Everyone has a kids-in-restaurants horror story. My friend Lily watched two grade schoolers methodically finger-painting with ketchup all over the walls and window of her local diner. My friend Idit watched two boys loudly playing catch with packets of jelly in front of the swinging doors to the kitchen. At a family-owned fish place in Newport, RI, I watched three tweens open the tops of the plastic ketchup and mustard dispensers on the table and pour in hot sauce, tartar sauce and a half-drunk can of ginger ale. (I waved frantically at the manager, who rolled his eyes and mouthed, “I saw!”) And at this point in my life, I’ve lost count of the number of babies I’ve seen having their diapers changed right on the dining table. Appetizing.
In each case, of course, the problem isn’t truly the kids. It’s the parents. Some make us all look bad. A couple of years ago, I wrote about the Chicago cafe that started a tempest in a sippy cup by putting up a sign demanding that customers’ children “behave and use their indoor voices” inside the restaurant. Some parents felt defensive; some non-parents used the opportunity to lash out, calling all mothers (always blame the mother!) entitled and all children overindulged. But come on, some parents are alert. And some non-parents overreact. Is a 3-year-old quietly if incessantly singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” any more annoying than an i-banker barking into his cell phone?
We need tolerance on all sides. So I propose a Bill of Rights for restaurant diners.
Children of all ages have a right to eat out. The “kids don’t belong in restaurants” crew tends also to loathe women nursing in public. Once, at a Friendly’s off I-95 in Connecticut, a woman saw me discreetly nursing Maxine and had a tantrum that would put any 2-year-old to shame. She shot me looks so disgusted, you would have thought I was nursing my husband. She yelled, “We’re eating here!” “So is this baby,” I replied. She told me to do it in the bathroom. I ignored her and studiously cooed to Maxine as she noshed, brightly asked Josie how she was enjoying her grilled cheese, and felt my ears flushing red. The woman called the manager over and demanded that I be made to stop. (Sadly for her, Connecticut is one of the 38 states that allow women to nurse in any public or private location.) Finally, the manager moved the woman and her family to another table. A waitress smiled sympathetically at me.
Babies have a right to eat. (And they have a right not to have a towel or cloth draped over their heads if this distracts them from their meal. Everyone else has the right to look away if they see an inadvertent flash of skin.) But they do not have a right to eat everywhere. Kids do not belong in schmancy restaurants. (As writer Peter Hartlaub put it in The San Francisco Chronicle’s baby blog, infelicitously titled The Poop, paying for a sitter so you can go somewhere swanky, then discovering that the place is crawling with crawlers, is “the epicurean equivalent of going to an AA meeting and discovering that everyone is in the corner doing Jagermeister shots.”) And children do not have the right to destroy other people’s dining experiences.
Adult diners have a right to conversation. No matter how adorable your child is (everyone says so!), her repeatedly popping up over the back of the booth to charm the people behind you is uncharming. Even if your fellow diners act enchanted, they’re just being polite. Furthermore, if your kid throws food, you take them out of the restaurant. If he has a screaming fit, he’s gone. Got it?
Restaurant staff have the right to a sane and safe workplace. If your kid is not seated, he may end up with a giant tray of dirty dishes, glassware and hot beverages dumped on his head. Maybe not even on purpose.
General advice: Teach your kid to enjoy real restaurants by taking him to real restaurants. (But not Le Cirque or wd-50. Are you a sadist, a masochist or a dimwit?) Choose family-run diners and ethnic restaurants for the first few outings. Have dinner at 5:30 or 6, before the crowds arrive and before your kids get tetchy. Bring a few small distractions: crayons, sticker books. (You throw a toy at me and you die.) I’m all for expanding a child’s palate, but right now, your goal is to teach good restaurant behavior. Getting him to eat non-beige food is a separate battle, one for the home front, at least at first; don’t make this harder by bringing brussels sprouts into it. Model polite and respectful behavior toward the waiter, and be sure your kid says please and thank you. Tip generously, especially if there’s a metric ton of Cheerios under the table when you leave.
And if you find a restaurant that actually wants to teach kids to appreciate food, treasure it. Twice we’ve eaten at a Milwaukee place called Roots. It’s part of the Slow Food movement (which believes in combating fast food by eating locally, sustainably and sociably), located in the revitalizing neighborhood Brewer’s Hill that was once home to workers from the nearby breweries. One of the owners is a chef; the other is a farmer. Their ingredients are fresh, often grown by friends. The homemade bread is to die for. One summer, when Max was 10 or 11 months old, I gave her a tiny taste of my garlicky-as-heck cold cucumber soup. Her eyes widened and she opened her mouth like a baby bird, grunting for more more more! The service is as slow as the food, and not always competent, but it is endlessly sweet. And educational.
Illustration: I usually bring snacks for Josie and Max in case they get ravenous while waiting. Last summer at Roots, they were nibbling at a container of cherry tomatoes. Suddenly a smiling, tattoo-covered woman came over and said, “Oh, I thought those were ours!” She introduced herself as the farmer’s wife and explained that her family’s tomatoes were now being sold at a local grocery store, but she could see now that our tomatoes weren’t hers. She’d just come in to plant some mums in front of the restaurant, and she’d brought in a bunch of her own tomatoes for the kitchen staff. Max, enchanted by her monologue, took her hand, still covered in dirt from gardening, and studied her grubby nails. She told us that her son helps her in the garden at home; Josie told her that she helps daddy garden at home too! The nice lady disappeared, then came back with a quart of her own tomatoes. “Enjoy your candy!” she said to the girls.
They did taste like candy. They were teeny, fresh and perfect. The supermarket tomatoes I’d brought were quickly forgotten. Max kept chanting: “It not sour; it sweet! It not sour; it sweet!” She shoveled them in. Even picky Josie was power-noshing, silent and devotional. Watching from the bar, the farmer’s wife beamed.
Write to Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org.