Earlier this month, the head chef of Alinea restaurant in Chicago, Grant Achatz, made headlines when he tweeted about some of his patrons:
Tbl brings 8mo.Old. It cries. Diners mad. Tell ppl no kids? Subject diners 2crying? Ppl take infants 2 plays? Concerts? Hate saying no,but..
— Grant Achatz (@Gachatz) January 12, 2014
The facts: Dinner at this chi-chi eatery restaurant requires a $210+ non-refundable/exchangeable tickets to be purchased two to three months in advance, and they’re only good for the date and time that you paid for. The dining couple in question had a babysitter that fell through. Not wanting to waste their reservation or the money they had already paid, they ended up at Alinea with their eight-month-old baby, much to the chagrin of their fellow diners and Chef Achatz.
I’m not here to debate the situation or dig into what exactly happened, although plenty have already dissected it like it’s a matter of national security. What I do want to tackle is the sometimes sticky issue of kids and eating out. Frankly, when it comes to kids being in public spaces in general, there’s no lack of opinions. There are those who will insist on bringing their children everywhere, social contracts be damned! And, of course, there are those that feel kids should be seen and not heard and shouldn’t take up much — if any — space in public. Neither of those extremes will ever be appeased.
But, for now, let’s look at a few things to consider when it comes to restaurants and kids.
1. Newborns trump toddlers. For the most part, you can drag your newborn along to almost any place and none will be the wiser. Apart from cases of colicky newborns, infants pretty much just eat and sleep. You can go to a nice restaurant and odds are your baby won’t make a peep. Sure, that might mean nursing in public, but everyone else is eating, so why not your baby, too?
Toddlers on the otherhand are simply the worst. Sure, they’re adorable and sometimes say the darndest thing and look cute in pigtails, but they can also shriek at high decibels for no logical reason, have a knack for spilling/breaking/damaging things, and are — what my grandfather used to fondly refer to when talking about me — vilde chayes. Toddlers are also unpredictable. Sometimes they can act like perfect angels and everything is hunky-dory. Then, you cut their sandwich in triangles instead of rectangles and it’s like you might as well have murdered their kitten.
We did a lot of take out during the toddler years.
2. Be aware of your gear. I consider myself a minimalist parent. I never had the big bulky stroller, opting to cart my kid around in a cloth baby carrier. I tried to streamline my purse and diaper bag, instead of carrying around five different hefty totes. Baby gear adds up, and trying to navigate strollers in bags in an already packed restaurant is no fun for anyone. Do your best to leave the big ticket items at home, or in the car, or in a coatroom if possible. Worse case scenario: shove it all under the table.
That being said, make sure you do pack the essentials: a new, quiet toy that might hold your child’s interest and keep them busy, a few crayons and a notebook, or a book to flip through. And, if all else fails, Angry Birds on the iPhone has quelled even the worst of tantrums (on silent or with headphones, of course).
3. Bring snacks. It seems counterintuitive to bring food to a restaurant, but I’m not suggesting bring a three-course meal. It never hurts to have a small applesauce or a bag of crackers to tide your child over in case you have to wait for a table or service takes longer than expected. You can avoid most meltdowns or grumpy behavior with a full tummy. (This tip works well for adults as well!)
4. Know your audience. If you have an energetic and vocal bunch, head to restaurants that have a similar vibe. Most chain restaurants already have a loud, busy atmosphere and won’t even notice a happily loud child singing every verse to their favorite made up song. That also means you will most likely have to deal with “the game” on in the background or a rowdy group of businessmen chugging down shots after hours, but we all have to give a little.
5. Be prepared to bail. Even with the preparedness of a Girl Scout and best laid plans, things can sometimes go awry. From tantrums (of the child or parent variety) to accidents, you never quite know what might happen. While it can be a pain and disappointment, nobody wants to have to deal with a screaming child during a meal. Admit it. Even you don’t want to.
6. Tip. I’ve found that it never hurts to tip well, especially if you plan on returning to the restaurant, brood in tow.
And for those eating out without children: give those with kids a little slack. Nobody goes out to eat with the intention of making it the worst experience ever. Parents know it will be dicey and unexpected when they dine with kids. Most parents will do their best to make it a pleasant experience for everyone involved, and sometimes a sympathetic smile or encouraging nod when you see a parent struggle to get things under control can go a long way!
Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamafesto. Her book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality, is on sale now. Follow her on Twitter.
[Image of girl eating in a restaurant via Shutterstock]