Korean Village Restaurant general manager Jason Lee (clockwise from left) makes Stanley Bergman, j wallace, Scott Turner Schofield and S. Bear Bergman feel at home.
It sounds like the opening of a joke: two gay dads and a six-month-old walk into a bar (and grill)! Less funny when it's the only place open on a freezing Good Friday, and downright humourless when the simmering hostility of the other patrons means abandoning your juice, cancelling the soup and heading back into the cold.
Shortly after that, we decided to move back to Toronto, where, among other benefits, we figured we'd be more likely to find queer-friendly establishments (and have more restaurant choices on stat holidays).
Queer-friendliness turned out not to be a problem. We live on the edge of the Church-Wellesley village and can have any number of cuisines in the company of as many homos as we'd like. The problem, it turns out, is that these restaurants don't like having a squalling small human visit their unimpeachable decor - and smear things on it.
Unwilling to resign ourselves to a half-decade at East Side Mario's, we started experimenting. We looked for places with other children but no insipid "children's menu" of chicken nuggets and PB&J, places that were noisy but where the music wasn't too loud, places with interesting vegetarian options (my husband is an ethical vegetarian and has been since he asked his parents for permission as his 12th birthday present), places where we felt comfortable as a queer couple.
This turned out to be a tall order. Joints where we liked the food often weren't child-friendly, and the overwhelmingly straight vibe and lacklustre food at others was a turnoff. We started ordering in yet another pizza when work and caring for our son, Stanley, left us too exhausted for proper cookery.
One cold day around his first birthday, we find ourselves in front of a place on Bloor with the uninspired name Korean Village (aka Han Kuk Kwan, 628 Bloor West, 416-536-0290). We've been out doing errands for a little too long and are on the verge of the kind of fight you have when you're too hungry to function.
In our marriage of two over-committed people who aren't always the best about stopping work to put food in, the hungry fight is to be avoided at all costs, lest we find ourselves hissing at each other from either side of the car: "Jesus Harriet Christ on a canapé tray with a swizzle stick, just tell me what you want to eat!"
So we walk in. They take one look at us - two chilly, grouchy guys with a wriggly toddler - and give us a small private room with a bell to ring when we need the server. Later, someone suggests to us that they might've been trying to hide the homos, but in that moment we are overwhelmed with gratitude to be beyond the gaze of other diners while we try to eat and keep our kid from (literally) climbing the walls.
A smiling woman brings in a tray of tiny dishes containing even tinier delicious vegetables and kimchee, which I later learn are called banchan. At half-past-dinnertime with a toddler and a vegetarian, this is more or less heaven on a plate. We dig in to barely cooked cucumber with a light tang, bean sprouts elevated to magic with some then-unknown ingredients, potatoes made sweet and salty, tiny fish cake slivers, sweet pickled daikon and two kinds of kimchee as our collective blood sugar returns to normal and we warm in the small space.
Even the little guy munches happily while we page through the vast menu and regain our equilibrium. Ever since that day, the first taste of blanched cucumber slicked with superfine sesame oil and the merest touch of seasoning relaxes my shoulders like a password.
When it's time to order, we have questions about the relative vegetarianosity of certain menu items and only one word of Korean between us, so our attempt to question our server fails. She disappears and reappears with Jason, now our friend and stalwart but then just another friendly stranger.
We like him right away when he looks at the zone of chaos around our small person and gives him a big smile anyhow, and we grow to adore him as he brings endless small tastes and morsels of delicious food for Stanley to try (and converts a number of dishes to veggie-friendly without sacrificing a bit of flavour).
Turns out that sometimes we do want to go where everybody knows your name, just like the song says, and that this is especially true in the kind of work my husband and I do as educators and advocates.
After a day of absorbing people's homophobia, transphobia, gender-essentialism and assorted other bad behaviour, it's balm to feel welcomed and valued, given our favourite table and brought an assortment of banchan that Jason knows we all like and can eat.
That first day, he brings two separate and highly customized stone bowls of bi bim bap. Everything is wonderful - that signature sweet-salty-tangy trifecta that makes Korean food so appealing in perfect balance.
My eggs are runny, as requested, and ready to mix into a glorious mess studded with crunchy bits of rice made crisp in the hot bowl, while my husband's bowl is made without egg or meat or anything with fish sauce, puffs of seasoned tofu heaped in the centre. It's our first totally successful meal as parents, and when we leave we feel a little more like maybe we can do this family thing.
On the way out, we meet the formidable Mrs. Lee, owner and head chef. (Jason tells us everything is prepared with her recipes.) She smiles at us, casually but warmly, and then catches sight of Stanley. Exchanging a few phrases with Jason in Korean, she beckons us to bring Stanley closer and, through her son, explains that children with a whorl of hair on top of their heads, as Stanley has, are thought to be born with exceptional luck.
"Fortune baby!" she exclaims in English, and that is how she has greeted him for years when we arrive, followed shortly by a little special snack from the kitchen, and after that the banchan - now, for all of us, the taste of being cared for.
Author and educator S. Bear Bergman launches the LGBTQ children's book subscription Flamingo Rampant Book Club - featuring celebratory picture books about kids in LGBTQ families - on July 15. Charter subscribers get a seventh book free. flamingorampant.com. His recent collection of essays, Blood, Marriage, Wine & Glitter (Arsenal Pulp), is currently available.