STYLE food editor Martha Thomas reflects on the ups and downs, ins and outs, of restaurant dining with children.
Many years ago, Marc Dettori prepared a feast for a friend’s birthday party. The buffet table was loaded with familiar dishes from Dettori’s native France: salade niçoise, quiche, pissaladiere (an onion tart with a pastry crust) and burgers from meat he had ground himself.
There were plenty of guests—both kids and adults—at the gathering, but in Dettori’s memory, one family stands out like a punch in the gut. “The kids didn’t recognize anything on the buffet,” recalls the Petit Louis maître d’. “They took one look and threw a fit.”
The solution? The parents left and “came back with these big buckets from Kentucky Fried Chicken.” To say Dettori was miffed would be a misreading of the situation. “You can’t be mad at children. I was mostly sad,” he tells me. “The parents didn’t give their kids an opportunity to try something different.”
When Dettori, now 63, was a kid growing up in the Beaujolais region, he says “we ate what the adults ate. I don’t remember my mother making special meals for us.” And in restaurants, he recalls, “there was no such thing as a children’s menu.”
I myself am not a fan of special menus for children. What’s the point of raising kids to believe that eating out means eating chicken fingers and mac n’ cheese? But kids’ menus mean parents can find something for their oft-picky offspring. Portions and prices are child-sized.
Petit Louis doesn’t have “quote unquote kids’ food, but they can usually find something they like,” Dettori says. He sees kids eating escargot, foie gras and steak frites (restaurateur Tony Foreman says it’s not uncommon for parents to introduce snails to kids as young as 3).
But let’s be honest. As delightful as an escargot-eating toddler sounds, sometimes kids and restaurants can be a recipe for disaster—and not just when there’s no fried chicken on the menu. Though Dettori has never had to ask a family to leave, he’s packed plenty of dinners in carryout containers after a kid has had a tantrum.
“If you can’t get your child to quiet down in one minute, that’s the line,” says Cynthia Lett, a Montgomery County-based etiquette and protocol expert, and author of “Modern Civility,” released in January 2014. “No matter how cute they are, they’re disturbing other diners,” she says. Sure, outbursts happen, but to allow bad behavior to continue, Lett points out, “is the height of rudeness.”
Her son, now 16, has been going to restaurants with his parents since he was a baby. “My son is autistic and would have true meltdowns. When it happened, we’d march him out—no matter if it was raining or snowing,” says Lett, adding that she and her husband became pros at predicting where their son’s mood would go, so they could determine if it was safe to go back to their meal—or if they should box it up to take home.
The problems parents face when they bring small children to restaurants can be amplified when the tab is high. “If you’re paying $100-$200 per person, you don’t want to share your experience with someone’s small person,” says Lett.
“I understand that many parents are trying their best, but why should everyone in my party be inconvenienced—or have a less enjoyable meal—because your child is misbehaving?” says a fellow media type who prefers not to be named in this article. “I don’t think the ‘It Takes a Village’ philosophy needs to extend to Sunday brunch at Gertrude’s. Find an IHOP and have a rooty tooty, fresh ’n fruity day.”
Indeed, the question of whether kids even belong in fine restaurants swirled across the Internet in the early part of the year, after chef Grant Achatz, owner of Chicago’s famed Alinea (where dinner for two can run upward of $1,000), tweeted about a crying 8-month-old; his shorthand musing included the question, “tell ppl no kids?” The reaction to that idea is, not surprisingly, polarized. Some advocate banning kids altogether—as a smattering of restaurants from Brooklyn, N.Y. to Monterey, Calif., have done—to fierce defense of the parents’ right to expose their children to the world. “People want to take kids to jazzy places to give them an exotic experience,” points out Foreman. In some cases, parents might not have a choice. As the story goes, the couple at Alinea had a babysitter cancel on that fateful night, and didn’t want to walk away from the exalted pre-paid reservation.
While Lett and others fix responsibility on the parents, Foreman says the restaurant staff can step in to help. He remembers two little girls—he guesses they were about 2 and 4—who waged battle in a banquette at Cinghiale. “For the people on the other side, all they knew is there were wild animals next door,” he says. The staff moved the offended diners to a new table and “did a restart.” The couple received fresh drinks and new first courses, says Foreman. “It was like covering moving expenses to put them in a new neighborhood.”
The family-run Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia offers an adults-only dining area—like a pre-emptive strike for guests who want a predictably quiet, sophisticated dining experience. “We’ve found this actually attracts more families to the restaurant,” says chief operating officer Rachael Mull, who runs the restaurant with her parents and sister. “Our regulars feel more comfortable, because they know people who don’t want to be around their kids will be seated in a different area.” The restaurant also gives out custom bibs with the tagline “Poutine Please?” (one of the restaurant’s must-have dishes) to babes and toddlers.
Jessica and Albert Grosman’s daughter visited her first restaurant “when she was a day old,” says Jessica, a dietitian and consultant. Now Linley, 8, eats stinky cheese in Paris (“the stinkier the better,” according to her mother), baby octopus in Japan and game meats in London—Albert is a portfolio manager who has clients all over the world. “We were just in Italy and I think she ate her body weight in cured meat,” says Jessica, a vegetarian.
