The scene: the romantic, now-closed Ten Tables in Cambridge. The soundtrack: an infant’s plaintive caterwaul — for 45 minutes straight, all while the tot’s parents dined in blissful oblivion. The result: restaurant staff panicking, cowering, wondering what to do.
“Guests were asking to move,” marvels co-owner Dave Punch, a father himself who now runs Newton’s Buttonwood, Little Big Diner, and Sycamore — sophisticated places known for a family-friendly atmosphere.
“We finally had to go over and ask: ‘Is there anything we can get you?’ ” (At this point, sensitive parents might remove a fussy child.) “But the parents just said, ‘No, we’re good!’ And the baby was wailing. Wailing! The staff couldn’t even face the dining room. It was so uncomfortable. We were all crippled,” Punch says.
After all, serving children is a delicate business. One doesn’t want to be perceived as inhospitable, with all the attendant weaponry at an aggrieved family’s arsenal — snide online reviews, screeds on parenting Facebook groups. Just the same, restaurateurs have an obligation to care for mature guests. Guests who are paying good money for a shriek-free meal.
Punch’s misery ended when a Ten Tables employee spotted an empty car parked outside, running, with the air-conditioning cranked up. It belonged to the screamers, who had left it on so they could return to a cool vehicle. At this point, Punch’s staff was able to persuade them to get up and, please, shut it off.
Every season, it seems that such tales make the rounds, often resulting in viral stories of restaurants banning unruly children and an ensuing debate over whether kids belong at upscale spots at all. Just this week, NPR’s Steve Inskeep tweeted that a “Pittsburgh restaurant turned us away because they don’t allow children. This worked out well, because I no longer want to allow them my money.” His complaint went viral.
Not long ago, the Old Fisherman’s Grotto in Monterey, Calif., drew ire for a sign, widely shared on social media: “No strollers, no high chairs, no booster chairs. Children crying or making loud noises are a distraction to other diners, and as such are not allowed in the dining room.”
Another famous case involves Chicago chef Grant Achatz, who took to Twitter to request advice about parents who brought their crying 8-month-old to Alinea, which has three Michelin stars. “Tell ppl no kids? Subject diners 2 crying?” he wondered.
If one of the world’s best-known chefs is at a loss, what luck do the rest have? It’s tough, though: Even the fanciest restaurants — especially the fanciest restaurants — are in the hospitality business, and that means catering to customers of all sizes. Here in Boston, for instance, Fort Point’s Menton has offered a tasting menu of infant purees. And they stash five or six high chairs in a storage area, just in case, says general manager Nick Hatanaka.
Meanwhile, many sophisticated area restaurants have begun to deliberately cater to children. This spring, Newton’s Lumiere introduced a family meal on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, with a $60 group-style menu that feeds four people. Earlier this year, Watertown’s Branch Line introduced a children’s menu. Belmont’s brand-new Wellington offers one, too, right alongside sake and miso-roasted salmon. Somerville’s Kirkland Tap & Trotter has touted an early-evening “kids eat free” deal since opening, as a counterpoint to chef Tony Maws’s higher-end restaurant, Craigie on Main. And guests appreciate that Everett’s Night Shift Brewing is equipped with changing tables, which is a big hit with parents who want to imbibe but don’t want to spring for a sitter.
And in a city that spends less than average on dining out — according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Boston-area households spend 38.4 percent of their food budget on meals away from home, compared with the nationwide average of 43.3 percent — luring a new demographic makes business sense.
“It helps financially. You get the earlier turn, because historically it’s challenging to find people to come in at 5 p.m.,” says Punch.
Consider it the junior version of an early-bird special. Plus, kid-friendliness is a loyalty tactic: Those diners who feel welcome with children will hopefully return on a night when they have child care.
“At 10 a.m. on Town Day in Belmont Center, you see thousands of families. You ask yourself: Where are these kids coming from? Thousands! It’s intense. Belmont is loaded with families. Those parents are foodies, or were, whether they declare it or not. They want a good cocktail. They deserve it,” says Damian de Magistris, who also runs Il Casale in Belmont and Lexington and Cambridge’s Dante alongside his brothers, Dante and Filippo. His restaurants train staff to read a table with children in mind: putting in kids’ orders first, bringing a check unprompted when a group appears poised for meltdown.
