Is it possible to dine out politely with kids?

Going to restaurants with children can be like target practice for dirty looks, but you can dodge and deflect

Topics: Restaurant Culture, Parenting, Food,

Is it possible to dine out politely with kids?

Is there any hatred more vile and seething than that reserved for parents and young children by people not in the mood? In cities, particularly, it becomes turf war: small spaces and bulky bourgie baby-care accoutrements really don’t mix. I love kids (Hi, Peanut!), but there is a dark chamber of even my heart that opens up when I’m in a hurry and the entire sidewalk is taken up by a double-wide stroller. And nowhere are the battle lines more drawn than in restaurants.

“The first warning is when you see the parents enter the restaurant with a stroller the size of a KIA. From there they will ensure that no one enjoys their dinner until after they’re gone. I sincerely think it’s intentional,” a commenter on Serious Eats replied to a poll on whether children should be allowed in high-end restaurants. Granted, this commenter calls him/herself “Leper,” so there may be something else going on psychologically there, but that level of animosity, resentment and contempt is not out of range for what I hear uttered about parents with kids at tables.

And then I heard recently of a stylish cafe in a particularly baby-happy part of town that instituted a no-stroller policy. Not a particularly welcoming gesture, but hearing young parents in the neighborhood talk about it, it wasn’t just an annoyance, it was a declaration of class, race and gender war all rolled into one, almost as evil as anything to do with Dick Cheney. (Welcome to Brooklyn: now featuring nearly as many babies as writers named Jonathan!)

But, happily, there are peaceable ways of dealing with the dining tension of the have-babies and have-nots. Writing yesterday in Fat City, Jonathan Bender details his ground rules for taking kids to restaurants. Adapted from the rules you see around swimming pools, they’re a strong way to declare a truce with baby-haters and still get to enjoy himself at dinner with his children:

5 to 6 p.m. is open swim. The first hour should be a mulligan. It’s typically easier to feed kids earlier, and this leaves the rest of the evening to the general populace. We could even have a transitional half-hour from 6 to 6:30 p.m.

No running allowed. The table is home base and the home is where the family stays for the meal. Trips to the bathroom are fine, but otherwise we are all sitting in our seats for the duration of dinner.

Three whistles, clear the pool. If my table gets three strikes, we’re out of there. Food on the ground — we’ll call this one the automatic strike — a mild screaming fit, and talking to someone else’s table are all examples. The potential list of fouls would be agreed upon before dinner commences.

(Click on the link above for the rest.)

For more thoughts and tips, I called the ribald and always interesting Robert Sietsema, the intrepid restaurant critic of the Village Voice, who may well have dined in every restaurant from high to low in New York, and who’s been eating out professionally for nearly 20 years.

So what’s your take on kids in restaurants?

I’ve been taking my daughter out to restaurants her entire life. I believe short of actual screaming babies — and Upper West Side kids, who are more obnoxious than any other kids — most kids tend to be pretty well behaved in restaurants. You know, they really take their cues from their parents, and in my experience, there are much more obnoxious adults in restaurants than kids. Children in restaurants don’t bother me, because I care about the next generation, and a screaming baby doesn’t annoy me nearly as much as hearing an adult bitch at the waitress, or having ostentatious conversations about stock trades or their sex life.

You know, the whole discussion is always centered on the annoying brats, who are a small minority. Kids who need to act out are acting out because they’re not getting attention at home, or because the parents aren’t thinking about where they’re taking their kids appropriately. You don’t take your kid to Per Se because you’ll be eating a four-hour meal. The kid is not going to sit there all night and admire the intricacies of the bread service.

C’mon, Robert. There has to be something that annoys you about going out with kids.

OK, I do hate those new strollers. In all of these hip neighborhoods, there is tension between the unmarried who want to go out and the parents who want to show off their kids and their hardware. When we had Tracy, we had two strollers — one for long distances, and cheap one that folds up to nothing.

As a parent, there’s so much you can do to consider the feelings of other diners. If for some reason the kid starts to act out, you take the kid out for a walk. If you think you’re annoying the other diners, you just leave, and you have to be prepared to do that. And you have to choose the right place to take your kids.

How do you choose what would be an appropriate place for kids?

With some frequency, I take kids out when reviewing because I want to see how the restaurant reacts. In my experience, at Asian restaurants, especially Chinese and Japanese, the staff often willingly indulge the children. Though obviously it’s not just Asian restaurants. Loving families will choose restaurants where families and children are welcome.

There is a class of restaurants that are inappropriate for kids: ones where you can’t eat in under an hour. Even adults get antsy.

Pick a place that has food the kid likes, but encourage and let them explore. Fuck the kids meal, with its stupid chicken nuggets, if the restaurant doesn’t normally sell that food. You know, go by the old rule with your kids: “You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want, but you have to taste it.” That’s how they learn. All the time, I’m with parents pre-scanning the menu, “Oh, he won’t like this, he won’t like that.” I take them aside and say, “Oh, why don’t we experiment? The kid’s hungry. Let’s order all this food. He’s not going to know what any of this shit is! Let’s just see what happens.” Nine times out of 10, the kid will look around, make his own decisions for the first time in his life, and find stuff he likes, even if it’s just to spite his parents! 

A couple of years ago, we were at a Lebanese restaurant, and the parents were like, “Oh, he won’t like…” again. And then out came a big old plate of lamb testicles. They were really cute, they looked like little almonds, grilled, and they smelled terrific. And the kid just went to town on those balls! The parents were like, “Ewww,” but the kid will explore out of sheer native curiosity. Parents are much more responsible for bad eating behavior than the kids.

Then again, after dinner, we worried that years later the kid would be detailing the abuse in court: “They made me eat testicles.”

What are your tips on how to dine out with children? Let us know in the comments! 

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>