NEW YORK — It was Sept. 28 and I was late — too late to score a lunch reservation at American Girl Place for any weekend from mid-November to mid-December.

NEW YORK — It was Sept. 28 and I was late — too late to score a lunch reservation at American Girl Place for any weekend from mid-November to mid-December.

This was a problem. Our trip to the American Girl mega-complex on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan had become a tradition in our family — something my daughters and, yes, even me, really looked forward to as a way to kick off the holidays.

If I think about it rationally, I shouldn't like it so much. It's too expensive, it's too crowded, it's too ridiculous to think about scores of girls lined up for their turn to watch their dolls get their hair styled at the AG Salon for $20 — and perhaps a facial scrub (for the dolls) too.

Yet, in spite of all this, if you check your sense of reality and reason at the revolving door, it can be a wonderful time.

You see girls clutching their wallets filled with the birthday money grandma gave them. You see their eyes light up when they find the doll with just the same hair color, eye color and skin tone as they have. (There are 25 different Just Like You dolls.)

And, despite the commercialism, there's a good message here for the mostly 3- to 10-year-olds that the store seems to attract. The emphasis is on friendship with a side dose of self-esteem.

The historical dolls that are at the root of the brand, telling the story of fictional young girls on the prairie, during the Great Depression and at times of war, can be inspiring and a way for today's girls to connect with what they're learning at school.

This year, my 7-year-old seems most interested in Kaya, a girl from the Nez Perce tribe growing up in 1764. Indian tribal history is a key part of my daughter's second grade curriculum.

It's hard to resist buying at least one thing when you're at this emporium since it seems every possible space is stuffed with dolls, ranging from the classic 18-inch dolls with long flowing hair to miniature dolls (only $20!), plus matching outfits for dolls and girls. There's a whole subcategory of stuffed animals, who are supposed to be pets to match specific dolls, and of course they're all supposed to be friends too.

But, there are other things to do at American Girl. One can only shop so much — credit cards do have maximums.

There's a theater with performances Thursday through Sunday of a show for ages 6 and up, "Circle of Friends: An American Girls Musical," which incorporates the historical doll characters. On Friday and Saturday, there's an alternate show for the younger set, "Bitty Bear Matinee: The Family Tree," based on American Girl's more juvenile property, Bitty Baby.

A quick review: "Circle of Friends" really is for older girls. There aren't fantastic costumes, catchy songs or other bells and whistles to entertain little ones. Instead it's a series of subtle vignettes that needs an audience with a decent attention span, a good imagination and the ability to sit still for more than an hour.

Other than the hair salon, American Girl Place also houses a doll hospital, which fixes playroom mishaps and what the store calls "well-loved" dolls, and a photo studio for girls and their dolls to pose for a fake magazine cover together — photo packages cost $22.95 to $34.95, according to the Web site.

The restaurant, however, is the highlight. Again, you need to erase all expectations of normalcy: Every table has regular chairs for you and your children, as well as seats for the dolls. The doll seats attach to the table, like high chairs for real babies, and each doll gets her own cup and saucer place setting — often with a drink poured in by their owners.

The room has the feel of an upscale tea salon, with the decor rooted in a surprisingly chic black-and-white graphic pattern with more than a few touches of hot pink.

Waiting for each girl on the table is a cloth napkin with a gerber daisy ponytail holder as a napkin ring. A darn good cinnamon bun is also put out before you arrive. You do sort of need the jolt of sugar after that shopping marathon.

During lunch seatings, a platter of healthier snacks, including fruit kabobs, and carrot and celery sticks, comes out next.

The entrees are what you'd expect — chicken tenders and pizza, along with a grilled chicken and salad option for parents. The food is fine, especially considering it has nothing to do with why you're in the restaurant. Chances are your kids will be opening whatever you've just bought in between sips of pink lemonade; nobody wants to wait until they get home.

Our family has enjoyed the lunch at American Girl Place in the past, but this year, we made our reservations too late to score one during the holiday season. So instead we're trying high tea on a Sunday in the late afternoon.

There's no reason to think my girls won't just love cream cheese-and-cucumber sandwiches, as long as their dolls are at the table.