By Julia Langbein

(Credit: All photos by author)

I had tea a couple of Sundays ago with my friend Matt, and a girl named Marie-Grace from 1850s New Orleans, and a baby boy without a name. The little baby and the girl had been rented to us for company. Matt I knew from grad school.

The point of eating at the American Girl Café on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile was not to sneer, which would be easy and cheap ($30/head after tax and tip), just as I’m sure an eight-year-old girl would sneer at things I find entertaining, like cold gin. I’m not interested in combating the vastly hilarious and adorable claim made by the website that “Chicago’s American Girl Café is the place for brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and parties.” (Cut to: A security team launching small girls out of the way as Rahm Emmanuel swans in for a power lunch.) American Girl Café is not going to appear in Bon Appetit, and there’s no chef to lionize, but those of us that care about food culture should still be curious: What does it look like when we ask children to role-play as consumers of fine dining?

Also, my biggest question reflects the sheer strangeness of American Girl Café making public and commercial a ritual that is usually private and playful: When a child brings its doll to a restaurant with real food, isn’t it completely heartbreaking?

I’m talking about a different kind of heartbreak than the one described by Amy Schiller in The Atlantic this spring, echoed by Alexandra Petri at The Washington Post and others, a deep disappointment in the direction Mattel has taken the company since 1998. That year, Mattel bought the American Girl brand from founder Pleasant Rowland, a former schoolteacher, for $700 million. Rowland’s core product had consisted of three different dolls representative of different eras in American history: Molly sacrifices for the war effort in Illinois in 1944; Swedish-born Kirsten has to learn English on the Minnesota frontier in 1854; orphaned Samantha witnesses suffragettes and industrialization in upstate New York in 1904. Mattel’s expansion of the brand included the creation of contemporary characters and My American Girl, a line of dolls that allows girls to replicate their own eye, skin and hair color.

I learned from talking to a former stylist for the lavish catalogs (objects of intense nostalgia for many women my age) that while we had been imagining our dolls’ lives, the grown-ups at the other end had been imagining ours: “All decisions were made on how they would affect that girl.”  After Mattel took over, “The interesting conversations that we had in the photo studio about how a girl would interpret the image, and what would be most important to her, were over,” as production sped up and quality declined. (Try styling a doll whose “eyes couldn’t even look in the same place at the same time.”)

The narratives of the original dolls, Molly, Kirsten and Samantha, as Schiller argued in The Atlantic, encouraged political consciousness, even radicality, as the dolls’ characters dealt with racism, the rights of the working poor or migration. These three original dolls were discontinued in 2008. The 2013 Doll of the Year is named Saige.  She has a hot air balloon and her crisis is “Can Saige ride Picasso [her grandmothers’ horse] in the parade and make her grandma proud?” One girl’s small-stakes snafu, not a point of entry to larger social or historical insight.

I don’t completely buy the pre-Mattel American Girl company as radical. The dolls were expensive even then, and they revved a girl’s appetite for consumption as the gorgeous catalogs arrived selling tantalizing new accessories — a beach set, a holiday dress, furniture. I was eight in 1989, and I chose Samantha because she had long hair and was an aristocrat; I had short hair and came from from 10 kinds of goat herder. History was part of the allure, but it resided in the luxurious accessories that were much more precious for their size: Samantha’s little golden locket, the satin belt over her drop-waist plaid grey-mauve dress, her pink velvet purse and embroidered white handkerchief. I didn’t know at the time that I would grow up to dress like Amelia Earhart’s older brother’s Latin tutor, but it was 1991 and there was something otherworldly and dream-inducing about a girl that wasn’t wearing biker shorts.

The clothes and accessories of Saige and the contemporary dolls come from a familiar world, even a drab one — retainers, sneakers, toast. There is almost nothing less exciting to me on this material planet than a cotton tunic over leggings. Petri was particularly damning of Saige and her lot in The Washington Post: “The image is embarrassing — privileged, comfortable, with idiotic-sounding names and few problems that a bake sale wouldn’t solve. Life comes to them in manageable, small bites, pre-chewed.”

Life may be predigested for the new American Girls, but food isn’t. I will get into the hard, fluorescent details of the American Girls Café, and you will know of the glue that filled my mouth when I tried to chew “Julie’s crispy rice treats dipped in white chocolate,” but first, the particular quandary I wanted to see.

When I was little, I put a lot of invisible tea into the German-made plastic crest of Samantha’s permanent smile (I had one of the Goetz-made dolls, before Mattel moved production to Hungary and China). I remember this particular problem: You can dress your doll in real clothes, and you can put her convincingly to sleep, but you can’t make her eat, a disappointment whose temporary alleviation wholly explains the existence of otherwise burdensome and grotesque (non-American Girl brand) Baby Pee Pee.

But, generally, feeding a doll presents an imaginative hurdle, one that privacy helps to surmount. When you are a little girl and you are having a tea party with your dolls, you have to shut the door. You have to shut the door because otherwise someone like your brother might come in and squeal an unpunctuated “Nice tea party, buttface,” or your mom might wander by and ask, “ARE YOU GIRLS HAVING TEA?” in a way that says, “I know you’re definitely not having any tea.” And then what are you? You’re a deranged mime moving invisible sugar and talking to no one, like that guy outside the bank. But in the immersive privacy of your imagination, you can pass empty cups that fill themselves unproblematically. It’s been so long since I played with dolls that the closest I come is taking the teeny tiny doll-size blue pills every morning that keep me from accidentally producing a human one, but I still remember setting up Samantha in the chair across from mine and asking her if she took milk. My sister was doing the same thing with her Kirsten doll, two closed doors down the hallway.

