For two years, my 6-year-old daughter Ruby has begged us to open a “restaurant” in our backyard. Before the pandemic, I would take 30 seconds to explain why we couldn’t do it, then I’d redirect her to a supersized puzzle. But this winter, she added a twist to her pitch: "We could ask for money and give it to charity.” Unable to resist such altruism from a 6-year-old, I paused. "I want to see a detailed plan," I said.
Usually, asking for a written plan is a non-starter. She'll roll her eyes and return to the puzzle, Play-Doh or tub full of LEGO bricks. But this time, she recruited her 8-year-old brother, Clay, and they got to work. Ruby drew menus with pancakes and yellow squares of butter in crayon; Clay practiced the trumpet songs he would offer guests as entertainment. In their scenario, we all donned masks, my husband Paul would cook and the kids would serve. Me? I would make coffee and pour syrup into little cups like the ones we used at The Original Pancake House.
At this point, the kids had my attention. So often during the pandemic, they have been at each other’s throats. Arguments about who had the toy-no-one-cares-about first, who got to pick the Netflix show — even who gets to scramble the breakfast eggs. Now, I watched them divvy up work.
Ruby even specified we should open for one day, see how it went, then close and fix what went wrong for the next time. “We’ll call it The Griddle,” she said. My toddler, Maeve, tapped my arm. “Are we having a restaurant?”
Why couldn’t we do breakfast? I caught myself wondering. Invite some friends, maintain physical distancing outdoors and let the kids try their hand at waiting tables? Plus, a change of scenery, albeit in our small, urban Charlotte backyard, would be nice.
Before I knew it, I had filled my online shopping cart and invited friends — a family we’ve known for years, a beloved pre-pandemic babysitter — to our backyard for brunch. I even ordered the little syrup cups from Amazon.
“We better add orange juice and Champagne to the list,” my husband said. “What we lack in restauranteur-ing, we’ll make up for in spirits.” As two people with finance backgrounds, Paul and I have no business working a stove in any high-stakes capacity. But he does make a mean homemade pancake. The menu also included eggs, toast, French toast, tea, smoothies and “coffey.”
On opening day, all three kids started bouncing up and down early in the morning — a first for this type of excitement during the pandemic. Paul, already masked for an extra layer of precaution, mixed pancake batter. Ruby scrubbed her hands and then wrapped forks and butter knives in paper towels and secured each bundle with green masking tape. Clay carried the outdoor chair cushions inside and warmed them over the heating vents. I situated placemats on two tables 20 feet apart — one for the family, the other for our babysitter — and then plopped Maeve on the floor for one last diaper change before our reservations arrived.
At 10 a.m., they pulled on masks and seated our guests.
“I want blueberry pancakes!” Ruby’s friend chirped as her mom draped a fleece blanket across her lap. “Daddy had to work, but we’ll take him food to-go!”
Ruby drew pictures to remember her orders; Clay barked his into the kitchen. Maeve stood near the back door and squealed, “They came to our restaurant!”
The kitchen filled with the smell of bacon and the sizzle of the griddle. As I stood at the counter scooping dollops of butter, I glanced into our yard. All smiles. No one seemed bothered by the chilly breeze or the stained tablecloths or the extended time it took for their food to arrive.
“I don’t remember the last time someone made brunch for me,” said the mother of two as she forked her last bite of egg. “My husband is going to hear about Paul.”
I checked on our other guest across the yard who was talking to my toddler. “Are you taking reservations for next weekend?” she asked with a smile, polishing off her coffee.
Maybe we should do it again next weekend, I thought. So often during the lockdown, my default answer to the kids’ suggestions has been no: Can we go to the children’s museum? Can we invite our Nashville cousins to visit? Can we have brunch at the pancake house in the u-shaped booth? This time despite my introversion and aversion to hosting — traits that none of my children seem to have inherited — I said yes. The reason: I saw it as a potential balm for their isolation.
Like kids everywhere, they miss their friends, their teachers and any break from the monotony of being home. The eatery turned out to be just the pandemic respite we needed.
We weren’t perfect, of course. Chair cushions turned into swords among my kids in the backyard. Some light crying ensued. My toddler helped herself (and the countertop) to a sticky shower of syrup when no one was looking. And later in the day, with friends gone and the mess cleaned, Clay hesitated about the amount of money we were giving away to a local nonprofit that serves mothers and children. (They want to give back, but they also want new LEGO sets.)
But even with those small setbacks, we’ve since hosted neighbors for rounds two and three at The Griddle. For the times we got backed up in the kitchen, Clay practiced the LEGO Ninjago theme song on his trumpet. I ordered a tabletop space heater in case our North Carolina winter weather went south.
Whether Ruby sensed the people we invited needed the brunch or the company, I couldn’t say. I only know that, in this season of isolation and sometimes lagging joy, serving friends is lifting our spirits — and apparently, some of our guests' too. One of them even sent a text a few days after the brunch: "My daughter wants to do a pick-up order from The Griddle. She wants the French toast and the same to-go boxes.”