Photo courtesy of Ambika Samarthya-Howard

Check Your Mom Guilt At The Door At This Restaurant With Childminders

The first time I was introduced to Bambanani, a Johannesburg restaurant that has childminders to watch kids while parents eat, I was horrified. How could I enjoy a glass of Sauvignon Blanc when my wee one was playing with a complete stranger out of sight? Two years later, it’s one of my favorite places to frequent, and I’m there nearly every day when I’m traveling for work.

Like most mothers, when my 2-year-old son is around, I have an incredibly hard time paying attention to what anyone else is saying, whether it’s my partner or a friend. And in the rare event I am actually having a real conversation with another adult, my son quickly breaks in to get my attention. Of course, I want to be present with my son. But I also don’t feel the need to spot garbage trucks and diggers in the road for hours.

Founded a decade ago by Caryn Cohen, a mother who couldn’t find a place her family could go that were both adult- and kiddie-friendly, Bambanani accomplishes exactly that. There are multiple play areas, with everything from Legos and PlayStations to a play kitchen and jungle gym, each completely contained (so you can always see your child). Equally important, the actual food and wine is delicious. My husband and I often joke that even if they were offering toast for $5, the place would be popular, but I often get salmon or a green Thai curry while my son is throwing himself around in the ball pit. It doesn’t get any better than that.

The author's son plays on the gym equipment at Bambanini. Crisp glass of vino not pictured. Photo courtesy of Ambika Samarthya-Howard

Bambanani, and South Africa’s other restaurants that come with childminding services, is a long way from Brooklyn, famous for its over-the-top parenting practices. From the park to the splash pad, I feel eyes on me whenever my child is not arm’s distance from me. The idea of letting your child play when you’re not by their side is not the norm. It’s exhausting, but it’s hard to shake the frowns if we are not connected with our kids at all times.

Constant physical attachment is not my style: I value my son being completely immersed in my life, from being on film sets to long flights even if that doesn’t mean he’s the center of my attention every given moment. I love being able to have him around during work meetings or park happenings with friends. Not to mention, being able to just have conversations with my partner without it being on the calendar. But I have found it nearly impossible to find restaurants in Brooklyn with engaging and safe child-play areas.

Ironically, I would find my answer halfway across the world.

You check in with the hostess, sign in your kids to do an art project outside, and then sit down for a relaxing meal. It feels like make-believe.

I left the advertising world to take a job in international development at a non-profit based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and it was on my family’s first trip there that I discovered Bambanani. After a 16-hour flight, security lines, and check-ins, we had landed in Johannesburg and I needed to go straight to a meeting. My colleague suggested Bambanani as somewhere I could bring my whole family.

A five-minute walk from the guesthouse I was staying at in Melville, a neighborhood in Johannesburg, Bambanani looks from the outside like the kind of restaurant you’d go to for a crisp glass of Riesling after escaping your young children. Inside, though, it was a completely different story. Alongside the dining room are a network of rooms staffed by childminders. You check in with the hostess, sign in your kids to do an art project outside, and then sit down for a relaxing meal. It feels like make-believe.

No, it's not an illusion. Photo courtesy of Ambika Samarthya-Howard

It took a moment for me to get used to the idea. I wasn’t sure I could really relax into leaving my son with a stranger so I could eat a falafel burger at a leisurely pace. I was anxious for him to feel comfortable — which he did — and wishing I could just relax — which took a lot longer. Then it dawned on me that my son goes to daycare, and that a 30-minute lunch was way less dramatic. I eased into it.

Between the maze of attractions and the attentive childminders, I never saw a child cry or run to their parents, even though they were sitting a few footsteps away.

James McPherson, the long-standing manager, knew they hit on something big when they started 10 years ago. But having a packed restaurant doesn’t always leave the owners awash in profit. Bambanani’s costs include 20 extra security guards, a full staff of childminders, and imported jungle gums. On a busy day they have 100 to 200 kids, so they have to replace toys every month. “The model is very difficult to run with affordable prices. It was popular from day one but it’s about getting the model right. PlayStations are expensive!” McPherson tells me.

Your Buddha bowl is ready. Photo courtesy of Ambika Samarthya-Howard

And the care to the amenities show: my son was completely absorbed. He moved from the slide to a truck set to play equipment. Between the maze of attractions and the attentive childminders, I never saw a child cry or run to their parents, even though they were sitting a few footsteps away. I had trouble concentrating that first meeting, but slowly grew to enjoy the conversations with my husband when we returned.

There are of course play-friendly areas in the U.S. (Jessica Biel's kid-friendly restaurant in L.A., Au Fudge, closed in July), but they tend to suffer from a lack of space, or a legit wine list. It’s hard to fully accommodate the needs of kids or adults. We’re forever having to decide whose needs are more important, and inevitably end up in a bad compromise or on the floor with a puzzle. Which is absolutely important in a child’s development — but so is not losing your love for political conversations or lengthy talks with your husband.

American society sees child-nurturing, self-care, and marital care as separate blocks — competing goals that take time out of another.

After several visits to Johannesburg with my family, I began to long for Bambanani. There, I could finally catch up with my husband on his work, on how his family was doing, and just enjoy a moment of silence (a rare commodity) between us. To be able to enjoy that at 11 a.m. without having to arrange for three hours of childcare and book a reservation is a gift.

Bambanani has a massive fan base. Marcha Bekker, a local mother who has two children, 1 and 4, who hardly ever sleep through the night, is a frequent customer. “I go way too often and spend way too much money at this gem of a place.” Why? ”It’s one of the few places in Joburg where the childminders nearly outweigh the kids in terms of numbers. This means you as a parent can actually sit down and have a coffee AND a meal AND an adult conversation. Small things but all worth so much!”

There are not small things to most of us, in fact they feel like luxuries. It’s hard not to ask why we don’t have these type of restaurants back home. I imagine it would be a litigious nightmare. And there’s also the relative low cost of childcare in South Africa: experienced nannies in South Africa earn a fraction of what their U.S. counterparts do, based on Indeed data, primarily because of the high unemployment rate in South Africa (which is close to 27 percent, per Statistics South Africa) and the weak rand.

But I think it’s more than that. I think American society sees child-nurturing, self-care, and marital care as separate blocks — competing goals that take time out of another. The idea we could possibly be doing something romantic and fun for the child feels not only foreign, but guilt-ridden. I was a Brooklyn mother, who used to stand up at cafes so I could rock my baby and drink at the same time. Now I was handing off my kid at the front door. Maybe others could cross over, too.

Back in the über-type A society of Brooklyn parenting, I yearn for those moments with my husband, where I can enjoy a HOT cup of coffee at the table while my son goes down his adventure slide. Until we go back, I’ll have to stay on my toes at the playground while grabbing a sip of my lukewarm coffee.