Upscale Dining with Kids: Delicious or Disastrous?

Sea bass carpaccio, anyone?

Eating out with kids, even at upscale establishments, needn’t be a nightmare. What it takes is some training, some preparation, and a bit of common sense.

The news of late has been atwitter with restaurants, airlines, even movie theaters and condo complexes either banning or considering a ban on children under a certain age. Opposing camps have formed. Battle lines have been drawn. It’s one of the “War On…” du jour, and a lot of folks seem to be taking it pretty seriously.

Now, my family eats out pretty frequently – at least once a week. I guess some folks would say we’re ‘foodies,’ and my years spent as a chef putting out some pretty serious food and my wife’s time as a concierge at the Biltmore in Santa Barbara have given us fairly high standards. We’re not food snobs by any means, but when our kids were born we really didn’t want to be relegated to places whose cutlery consisted of the spork. We had to figure out a way to bring our kids to restaurants with adult food. That, it seems, is becoming something of an issue in the US.

The noise reached meltdown levels when McDain’s Restaurant, outside of Pittsburg, PA, shut their doors to kids under six. In an email announcement, owner Mike Vuick wrote, “We feel that McDain’s is not a place for young children. Their volume can’t be controlled and many, many times, they have disturbed other customers.”

There are websites with names like LeaveThemBehind.com, which lists vacation spots that welcome adults but not their kids, and nochildrenbychoice.com, which has links to such nuggets of objective wisdom as, “You’ll see them by the bushel, my friends, because damn near every sub-moronic wretch on the planet has taken a notion to breed. Never mind that children are as charming as hemorrhoids on a corpse.”

There’s even a Facebook group with almost 2,400 members devoted to banning kids from restaurants, whose front page asks: “Have you ever gone out to enjoy a nice meal, only to have it ruined by a loud disruptive child? … Do you wish you could go out & enjoy a meal in peace? Would you be more likely to support restaurants that went child-free instead of kids eat free?” A typical post: “Why is it OK to ban smoking in places but not the annoying ear piercing screams of a child?” Clearly a rhetorical question, so I won’t bother to answer.

And on Travel and Leisure’s blog, writer Charlotte Savino provides a list of US restaurants that have restrictions on child diners, and goes on to state: “I hate (hate a thousand times over) ill-behaved children/infants/screaming banshees in upscale restaurants.”

Four year-old, screaming like a banshee

You know what, Charlotte? So do I. I think parents need to exercise common sense and be exceedingly conscious of other patrons, and conscientious about not allowing their children to disturb them. But the vehemence with which brat-ban proponents make their case and the vitriol that the topic has sparked are somewhat distressing.

It is, of course, perfectly acceptable for establishments to enforce requirements such as dress codes. The White Barn Inn, in Kennebunk, Maine, for example, requires men to wear a jacket. Fair enough. Donning a jacket is an optional, alterable act. But can we impose other restrictions? On race, for example. No Latinos allowed. Or weight. Fat folks need not enter. Or age. No one over the age of 70, please. Of course not. So if we wouldn’t possibly consider barring the old or the obese, how is it that banning the young is acceptable and legal?

Well, I’ll have to leave that question to the philosophers and the legislators, but for me it’s an interesting point to ponder. The situation is a somewhat complicated one, but I see it as having two main components – One, the unwillingness or inability of parents to be firm with their children and enforce appropriate behavioral boundaries; and Two, the ever-increasing numbers of empty-nesters and couples without children, who are unsympathetic (sometimes pedophobically so) to sharing company with kids. One in five American women is choosing not to have children, and the number of married couples without children has risen to 27 million. These people are making their voices, and their choices, heard.

In “Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting,” Pamela Druckerman explores the reasons why “it was only [her] daughter who was throwing food and running around the restaurant and whining and just generally having a miserable time,” while the French children, on the other hand, were sitting quietly, enjoying their meals. Druckerman puts it down to the difference in attitude and approach in two key areas of life: food and parenting.

Outdoor dining, Dubrovnik

French parents, she writes, cultivate an ability to cope with frustration by teaching their children to wait for what they want from an early age, instead of instantly caving in to their children’s demands. “They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this.”

Most people would agree that there are some problems in modern American parenting, some of which I address in People Let Me Tell You About My Best Friend and “If you Don’t, I’m Going to…”, such as the reluctance of many parents to set behavioral parameters and adhere strictly to them. This is clearly a factor influencing bad public behavior in children and the backlash against it.

At the Restaurant Zigante – seafood, truffles, and mashed peas in Croatia

Druckerman also chalks it up to the way in which the French approach food. “The French believe you teach children how to eat,” she says in an interview, “by introducing food as one of life’s great pleasures.” It seems that many parents, particularly in the US, expect their children to have an almost adversarial relationship with food, and assume that mealtime battles are inevitable. There will be battles, of course, but they can be no more than mild skirmishes rather than all-out war if parents have a healthy attitude toward eating.

Of course, all of the hullabaloo surrounding kids in restaurants may be something of a tantrum in a teacup. Rebekah Denn, a James Beard Award–winning restaurant critic in Seattle and mother of three, has said that “In my hundreds of meals out around Seattle, I hardly ever saw kids screaming, kicking, running around unsupervised, or any of the other dinner-ruining crimes that the chat-board complainers seem to think are legion.” I would have to concur. We eat out regularly, and have very, very rarely encountered this type of behavior.

Even so, enough people have jumped on the child-ban bandwagon to make it a national conversation, and some parents are feeling discriminated against. One father commented: “We simply don’t take them out to eat unless the place is kid oriented like McDonalds or the Rainforest Cafe.” Well, okay, but do you want to spend the next six or more years eating at fast food joints? Do you want your kids to think that the most important menu choices they make are whether or not to Supersize?

About to dig into a lobster, Cape Porpoise, Maine

There are things you can do to improve your kids’ relationship with food, and techniques you can use to allow you to bring them to a restaurant, almost any restaurant, without incident.

At Home:

  • Kids can eat anything adults can – you don’t have to make special food for your children. Make them at least try everything once. If after several times trying something they really can’t stomach it, then keep that in mind for the next time, but don’t let them off the hook and microwave a pizza for them instead.
  • Eat dinners at home together as much as possible. Kids learn table manners (and a great deal more) by eating with their parents.
  • Have them help you cook. Most kids like to cook, and being part of the preparation process paves the way for better eating.
  • Have older kids help set and clear the dining table. It teaches them proper place settings and the rituals and routines of meal times.
  • Plant a vegetable garden if you can. It’s amazing how much more involved kids are with food, and how much more willing they are to try something, if they’ve watched it grow.

    At a Christmas cookie making class

Before you Go Out:

  • Choose kid-friendly places. This doesn’t necessarily mean crayons and coloring pages, balloons and dinosaur-shaped processed chicken lips. It’s more the overall attitude of a place. We’ve been to a lot of upscale (even Michelin star) places that don’t make you feel unwelcome for bringing your kids.
  • If you can, choose a place where you can sit outside. The kids will probably be able to get up and wander around, and other diners won’t notice so much if your kids are a bit loud.
  • Remind the kids that they are going out for dinner, and run through things like using inside voices and proper restaurant behavior. Don’t underestimate their ability (or desire) to play the role of the big boy or girl.
  • Go early. Not only will you be avoiding overtiredness in your kids, you’ll be avoiding the serious dinner crowd.
  • Bring a small toy or coloring set, but leave the portable DVD players and other electronics at home. You’re trying to instill good dining practices in your kids, not just keep them quiet by numbing their little minds.

At the Restaurant:

  • Kid’s menus are all well and good, and sometimes having inexpensive options in smaller portions is great. But the food on offer is often greasy and fried, and it teaches them that they can’t eat ‘real’ food. For smaller kids, sharing your dinner with them is a great way to go.
  • If they act out, take them out. The minute they begin to disturb other patrons, bring them outside and don’t let them return until they’ve calmed down. If they can’t, ask your waiter to pack everything up to take away. This teaches kids that there are real consequences for unacceptable behavior, and eliminates the possibility of ruining others’ dining experiences.
  • If they can’t sit still while waiting for food to arrive, walk with them around the restaurant, looking at objects of the décor. This entertains them without intruding on the enjoyment of other customers. Never let your child wander around a restaurant unattended. Ever.
  • Ask the waiter for some bread to snack on before your food arrives, but don’t have them bring out the kids’ food first. They’ll be done before you even get yours.

    Waiting for lunch to arrive

  • Don’t push your luck. Don’t go for multiple courses, or else ask your server to bring out the appetizers and the mains together. There’s only so long a kid can sit at a table. Things may have gone swimmingly so far, but don’t get cocky and order dessert and coffee. Go somewhere else for an ice cream.
  • Expect and demand good behavior, and you’ll probably get it.

Danny Meyer, a New York City restaurateur and major player in the hospitality business, thinks banning kids from restaurants is a bad thing. He believes, and I wholeheartedly agree, that it’s the parents’ obligation to ensure proper kiddie conduct.  “If a child misbehaves or is a distraction, it’s the parents’ responsibility to remove them; if they don’t, they are the ones with bad manners, not the kids. And if an adult misbehaves or drinks too much or annoys the other diners, it’s the manager’s job or the owner’s job to address it. The issue isn’t kids, it’s behavior.”

The other night we went to a fine dining restaurant to celebrate my birthday, and brought the kids along. No sooner had our two year-old sat down than he fell off the chair onto the floor. (Less a behavioral issue than a balance one, it’s true, but the effect was the same.) Fortunately, he skillfully broke the fall with his cranium, which made a meaty thunking sound as it hit the tile. Of course, he began to wail.

So what did we do? We whisked him outside until he calmed down and was okay, then brought him back in for dinner, which he ate calmly and without further bodily injury.

What did the wait staff do? While he was outside they brought over a chair with arms to replace the armless one he had fallen out of. Then, at the conclusion of the meal, the dining room manager came to us, asked if our son was okay, and gave him a chocolate egg to make him feel better.

Both parents and staff, I think, did the right thing.

12 thoughts on “Upscale Dining with Kids: Delicious or Disastrous?

  1. I found your website googling whether or not it would be appropriate to take our 2 year old to Zigante next month, ha! Thanks for the photo evidence that it’s ok ! I do agree with you and Danny Meyer — it’s the parents responsibility to take action if their child misbehaves. Great post!

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  2. I found your webioste googling whether or not it would be appropriate to take our 2 year old to Zigante next month, ha! Thanks for the photo evidence that it’s ok ! I do agree with you and Danny Meyer — it’s the parents responsibility to take action if their child misbehaves. Great post!

    Like

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    • This may be a stupid question, but have you tried bringing a toy or coloring pages to pass the time before the food comes? Another option is to do what my sons and I call ‘going walkabout.’ After we order, and if they’re getting antsy, we take a stroll around the restaurant, or sometimes even outside. That leaves my wife sitting at the table alone for a little bit, but it kills that empty time.

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  6. We expect and demand appropriate behavior from our 3 year when we go out to eat, or anywhere for that matter. Some days are easier than others but, when it goes bad, we scoop him up and take him outside/or simply away from the situation in order to deal with it. That’s a parent’s job.

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  7. from where I come from, dining out with children isn’t a problem. we have big, extended families.
    we went to church in the US a few months ago, as visitors. We were asked to stay in the cry room with other families with children. Yes, I have a 7, 5, and 3 year-old. But my children know that church time is quiet time, and they can sit through the service like any well-behaved adult.
    what is it about children that scares or irritates them? they were once children themselves.

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    • The ‘cry room’? Never heard of such a thing. No “Let the little children come to me” for that church, it would seem. The child-aversion in the US seems to me to be a relatively new phenomenon, but one that’s growing. Sure, there are places that are inappropriate for children, and times when you don’t necessarily want to be around a bunch of kids, but the hostility I encountered on lots of chat boards seems unwarranted. The US seems to have the worst of both worlds – over-indulgent parents and non-parents who loathe kids. Strange indeed.

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