanut-butter puffs and yogurt pouches and board books and stuffed toys and diapers and changes of clothes. But you can also get away with bringing absolutely nothing, especially if you’re willing to just hand the baby a giant hunk of bread and let her go to town while you contemplate your Martini. The one at Gus’s, by the way, made with a blend of two gins and two vermouths, is subtle and complex, on the genteelly small side, and served in a frost-kissed coupe. (I didn’t get to try the hunk of bread, but the babies at the table seemed to approve.) There are no rules to Baby Hour, beyond the standard ones of conscientious restaurant patronage: be kind to your servers, apologize for your mess, and tip extravagantly. ♦


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