Four years ago, I watched a friend's 18-month-old fling fusilli across a dining room; I promised myself that were I ever to have a toddler, I'd forgo restaurants and embrace the drive-through. Flash-forward to last week: I'm celebrating my sons' 1st and 3rd birthdays over a bowl of penne at the very same restaurant. I bring this up because earlier this summer, McDain’s Restaurant in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, banned children under 6, and across the blogosphere we heard cheers from the childless and groans from parents. But kiddie haters should take note: The presence of younger kids in dining rooms has been framed as a false choice between a civilized evening and kids running amok, but there's no reason to ban little ones from even the nicest restaurants.
Okay, maybe we shouldn't be taking our suit-wearing toddlers to Per Se, but this whole debate strikes me as particularly ... American. Lori Mason, co-owner of Klee Brasserie and the Little Cheese Pub, says European families have a natural comfort level when dining with their children, while New Yorkers act as if they "will be bludgeoned if they have a stroller.” Alex Raij, chef-owner of New York's Txikito and El Quinto Pino, reports that when she travels to Spain with her 2-year-old daughter, Maayan, restaurantgoers seem as unfazed by Maayan’s presence as they are by her appetite for raw oysters.
Here, though, it's different.
Perhaps because American parents feel unwelcome and judged in restaurants, we go overboard, trying to be the perfect parent to the happiest toddler on the block. As a result, it’s often the parents who become the irritants, ineffectually discouraging their children from licking the salt shaker, jumping on the banquette, or running laps around someone else’s table. The mindless cheering — Good job eating those buttered noodles, honey! — is even worse.
So the issue then becomes: Is it the responsibility of diners to be more accepting of kids that aren't their own, or is it the job of parents to quietly, casually make sure children stay in line while they're out? Ideally, both things would happen. Realistically, the job is going to fall on the parents.
The move I see most parents pulling at restaurants is trying to distract their kids: Books, crayons, and small (silent) toys may keep kids quiet, as will DVD players and iPads. I'd discourage the last two options, though: Plugging in one's kid sends a message that they are doing the adults a favor by sitting through a meal, as if it weren't a joy and a pleasure to eat out.
Has any of us sat a child down and discussed proper restaurant etiquette? I suspect that many parents hope that modeling positive behavior will be sufficient, and they'll address problems as they arise, but the support that kid-banning restaurants have received indicates that this plan of attack isn't working. What we really need to do is teach children to be respectful and appreciative diners, before heading out for a meal. Parents can also make it easier on other diners by making early reservations and requesting a table that's out of the way. (And being ready to abort mission if their kid throws a tantrum.)
While we're at it, we should probably stop encouraging our children to order from kids' menus. It undermines their ability to appreciate high-quality, flavorful food and assumes that they'll only want to eat nuggets and French fries. I’d love to see a menu with smaller portions of adult dishes available to children, but my husband and I manage by ordering a selection we hope everyone will enjoy. If the kids really don't bite, there's PB&J; at home.
But kid-less diners need to understand that they don't rule the world: If they head out to a restaurant known to be welcoming to young children, they can hardly be upset when a child cries too loudly or runs past a table. If they're at a restaurant where a 6-year-old really is an interloper, they can always (discreetly) request to be seated elsewhere.
In other words, we must uphold certain standards but also make allowances for kids' short attention spans and excess energy. When my friend’s child flung that piece of fusilli, I was a childless twentysomething silently judging from across the table, waiting for her to control her issue so that we could get back to our boring adult conversation. Now I know that making her son feel like he was part of the meal might have been the more interesting thing to do.
Phoebe Damrosch is the author of Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter.