Toro has an extensive menu and wine list, but when the Patel family dines at the award-winning South End restaurant, it’s strictly BYOD.
As in, Bring Your Own Dessert.
“Usually it’s Gummies or a piece of chocolate,” says Alexandra Patel, who employs the candy-friendly approach when dining with her children, Noah, 5, and Devin, 3. “A lollipop is helpful.” So are crayons, paper, and, most importantly, a well-thought-out strategy. “We sit down and they start drawing and playing. We go hungry, and we go early. Latest is 6,” says Patel, who always asks for the check as soon as the kids’ eating slows. Still, she adds: “I always get a glass of wine. I’m not watching the clock.”
Dining out with kids might be enjoyable for moms and dads, but can be an unpleasant experience for the other diners. A 2013 survey by Restaurant.com reported that 59 percent of parents eat out on a weekly basis with children. Restaurant revelations included 57 percent of respondents who said eating out is a good time to emphasize table manners.
Patel is always watching her kids’ manners, and was horrified about the couple who failed to mind theirs when dining out last month with their 8-month-old at Alinea, the Michelin 3-star restaurant in Chicago. Chef and owner Grant Achatz took to Twitter to call out the parents for allowing their cranky baby to disrupt dinner service: “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 . . . ,” he tweeted.
No buts, says Jodi R. R. Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting in Marblehead, who agrees with Achatz. “This is an experience, a once-in-a-lifetime meal. It’s an event unto itself,” she says. Smith says Alinea’s price tag ($470 for a nonrefundable table for two sans alcohol) should have been enough to discourage parents from even considering it appropriate to bring young ones. But if they choose to bring the little guy, they should be ready for a quick exit. “The second the noise happens, you have to be willing to leave,” she says.
Brendan Pelley, chef of Zebra’s Bistro and Wine Bar in Medfield, says consensus among his chef friends is frustration from all angles. “If I saved up the $1,000 to drop at Alinea and there was a screaming baby next to me, I’d be pretty pissed. It’s like bringing an infant to Symphony Hall,” he says. Pelley says parents who bring their young kids to Zebra’s usually arrive for the earliest seating at 5:30 p.m. They can enjoy the $36 grass-fed sirloin steak, served with broccoli rabe and kumquat marmaletta, or the $26 Long Island duck and heritage hog cassoulet, and pay the check just as the dinner hour gets into full swing. “As a responsible adult, you have to take into account other people,” says the chef.
He could well have been speaking about Robert Drabiuk, an epicure who lives in Newton and had the pleasure of eating at Alinea with his cousin in 2012. The $1,200, 4-hour, 22-course meal, which included an ice sculpture-centerpiece-turned-palate-cleansing course and an edible balloon, was an experience that would never have jived with any high decibel level of noise. “You’re not going to burst out into boisterous laughter either. The buy-in is usually ‘Be quiet and enjoy your food.’ That’s what fine dining is about,” he says.
But Drabiuk wishes parents demanded considerate behavior from their kids even at family-friendly restaurants. He recalls eating next to a family with rowdy kids at Acapulcos Mexican Family Restaurant & Cantina in Newton recently when two children turned a game of hide-and-seek into full-out tag. “One of the adults at the table actually told them to shut up and took a warm tortilla out of the holder and threw it. One of the children grabbed it and threatened the other child, and they got up and started running around the area. One of the parents looked at us and said, ‘Oh, these kids. They need to get their energy out.’ ”
An irked Drabiuk, who was dining with his girlfriend, asked the hostess for a new table in another part of the restaurant. Complimentary apology margaritas followed. “The broader point is, those parents felt ‘I paid for this. I can do what I want,’ ” he says.
Other diners may not be happy, and neither are the restaurateurs. Steve Corcoran, who owns the restaurants Sky in Norwood and 3 in Franklin, says unseated children are his biggest complaint. “It’s less the crying, but more when they’re free to roam around. It’s dangerous if we have a server carrying four or five entrees,” he says. “We don’t want any accidents.”
The 25-year industry veteran and father of a 13-year-old says families make up 10 percent of his business, and usually dine when service starts at 4 p.m. But the early hour doesn’t always guarantee good behavior, and roving kiddos prompt parental talking-tos. “We quickly go to the table, and ask, ‘Would it be OK if you keep your child seated during dinner?’ ” Corcoran says.
Andrew Mather, 34, of Medford hopes his daughter, Evangeline, never loses it in a nice dining room. Dad has already decided the year-old tot should not go to his favorite Cambridge dining haunts such as Puritan & Company and Craigie on Main. He’s traded those for the music brunch — omelet, mango martini, and jazz — at Beat Hotel in Harvard Square. “The host says, ‘The table we have is close to the stage. Is that OK?’ I say, ‘The louder, the better.’ ”
Which is not to say Mather won’t go back to Craigie at some point. But it will be a night he’s locked in a baby sitter. “Maybe I’m selfish, but I get excited about going to nice places and it’d be a bummer,” he says.
“I’m not even thinking about other people. I’m thinking about enjoying my own dinner.”