We entered “the public acknowledgement of a girl’s imagination” which is the American Girl Café (as described by a saleswoman) through a hot pink antechamber with a black-and-white diamond-checkered marble floor.  The first American Girl Café opened in Chicago in 1998, and there are now 13 total, although outside of New York, Chicago and LA, they are called “bistros” (not because they are Frencher but because they are smaller). When you enter the 150-seat dining room — hot pink window dressings and black-and-white Sephora-style striped columns — you are asked, “Did you bring a girl or do you need to borrow one?” This query, in the context of the Tampa-baroque décor, makes you feel as if you have entered a cheerful and peculiarly well-lit brothel.

“I need to borrow one,” I said, and I perused the shelves. Marie-Grace appealed to me, to stick with our analogy, because she looked the least used: Her pink hoop skirt had bounce and her curls were shiny. Matt, perhaps especially mortified at the thought of renting a young lady for company, chose an outlier, a Bitty Twin baby boy, with a dark brown bowl cut and a teal polo shirt. The Café, along with the larger American Girl Place which includes two stories of retail, a hair salon and a photo studio, conjures a science fiction scenario in which men and boys have been rounded up and pushed off a cliff and no one really misses them. There is a sofa downstairs, in the unmobbed American Girl book shop, on which a few fathers and brothers sit, slack-faced, eyes darting, waiting for the push.

When I called to make reservations, I asked whether two childless adults could dine at the Café and was told, “We are not children-only, we’re doll-friendly.” This is, strictly speaking, true. But we were obviously, to every mother there, either assholes or perverts, especially my 34-year-old male friend. I invited him because his doctoral dissertation involves a chapter on toys and I thought he might find it interesting, but I think the whole thing was torture. His brown coat stood out against a sea of pink dresses, and his voice sounded like a bear farting in the middle of a cricket orchestra. My curiosity about the ontological conflicts of doll digestion was not a legible excuse for our presence. I had made up a story before we went, and trained Matt in its details: Our daughter Mackenzie was an agoraphobe, and we needed to inspect the place before bringing her. It is possible this is already a story: Mackenzie gets the sweats in crowds, BUT CAN SHE BRAVE BRUNCH??

We had the sweats, but the hostess and the waitstaff treated us as if barren couples in their 30s came to the doll café for 4:00 tea every day. (Restaurant, café and corporate staff that I’ve dealt with have been helpful and nice without exception.) They seated us and Marie-Grace by a window and hooked our baby boy to the side of the table like a purse. The little girl at the table next to us sat with her back straight, almost too dignified for her mother, who leaned over to ask why we were there. (I told her the truth.) Harp music piped in the plucked chords of Easter brunches at East-Coast country clubs, and warm cinnamon buns arrived, and the cricket orchestra was lulled into self-satisfaction. Dolls sat akimbo and askew, untouched as the girls whose avatars they were looked over the beverage lists: pink lemonade in sugar-rimmed glasses, Saige’s signature mango smoothie (described as “refreshing” and “fancy”), and a booze list that covers the bases — three whites, three reds, Amstel light and “Champagne, Pierre Delize” that is actually just blanc de blanc but, heck, we’re in the realm of the imagination.

The waitress deposited a tiered tray stacked with “Caroline’s Mini BLT” and “Addy’s Fruit Kabobs.” I do not know exactly what role Caroline’s brioche BLT sliders played in recapturing her father, who was taken prisoner in the French and Indian War, nor how Addy’s love of skewered fruit evolved from her escape from slavery in 1864, but here I really have to underscore that I am not sneering, that this is the most charitable description I can give: This isn’t food. I wondered about real food encountering plastic mouths, but plastic food encountered real mouths. I couldn’t get the food into my own face. Even Matt, who ate a bag of Cheetos for second-breakfast that day, could not put away one of Caroline’s sandwiches, with their mealy mayo, the gummy tab of bacon, and bread that tasted dusty.

Schiller writing for The Atlantic described the dolls as “stylish accessories,” and this was truer nowhere than in the Café. I was worried about what happens to an imaginary friend when you take her out to eat, but the truth is that these dolls, totally contrary to everything I remembered about play, were born and live in public. They want to go out and show off their hair extensions and their ballet flats. This isn’t to say that girls don’t find ways to engage imaginatively with their American Girl dolls, but the dolls can serve their essential purpose of training you for the public rituals of shopping and dining without your ventriloquism.

I was completely beside the mark to wonder how American Girl dolls would eat — they don’t need your invisible tea, your weird story, your private rituals. They’re too busy answering the question, “If you could donate $100,000 to a charity, which one would you choose?” and other conversational prompts written on a stack of cards presented in a pink box in the center of the café table. These cards suggest that restaurants are places where upwardly mobile, confident women with taste exchange stories and opinions, which is fair enough, although I’m not sure where the dolls fit into the equation. I wonder if old Samantha and I had awkward first-date silences at our tea parties because we didn’t have cards to put the dialogue of strong, confident women in our mouths, answering questions like:

“Are you a saver or a spender?”
“What is the best way to cure stage fright?”
“How do you cheer yourself up when you’re feeling down?”
“Have you ever been really lucky? What happened?”
“Is cheerleading a sport?”
“What is the biggest dream you have?”

I answered that I don’t measure my dreams in size. Marie-Grace looked at me with her head cocked like I was a loser and said hers was to rule the world.