Twentysomethings buy their inner child a drink at Babyland Hot Formula

January 28, 1995|By Howard Henry Chen | Howard Henry Chen,Special to The Sun

New York -- During a recent blustery Monday night, in a lower Manhattan bar, Helen Carlile, 26, straddled a tiny wooden chair with curved aluminum legs and a smoothed-out cherry wood seat, the type of chair she may have used 18 years ago in a third-grade classroom. On the floor were toys and stuffed animals, and on a nightstand nearby sat "The Jungle Book" and a dog-eared copy of Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things (( Are."

"It's cute and when you're unemployed, it's a nice place to come and relax," says Ms. Carlile, a former New Yorker who now lives in San Francisco.

She was sitting in Babyland, an East Village bar and cafe that opened last year and is garnering national and international attention for its Romper Room theme: pink and baby-blue paneling, a menu that includes milk and cookies and egg creams, and three-sided, slatted cribs that serve as chairs. But for the occupants of this mock nursery, bibs and Underoos are replaced with retro bell bottoms and leather, and Infamil is replaced with Johnnie Walker.

Similarly outfitted bars and cafes have toddled onto the scene in less notoriously hip locales -- from Madison, Wis., to Albuquerque, N.M. They're the latest baby step in the regression theme that has enticed Generation X's twentysomethings. First it was pacifiers, then Saturday morning cartoons, now high chairs as bar stools.

It's just what the pediatrician ordered.

The Babyland marquee hanging over the small entrance is painted in fat letters and inked in bright Crayola colors, clashing with the sign on the door that reads, "No One Under 21 Will Be Admitted -- Identification Required."

Once inside, patrons are greeted with framed drawings of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, plush Raggedy Ann dolls with booster seats intermingled between the bar stools. A hobby horse has sentinel duty in front of the bathroom, and sugar for coffee is kept in ceramic cookie jars. The clientele can be seen holding vodka tonics with one hand and manipulating Slinkies with the other. For frustrated twentysomethings like 28-year-old Blake Henrikson, refuge and solace are to be found in the comforting environs of this nursery setting with its Etch-a-Sketches, Tinkertoys and height charts.

"This is a cool place to drink, and I like the stuff here," says Mr. Henrikson, a writer. "You see toys and books that you wouldn't ordinarily see unless you open up your attic or have kids yourself. But if you think about it, it is depressing that a lot of people think that our best days have already passed us. We're not supposed to be here reliving some great past as if we were war veterans at the local VFW."

To marketers, the Babyland theme sounds like money in the piggy bank.

"It's capitalizing on the popular rave phenomenon where they're wearing little baby T-shirts and sucking on pacifiers," says Richard Leonard, vice president of the Zendl Group, a New York-based consulting firm that specializes in products and trends for the younger crowd. The childhood-regression theme in bars and cafes mirrors marketing campaigns of products like Frosted Flakes cereal and Oreo cookies, campaigns that take consumers back to the magical and innocent days of their childhood, Mr. Leonard says. For twentysomethings, it's one big nostalgia fest.

"It sounds like a pretty good gimmick," confirms Sarah Dunn, the young author of "The Slacker Handbook," which includes much discussion on how to hang out at cafes.

Babyland is the brainchild of 35-year-old New York club promoter Deb Parker, who says she thought the baby theme would create a "sweet and innocent" bar. She now admits, "This childhood regression thing can bring out the weirdness in people.

"We have to have security guards here," she says, "because there are so many fights."

Communal angst is often at the core.

"We're angry," says Ms. Carlile, comfortably installed in a crib with white brocade sheets. "We're in the same position now as we were when we were 21. We're supposed to be going somewhere, but we're not."

"Look around you," says a man who gives his name only as Tomas and his age as 22. "A lot of the people who come here are artists and writers -- talented, smart people, but stuck without anything to really do with their talents but to pop in here and drink."

Although the bar is doing good business, Ms. Parker says she doesn't much like hanging out there.

"Some people find it very comforting being here, and some people find it very unsettling. If you have kids, why would you want to hang out in a bar that has toys everywhere?" she asks. "But some people like it because it can be juvenile and stoopid, with all those little o's."

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