“We should get the check before something terrible happens.”
Most parents who’ve ever taken a baby out to a restaurant have probably uttered a version of these words. Tantrums, messes, and diaper blowouts are just a few of the risks you take if you choose to dine out with a little one. Even at a casual “family friendly” establishment, what once may have been a favorite activity, prechildren, now may more closely resemble a game of baby jujitsu served with a side dish of public humiliation. While child-free date nights can be a great option for those who want more elevated cuisine, most parents can attest that babysitters aren’t cheap, and those evenings don’t happen nearly as much as they’d like. Luckily, Melissa Elders may have figured out one solution for this perennial parental challenge.
Elders was an expat living in London when her daughter was born, and she hoped that parenthood wouldn’t mean giving up special dining experiences. As a new mom, she found herself in an all-too-familiar tableau of sitting on a bench trying to eat a piece of pizza or a sandwich over her infant daughter’s head while the baby was strapped to her chest. Like many others before her, she attempted to bring her child out to restaurants, but no matter how welcoming the staff was, she always felt self-conscious that they were disturbing the other diners. “You feel like you are violating the social contract,” she explains.
Thus, Elders, a freelance event planner, hatched Nibble+Squeak, where she organizes midday lunches at sought-after restaurants in private rooms or while the restaurant is closed to the public. Parents buy tickets in advance to the event; she takes care of figuring out where the strollers will be parked, makes sure the restaurant has enough high chairs, and brings a changing pad if the bathroom doesn’t have one. Moms who may feel self-conscious about breast-feeding in public know they’ll be in an accepting environment, and parents don’t have to worry that a fussy baby or a energetic toddler is going to ruin the meal—the restaurant is expecting small children, and all the other diners have one or two in tow as well.
Bringing small children to fancy restaurants might sounds like the silliest, most indulgent kind of yuppie parenting. But Nibble+Squeak isn’t focused on kids; it’s focused on parents. Spending a lot of time with a baby or toddler can be isolating, and most group activities for kids, like sing-a-longs and story hours, are geared to, you know, kids. Nibble+Squeak gives new parents a rare chance to socialize and enjoy themselves. “I think parents deserve a treat,” Elders explains.
Since moving back from London with her family last year, Elders is trying out her idea on the parents and restaurants of New York, starting in her own neighborhood of Brooklyn. Earlier this month, a group of about 10 parents gathered for Nibble+Squeak’s second New York City event, a noontime, family-style feast at an Israeli barbecue restaurant called Esh. The $50 lunch included tax and “a generous tip,” and the staff even opened up a few bottles of vinho verde for the group on the house. Babies and toddlers eat at Nibble+Squeak events for free, but there isn’t a special kids menu. The hope is that the kids will try and enjoy new “adult” foods.
Some of the kids at Esh were way ahead of the curve in that regard. Marzena Wolert, a stay-at-home mom, attended with her 14-month-old, Colette, and was excited to introduce her to some new dishes. “One of her favorite foods is green smoothies,” Wolert explained, as she broke off tiny florets of broccoli fried with soy, chilies, and vinegar.
But other parents were more focused on the company. Lauren Midkiff, a former financial adviser turned stay-at-home mom, dined with her 13-month-old son, Connor, who presided over the group like a tiny patriarch in a high chair at the head of the table. She and her family moved to Brooklyn a month before and had been taking Connor to kids’ classes such as Gymboree but hadn’t yet met many other neighborhood parents, since most of the other kids were chaperoned by nannies. “This is the best actual adult conversation I’ve had since moving here,” she said appreciatively of meeting her fellow diners.
Many of the other guests had young babies and were still on parental leave from work. Adria Kurland and Ryan Gallagher were given tickets to the event by Gallagher’s mother for his birthday and had only attempted to eat out once or twice since their daughter, Clementine, was born four months ago. “We haven’t quite figured out babysitters yet,” Kurland explained. When I asked if they would want to attend again if they weren’t given tickets, Gallagher immediately answered with a look of wide-eyed gratitude, “I would attend every single one of these.” (The group’s enthusiasm for the event was surely bolstered by the fact that the food was exceptionally delicious. As a restaurant-deprived mother of an 8-month-old who used to go to nice eateries weekly, I was as totally enamored with many of the dishes, including the spiced pork ribs with date syrup and the sticky toffee pudding, just like the rest of the crowd.)
Of course, $50 is not a cheap lunch even by New York standards. Marisa Butin, a kindergarten teacher wearing two nose rings and a teething necklace for her 4-month-old son, August, said, “It’s expensive, but once a month or once every other month, it’s doable. I probably wouldn’t ever make it here for dinner, so you might as well do lunch.” Elders has plenty more dining opportunities planned at different price points, from a $32 Caribbean meal to a $125 Nordic tasting menu at the Michelin-starred Luksus. She is also planning some events in the evenings and on weekends to allow parents who work full time to attend.
Most parents who choose to raise kids in a city hope that they won’t have to give up too many of the things they love about urban life. If events like Nibble+Squeak’s catch on, maybe eating at great restaurants won’t have to be put on hiatus.