A few months before Lavender was born, Mr. Mostafa and I went to Benihana, a Japanese chain restaurant that recently opened a branch here in Riyadh.
(Sorry, the photos for this post are not good. Quite blurry. But you should get the idea.)
We loved it! We’ve gone back a couple of times since. It’s now a tradition for Mr. Mostafa to hop behind the grill before the chef arrives and pretend to be the chef. He does it every time. Goober.
Awww, a rice heart! (Made by the actual chef, not Mr. Mostafa. Although I’m sure Mr. Mostafa could have made it if he wanted to. He’s proven himself to be quite creative with food.)
We definitely enjoyed our meal, but at the time, it felt weird to be in a teppanyaki restaurant where Saleh and I were the only ones being cooked for at our table. That’s how teppanyaki works in Riyadh; in the family section at Benihana, your family or group gets a table to themselves, enclosed in a small room so that you can dine privately. Obviously, this is very unlike elsewhere in the world, where all of the tables are usually set up in a large open area, and you will be seated wherever there are seats available (and of course, there are not separate sections for men dining alone or with other men–the “singles section,” in Saudi vernacular–and for families–the “family section,” natch).
Saleh and I talked about how weird that was…about how in the States, being seated with people you don’t know is sometimes part of the fun. But in Riyadh, that simply does not happen. Families like their privacy when they eat, partly because so many ladies wear niqab, so privacy means the ladies can take off their niqabs. In fact, in the family section of every restaurant, there are usually at least some tables in tiny rooms, offering full privacy (when you need the waiter, you flip a switch inside the room, and a light comes on outside the room, so the waiter knows you need him. Also, whenever the waiter enters, he will knock the door and wait to be told to come in, so that the ladies have a chance to cover). And even tables in open areas have the option of having a privacy partition set up around the table.
Honestly, I kind of liked the privacy system when I first got here and experienced it. It was so different than what I was used to, so I suppose it had novelty for me. Saleh, on the other hand (the Saudi one, ha!), has always hated it. Every time we went out to eat, he would request a table in the open area, if the restaurant had one. He has always felt like the Saudi system of eating in restaurants takes away from the enjoyment of going out to eat. He didn’t like being cooped up.
Then we had a baby.
Now we both regard the privacy system as a godsend. Our ideal restaurant, at least when we have the baby with us (which is currently all the time), has fully enclosed tables in privacy rooms large enough to accommodate Lavender’s stroller. This way, we can put the baby in the stroller if she sleeps, or one of us can stand up and bounce her and soothe her if she fusses. If she cries, she won’t disturb other patrons. And of course, the biggest advantage is that if she needs to eat…well, I can easily take care of that without having to wrestle with a nursing cover.
This all became clear on our next visit to Benihana. As we got settled at our table, Lavender was snoozing in her stroller after a good half-hour of fighting sleep before we left the house. A few minutes later, after our order had been taken, the chef wheeled his cart into the room, saw the sleeping baby, said, “Ooooh, hi, baby!”, and started cooking. Quietly. No noisy cooking show. No clanking knives. He flipped three lemon peels into his chef hat (by the way, teppanyaki chefs in Riyadh seem to be a lot more skilled than those in southern Missouri. This chef didn’t miss any of the tricks he attempted). He expertly cracked an egg on the edge of his spatula. He did his best to entertain us without waking the baby…and he could do that because it was just the two of us. If there had been a table full of patrons with us, they would probably have been resentful that this sleeping baby had kept them from getting the full experience, you know? Instead, we got to have as much of the experience as possible because we were able to let the baby sleep.
Of course, she didn’t stay asleep. Toward the end of the cooking, she woke up. And when she did, the chef started cooking to entertain her. She was fascinated.
It was really a lovely, relaxing evening out for our little family. After the chef was done cooking, we ate our finished meal and played with the baby. Then we ended with a pot of green tea and some mango ice cream. Delicious!
The one way that I wish Saudi restaurants were more accommodating for families is changing tables. I have yet to see a changing table in a restroom in a restaurant, whereas in the States, they seem to be everywhere (at least in the women’s restrooms. Not sure about men’s. I should ask someone about that. Although I’m going to guess that changing tables in men’s restrooms are about as common as changing tables anywhere in Saudi Arabia). I suppose that if necessary, the table privacy means that I could change the baby’s diaper in the seat at the table…but that still seems quite unappetizing, even if the other patrons wouldn’t have to be bothered by knowing it was happening.
So, yeah. I wish Riyadh had more changing tables, and more things for families to do besides eating out and shopping (oh, how we miss going to the movies! Back in the States, we rarely went a week without seeing a movie in the theater). But I do appreciate the way many restaurants make going out an enjoyable experience for everyone, including crazy parents like us who can’t bear to leave their little ones out of the fun.
And for movies, there’s always Bahrain.