This week, I chatted with my pals Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on GBH about two of my favorite topics, food and parenting. Out of nowhere, Braude asked a question that stopped me in my tracks: Should there be limits on when kids are allowed in restaurants? (Thanks, Jim! Glad I had coffee!)
The argument seems to be: You’ve snagged a babysitter, landed a reservation at a swanky place, and are shelling out good money for a lovely evening — only to be planted next to a squirming chorus of angry toddlers. You could’ve had the same experience in your family room eating chicken nuggets and frozen fries for free.
My kneejerk instinct is that this is ridiculous: Of course kids should be allowed in restaurants, even more upscale ones. First, is this truly an issue? I, for one, don’t know many parents who long to burn cash on a Michelin-starred kids’ meal. I’m certainly not paying for my 5-year-old to turn up his snout at a charcuterie plate. Pick your spots.
Secondly, for parents who do make proper dining a family affair, chances are they know their children. Perhaps their tots are junior gourmands or aspiring chefs. (This happens — I hear from many restaurateurs who field requests from pint-size diners to see the kitchen. More or less, they think it’s cute.)
Lastly, let’s be honest: Many adults are more poorly behaved than kids. Angry Yelpers; boors who berate waitstaff — these buffoons are not in preschool, even though they act like it. Just last week, my husband and I booked a celebratory dinner at a swank Back Bay restaurant with nary a tot in sight. Instead, we were seated next to a duo who argued about everything from their future vacation plans to the plating of their food until one half of the couple stormed off. My husband wanted to talk about camp pickup; I could hardly hear him because our tablemates were hissing. Our waiter later told us how uncomfortable he felt serving them. These people were at least 30.
So I floated the question to readers: Kids at restaurants; yay or nay? Gabe Bellegard Bastos replied immediately. He’s the sommelier at O Ya, arguably Boston’s fanciest restaurant.
“Well-behaved humans should be allowed anywhere regardless of age. [Badly behaved] humans of all ages should stay home,” he says. He says that there’s no age requirement or dress code at O Ya, and he even keeps coloring books in his office if a younger guest needs entertaining.
North End restaurateur Jen Royle agrees: “Everybody should be allowed in every restaurant,” she Tweeted.
Civilian respondents are divided. “Kids do belong in any restaurant as long as the parents don’t act like they aren’t there,” says Jaida Higgins, a former waitress and mom of three, who has witnessed unattended children crawling under other people’s tables. Fair enough. The warmth of a preschooler on your shoe as you hoist an icy martini is definitely a mood-killer.
“I would never take my two boys to a really nice restaurant. They were 5 and 6 before I ever took them to a restaurant. Our first trip was to Friendly’s,” says one parent.
“When they can sit quietly at Friendly’s or Applebee’s or the 99 for a two-plus-hour meal, then possibly. They need to be able to sit in their seat without squirming about, use their inside voices, have proper table manners and behave. Adults go to nice restaurants to enjoy one another’s company, a long leisurely meal, want to be waited on and pampered and enjoy the ambiance. Ambiance in a nice restaurant is usually quiet, refined, and maybe even romantic,” adds another discriminating diner.
And yet: “I have been taking my son to restaurants since he was four weeks old. We have been invited out by family and friends to some very nice places (Four Seasons, The Taj, Ritz-Carlton, Chatham Bars Inn) … and he has always known how to behave,” discloses a parent who needs to either teach an etiquette class or take a lie-detector test. (I kid! Great job!)
“If he’s not allowed in certain spaces, how is he supposed to learn to be in them?” asked someone else. Fair, although some parents might not want a learning experience to interfere with their anniversary.
“If a child is taking away from someone else’s night out, they should leave. Many parents feel they ‘deserve’ a night in a restaurant with yelling or crying kids, kids who lean over chairs or are allowed to run around or even throw food. Their excuse is, ‘Well, people should understand they are just kids,’ when in reality that is not the place for them with that kind of behavior. So I feel it goes back to parenting,” says another.
Some suggested that kids dine before 7 p.m. or so, which seems reasonable. And, of course, a few parents were disgusted that I would even pose this question.
“The idea of giving this concept any validity by writing an article for and against its merits is just gross to me,” I was told. And, look, I take the point: I’m sure some sourpusses detest children, period, and would prefer the world were comprised solely of monocle-wearing adults. This is not a rallying cry for curmudgeons.
But I do think the vast — and I do mean vast — range of responses is interesting. How do we gauge our kids’ limits? How do we choose which experiences to share with our kids? When do we practice behavioral tolerance, and in which settings?
As for me, I’ll pick my moments: eating on the earlier side, picking middle-of-the-road restaurants where people probably aren’t getting engaged, and packing an arsenal of distractions. Most of all, I’ll remember that they’re just kids. Badly behaved adults: What’s your excuse?