Last summer, I went on a date at Bernie’s, a popular, modern Brooklyn restaurant masquerading as an old-school red sauce joint — red lacquer booths and maraschino cherry-dolloped sundaes and all. Each white-paper-covered table is set with utensils, glasses — and a box set of Crayola crayons. Naturally, or so I thought, I suggested we both try and do tipsy little blind contour portraits of each other. He obliged — albeit begrudgingly. And then I realized that maybe I wasn’t at dinner with my capital-P Person. Faced with some harmless crayons, I saw his unwillingness to let loose, be spontaneous, or silly. I needed someone who, like me, would be glad for the crayon opportunity.
Crayons at restaurants have a long history, and are largely favored by parents (and owners) hoping to keep young kids occupied during mealtime. But why should kids have all the fun? If you feel too old, or too cool, to draw with restaurant crayons, let me assure you that you’re not. If restaurants are meant to be a respite from our homes, then crayons are the perfect ways to blow off steam, perhaps with a glass of wine in the other fist.
Thankfully, Bernie’s isn’t the only restaurant that gets it. Other hip restaurants like Jon & Vinny’s and, more recently, Horses in Los Angeles offer crayons for children and adults alike. And after the dark years of the pandemic, I hope other new spots will try facilitating that kind of fun.
The thing about crayons at restaurants is that they’re definitely not an opportunity to show off skills — though, sure, I will be impressed if you can draw an exact replica of a Jim Henson Muppet. There is absolutely no pressure to be a technical drawer; this isn’t a third grade art class where there’s a snobby teacher who says gotcha lines like, “It’s may I go to the bathroom, not can I.”
Instead, crayons are actually a built-in form of entertainment. Whether you use them to play M.A.S.H., draw a plate of spaghetti, or sketch a dog passing by on the street, restaurant crayons should be a goofy little aperitif activity to a meal. They can be a lifeline to give an otherwise limp conversation a low-stakes crutch. And if the food is taking a while, they make for a far more pleasant waiting activity than complaining and obsessively checking the time on your phone does.
Restaurant crayons might be the ultimate litmus test of chemistry for how people eat — and play — together. If you are on the same wavelength about where to eat — and then what to do with crayons you find when you get there — then, perhaps, chances are there will be more fun dinners in your future. And, if everything goes well, it’s nice to think that your mementos of that dinner live on after you pay and leave. That is, at least, until the table is reset for the next couple.