Arts Beginner mind

Margaritas and monkey bars

A not-so-Zen former New Yorker’s guide to the alamo city

In my previous life as a childless New Yorker, I spent a lot of time in bars. I hung with my friends in bars, did business in bars, and even wrote about them for a local publication. When I became pregnant, I thought my barhopping days were over for good — but then I moved to Texas. Here I discovered the coolest hybrid since the jackalope: the “playbar,” or “barground.” Well, neither neologism has a great ring to it, so how about “the child-friendly restaurant that serves good drinks in a bar-like setting.” And has a playground.

I’m not talking about “family-friendly” nuthouses like Chuck E. Cheese’s. Or those grim Habitrails at McDonald’s. Or even big chains like Joe’s Crab Shack. I’m talking about places I’d go to even if I didn’t have a kid, like the Scenic Loop Bar & Café or the Cove. Granted, if I didn’t have a kid, I wouldn’t sit anywhere near their playgrounds — that’s like having a ringside seat at Lord of the Flies. Scary.

NYC has its share of child-friendly restaurants — and not just the theme-park atrocities in Times Square — but they don’t have actual playgrounds. Understandably. Who’s going to waste precious square footage on Jungle Gyms when a windowless broom closet with a toilet can run you $500,000? Climate might also be a factor. A highly unscientific study (I asked a few friends) revealed that Texas is not the only place with “bargrounds”; they’ve been spotted in Florida and other southern states. But restaurateurs in the Northeast should really reconsider. The weather up there suits al fresco dining (and playing) for six months out of the year, and I think that’s about all we can say of San Antonio as well (in August, Chuck E. Cheese’s does start making an awful lot of sense).

When I became pregnant, I thought my barhopping

days were over for good — but then I moved to Texas.

The thing I didn’t realize about having a kid — and I’m not sure that anyone does pre-parenthood — is exactly how many hours I would be logging at playgrounds. This despite the magnificently expensive Rainbow Playground in my own backyard. For the same reason that I need to barhop even though I have a well-stocked bar at home, a kid needs to go out and mingle with her people, to sample the subtle differences in the sandboxes and swing sets that life has to offer. I get it, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Because my daughter is at the age where I still must hover after her when she’s on the swingy bridge or suffer the bloody consequences, I can’t just sit on a bench, blithely flipping through magazines. So it’s boring. I’ve tried going with friends and their kids, but no two 2-year-olds ever want to play in the same corner of the playground at the same time. Which means you end up alone with your kid on the swingy bridge, waving to your adult friend who’s marooned in the sandbox 50 yards away.

That’s where the barground starts making so much sense. If you have to go to a playground, why not find a way to make it a bit more fun for the grown-ups? I mean, it would be unseemly to accompany one’s child to the swings with a cocktail in hand — though apparently not illegal. One of the playgrounds we frequent has a sign that warns NO PETS, NO FIREARMS, NO ALCOHOL BEFORE NOON. Guess I have to move completely off the grid if I want to enjoy an early-morning happy hour at the local tot lot — along with my hound and trusty sidearm.

Of the local bargrounds I’ve visited, I think Scenic Loop Café has the best setup, or at least the best margaritas. (Bonus points for the creepily lifelike pirate dangling from a tree.) The playground at the Longhorn Café on Blanco doesn’t look like much; in fact, it looks a little scary, just a rickety slide with a lot of signs warning parents to watch their kids. But this doesn’t seem to faze my daughter, who’ll scramble over it all through dinner and become just as apoplectic upon leaving as she does at Brackenridge Park. (Somehow a tantrum is easier to take after a couple of beers.) I also highly recommend “Family Night,” held most Sundays at Floore’s Country Store. They don’t have a playground but there’s plenty of room to cavort (inside and out), which is perfect if your child is still in that unapologetic dancin’ fool stage and not yet opinionated enough to demand her own music (i.e., the Wiggles).

A more, um, adventurous option is Willie’s Grill and Icehouse, basically a giant sandbox surrounded by a restaurant overlooking Highway 281. On a recent Saturday evening that sandbox was more like a mosh pit, with 7-year-old Charles Atlases mercilessly kicking sand in the faces of 25-pound weaklings while their oblivious parents knocked back Shiners. Dragging my overmatched 2-year-old kicking and screaming out of the pit, I made a mental note to call our babysitter. It would be so lovely to have a civilized night out — and last I checked Liberty Bar doesn’t have a swing set.

By Gillian Fassel

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