Linley’s favorite restaurant is Petit Louis, where she loves mushroom velouté and escargot, says Grosman. “She’s very upset when mushrooms aren’t on the menu. We have to explain to her that you only get them in season.”
Grosman believes that many Americans don’t hold their children to high standards when it comes to food. “We let them eat junk food to make them happy,” an approach that can backfire, she points out, as “additives and sugar probably contribute to their bad behavior.”
Today’s American chain and casual restaurants enable less than optimal diets with kids’ menus of fried foods, greasy burgers, pizza and noodles with sweet red sauce. But plenty of independent Baltimore chefs make an effort to please both kids and their parents. Thomas Rudis has had a dish called “Cactus Flower” on the menu at Golden West for more than a decade. It’s slices of Granny Smith apple surrounding a scoop of peanut butter. Kids also can order plain quesadillas with grilled chicken.
Personally, I love Woodberry Kitchen’s “Carrots and their Tops.” On my first visit to the restaurant, the server set down a plate of braised carrots, glistening with maple sugar-sweetened butter, and told me, “Here are your carrots.” He then poured green sauce—made from macerated carrot tops blended with the braising liquid—from a small pitcher, announcing, “and their tops.”
In my memory, this dish is magical; after experiencing it at an adult dinner, I couldn’t wait to bring my then-7-year-old daughter to try it. Sure enough, she found both the ritual and the sweet, buttery vegetables enchanting.
Woodberry also has a seasonal kids’ menu, with flatbreads from the wood oven, grilled chicken-on-a-stick and miniature steak frites. For Spike Gjerde, the issue isn’t just feeding kids. “Being a kid-friendly restaurant isn’t a passive thing,” says the owner/chef. “You have to engage them.” Woodberry offers a menu with a farm scene for coloring, and a small tin of K-dough, a version of modeling clay, made with flour and olive oil, colored with seasonal berries, greens or even coffee.
Gjerde’s own kids, now 11 and 14, are “both an 11 on the pickiness scale,” he says. But they’re coming around. His son Finn, 14, recently had a birthday party at Toki Underground, Erik Bruner-Yang’s ramen bar in D.C., where Gjerde has “tasted things so good they made my hair stand up.” Even so, he says, “ramen is a good entry point” for kids.
Beth and Eric Laverick—and their kids, Molly, 3, and Connor, 5—are fans of the Middle Eastern food at Lebanese Taverna. “People are surprised when I tell them the kids’ menu is fabulous,” says Beth, a local events marketing guru. Her kids eat falafel, lamb shawarma and hummus with vegetable sticks.
The family lives in Patterson Park, and makes dining out a family adventure. “We might ride scooters to Johnny Rad’s or combine a meal at Red Star on Wolfe Street with a visit to the playground on nearby Thames,” says Beth. But note: There’s always a bailout plan. “Everyplace we go is within walking distance” in case of irredeemable meltdown, she says. “Or we call Über.”
When my daughter was born, we lived in Manhattan, and I wrote restaurant reviews for a neighborhood newspaper. We’d make reservations for the hour she’d most reliably sleep and I’d prepare for her arrival with a soothing supper of mother’s milk. Most of the time, she’d fall asleep on the banquette by my side.
When she got older, I established rules, based on experiences I’d had with friends’ kids. The worst of all, I thought, was getting out of their chairs, roaming the restaurant, or making the table into a fort. If you ask my 15-year-old today the most important rule of restaurant behavior, she’ll quickly tell you, “Don’t go under the table.”
Go Early. Tip well.
When I reached out to a few parents of young kids for anecdotes about restaurant meltdowns, I heard an overwhelming number of stories about diaper blowouts. I also heard about a little boy, told to dress up for a fancy outing, who ran up to his room and put on a red velvet cape and golden crown. Taking a child to a restaurant can be both charming and challenging. We asked some experts for tips.
>> Start teaching manners at home. “We’re raising a generation where sitting at the table is an occasion,” laments etiquette expert Cynthia Lett. If you practice graciousness at home, “it will be second nature when you go out.”
>>Go before 5. “If you take kids to a restaurant after 7,” says Beth Laverick, “you’re asking for trouble.” The marketing maven and mother of two also has found that in some restaurants, the bar is quiet in the early evening. “Patrons are more casual in the bar area,” she adds.
>>No matter when you go, make sure kids aren’t exhausted. For many children, 5 to 6 p.m. can be witching hour, when a long day and hunger combine to make them cranky. As with Scarlett O’Hara, a snack before dinner may keep them chill.
>>Bring along distractions. Even parents who eschew toddlers on iPads swear by electronic entertainment to settle a child desperate to make a fort under a neighboring table.
>>Don’t demand special foods. “There’s usually something on the menu the kids will eat,” says Laverick. “Figure it out.”
>>Tip generously. Laverick remembers a family who regularly came to a restaurant where she worked as a server. “The kids were out of control. The parents let them whine and scream, tear open jelly and sugar packets, crush Cheerios and cement raisins into the floor. Then they’d leave a 15 percent tip…if we were lucky.”
>>Think economically. If you are blowing big bucks on a meal, wouldn’t it be fiscally prudent to subsidize your peace of mind with the cost of a babysitter? —M.T.