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JOEL STEIN

All dolled up

What you can learn from a power lunch at the American Girl Cafe.

May 09, 2006|JOEL STEIN

YOU CAN HAVE your power lunches at the Ivy. I say if you're serious about a closing, you've got to make the other guy uncomfortable: Take him to eat finger sandwiches with a bunch of little girls pouring tea for their dolls. I now take all my big meetings at the American Girl Cafe.

I pulled a few strings to score the most difficult lunch reservation in town -- it's been booked for months -- just a few days after American Girl Place opened two weeks ago at the Grove. I invited a TV-producer friend, Matt Swanson, and told him to suit up. It's one thing to eat among 9-year-old girls. It's another to do it while looking like a pedophile.

As we walked through the enormously popular doll catalog company's huge store (just its third in the world), I could tell that Swanson was impressed with the fact that you can charge $87 for a doll. I knew this because he said: "Wow, they charge $87 for a doll."

I acted like it was no big deal that beauticians were standing behind tiny little stylist chairs, where they put smocks on the dolls and braided their hair for $20. I was cool about the life-size outfits you could wear to match your doll. In fact, I was thinking about pitching it to Swanson as a horror movie.

I also acted nonchalant about the dolls' deeply complicated histories, meant to teach tween girls American history.

Addy, for instance, is an escaped slave who used the Underground Railroad but still enjoys a $22 pinafore and snood. And the room displaying Kit explained that she "is a clever, resourceful girl who faces the Great Depression with spirit and determination." Kit's hand-me-down overalls are $22, and her hobo camp supplies are $24. I was starting to understand how the Depression happened.

As we entered the cafe, our hostess, Nicole, asked us if we'd brought our dolls. We had not, so she offered us a choice of tablemates. We chose Jess, who is half-Asian, which, Swanson pointed out, he is too. "Her story is all about friendship and making friends," Nicole explained. "Mine too," said Swanson. Hitting on the American Girl cafe hostess is a major power move.

As we passed table after table of girls and their moms trying not to look at us, Nicole slid Jess' tiny chair to the table alongside us. Then our waiter, Rex, brought us some napkins and told us to keep the pink napkin rings because ... they're also hair ties! I give Wolfgang Puck six days before he steals that, and seven before he goes on every morning talk show to tell us about it.

REX ACTUALLY changed my napkin for a black one so it wouldn't lint on my brown suit, something not even the waiters at the Ivy thought of. The Ivy waiters also hadn't thought about bringing over a box of Table Talkers, which are little questions you can use to instigate conversation. Rex pulled one out at random and read it: "Have you ever been told you couldn't do something because you're a girl?" Rex paused and then gave Swanson and I the knowing look of a man having to wait on two men purposely making asses of themselves. That's when Rex forced me to put a piece of cantaloupe on Jess' tiny plate.

Luckily, the tension was broken by the amuse bouche: tiny cinnamon buns that Rex made us read about on the back of our menus. It seems American Girl founder Pleasant T. Rowland once went to the city and had cinnamon buns and found them delightful. This is when I realized it's hard to pitch a movie when the cinnamon buns have more back story than your characters.

Deep into the seriously delicious warm spinach and artichoke dip, but before my shockingly hearty quiche, I looked at the tablecloths and finery and realized that every truly girlie thing I've ever seen is some kind of re-creation of the Victorian era. Nineteenth century England, it turns out, was the worst period ever to be a man, other than ages 15 to 19.

Swanson looked around at the same things and said, "This is training girls at a very young age to blow $100,000 on their wedding." Then we laughed the stifled laugh of two grown men eating at a doll store.

Full after our excellent trio of desserts, including the educational Chocolate Victory Flower Garden, Swanson and I headed outside, where we immediately wanted to spit, smoke, drink whiskey and get hookers -- all of which you can conveniently do near the Grove.

We were still a bit shellshocked about just how different men and women are, and how the girls didn't seem at all freaked out by any of what we just saw. "Maybe the female need to shop is instinctual," Swanson said. "Men still have to teach their sons to throw a baseball, but these girls take to shopping immediately."

And so did I. Because as ridiculous as it all was, the world that women create is awfully civilized. It's a lot better than taking meetings over a free strip-club buffet.

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