Nestled on the corner of a busy thoroughfare in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is a Oaxacan restaurant called Casa Azul. It is sapphire blue with a shimmering bar, potted palms, and portraits of Frida Kahlo on the wall. I’ve glimpsed the interior through the windows and while I’ve waited in my mask to use the bathroom. I’ve never eaten inside, but I still feel like a regular.
The first time I went to Casa Azul I was with my husband, our toddler, and a pair of friends and their daughter. We were all hungry, cranky, and cold after a long afternoon outing. We needed dinner but had limited options in the Saturday evening rush. It was winter, and we weren’t all vaccinated, so we wanted to go to a restaurant with outdoor space but heaters, a place with food and atmosphere that would satiate the grownups but that would also welcome the presence of small children.
Casa Azul sat our party of six at an outdoor table with two highchairs. The children banged their spoons and sang while we adults encouraged them to lower their voices. We warmed up under the heat lamps, drank hot toddies and beer, shared guacamole and queso fundido with shiitake mushrooms while we waited for our food to arrive. Our dinner was boisterous, chilly, and loud, interrupted often by children in urgent need of milk or a wipe or a kiss. It wasn’t what I used to consider a good time at dinner. There was no candlelight, no quiet, no promise of another round and then another. But the pleasures of our time were familiar although changed from what they were before we had kids, before COVID. I had the enchiladas heaped with radish and queso fresco, and served with abuelita sauce — spicy, dark, and sweet. It’s still my go-to order now, a year later.
We’ve returned often as a family of three to Casa Azul. I’ve gone also for lunch with friends and just with my husband for date nights we say we’re too tired for. We drag ourselves out and after some time away from home and a round of cocktails — a paloma for me, mezcal for him — we find that we are still ourselves. We’ve taken my mother-in-law to Casa Azul, too, just so she could try the flan, the best we’ve ever had. She’s the one who is usually entrusted with making flan for family gatherings, so she knows how rare it is to find a perfect flan, delicate and not too sweet.
We are proud that given the choice between pizza or rice and beans, our daughter will choose rice and beans every time.
The food is an entirely different cuisine than what we know and make at home, but we recognize many of the elements. My husband is Colombian, and my family is from the Caribbean, mostly the Dominican Republic. We love that we can bring our daughter to the restaurant, and she can use her Spanish. We are proud that given the choice between pizza or rice and beans, our daughter will choose rice and beans every time. And we’re grateful to be regulars at a Latinx-owned restaurant in our neighborhood.
Our daughter goes out to restaurants far more than my husband or I ever did as children. If she overhears us discussing what to do for dinner, she’ll plead to go out for rice and beans. Once, I asked her why she likes going out to eat so much and she said, “I like being with my family.”
At home, there is always the pull of some other thing away from the table — dishes to wash while she finishes her dinner, a nagging email to answer in another room. But when we’re out, we sit and talk and eat. Since we always dine outside, we can admire our neighborhood. We can catch the sun set, feel the wind or warmth. We can calm our daughter by pointing out birds or clouds or buses passing by. Once, we got caught in the rain.
Since early motherhood and the pandemic coincided for me — my daughter not yet one when we went into lockdown — my experience of going out to eat has doubly changed. I am looser now than I used to be about going out for dinner. I say yes much more often. This is, in part, because I can afford to be more indulgent. I have more financial security now in my career and mid-thirties than I used to. But it’s also because I want to celebrate more. I know keenly that every chance to go out and be together is a gift. I need little occasion to decide that I’ll get the entrée I really want, or to order a special drink. We are alive. We have the means. We are together. We toast to that and to our life.