“We tell staff: If you can handle kids and a family, you understand hospitality,” de Magistris says. (This isn’t mere spin: I recently visited two of his restaurants with my own kids and was greeted with a choice between a booster seat and a high chair, a kids’ menu, sippy cups, and a prompt check at both spots. And, no, the server didn’t recognize me.)
Most kids visit the Wellington between 5 and 6:30 p.m., and de Magistris is considering opening at 4:30 p.m. to accommodate even more families.
That said: How do staffers really feel when a stroller rolls through the door? Do they groan? Brace for the worst? Raid the bar for a quick martini before heading over to a table?
“This is a customer-service job. We want people to be happy,” says Lumiere server Adam White, who has a 9-year-old. “People come in and they’re self-conscious, especially at a nicer place, because they’re not at a chain that’s set up for that. But it’s OK if the table is amiss! I’m never bothered by that. Sometimes diners with young children are extra nervous. They say, ‘We don’t get to come here too much. We have young kids.’ ”
Lumiere’s family nights aim to take the self-consciousness out of fine dining. So does Nibble+squeak, a new business that hosts private, family-friendly meals at elegant restaurants. Melissa Elders founded the company to accommodate food-loving parents like herself who long to dine in fancy places without the glare of nearby diners.
The New York-based company stages meals at high-end restaurants nationwide, buying out the space and inviting parents to feast with kids from a set menu. In Manhattan, she’s staged meals at Eleven Madison Park and Per Se. Often, chefs are parents themselves, Elders says, so they’re empathetic.
Tots receive place cards and separate menus. Adults typically pay between $60 to $80, and kids under 2 are free (older kids are typically charged $15). Elders has thrown dinners in Boston (Post 360 was a recent venue) and plans to launch here again in the fall.
“There’s a social contract among parents that you won’t disturb other people, and there’s a fear of causing a scene — of being ‘that’ parent,” Elders says. “By and large, we get parents who were foodies before who miss that special restaurant experience and want to introduce their kids to those environments, too. It’s a nice way to get them familiar with the restaurant format, coursing, and the theater of how food comes.”
But, alas, sometimes children must dine among civilians. And when this happens, savvy servers consider it a fun challenge. At Boston’s No. 9 Park, for example, an 8-year-old aspiring food writer visited on New Year’s Eve. The restaurant prepared a tasting menu and non-alcoholic drink pairing for the young gourmand.
“He got caviar. He got foie gras. He was wearing a suit with a bow tie,” says No. 9 Park general manager Ashley Waugh. “He comes in every year for New Year’s Eve, and it’s fun to watch him grow and his taste evolve.”
The restaurant prepares pasta or chicken breasts with fries for less adventurous kids, and also keeps three high chairs and coloring utensils on site.
“We get children more often than you might think,” says Waugh. “Many of them love to watch the Food Network and ask to meet the chef.”
The Ritz-Carlton, Boston recently modified its kids’ menu to make it more sophisticated, after getting requests for filet mignon.
“Kids’ palates have been developing lately. We’ve gotten several requests from kids under 6, requesting filet mignon medium rare. I swear to God: As of three months ago, we changed our menu,” says Shiobanne Olivero, the hotel’s director of restaurants. “Parents go out to eat more and take their children. They prefer fine-dining food for their little ones, and they’re trying to expand their kids’ palates. It’s not always mac and cheese or PB&J.”
And for the most part, everything runs smoothly. There’s an unspoken agreement between parents and restaurateurs.
“In five years at Kirkland, we’ve only had one instance with a little person who was so out of control that they needed to leave,” says Maws, who has a young son.
In fact, bantering with kids can offer a nice break from adult conversation — such as a Ritz server who recently had a detailed conversation with a small guest about “Moana.”
“After all, many of us have kids, too,” says Olivero.
Really, sometimes the biggest nuisances are the grown-ups.
“The biggest challenge for [servers] is when you have people say that they’re allergic to something, but they just don’t like it,” says Lumiere’s White.
Punch recalls another experience with a family at Sycamore, where a group of adults slyly reserved two tables — one for themselves and another for their children, across the restaurant. The parents carried on while their children ran wild on the other side of the room. Finally, guests and staff had to ask the parents to intervene.
And as for spilled drinks or lots of crumbs? It’s to be expected.
“Cleaning up a child’s mess doesn’t bother me nearly as much as people who leave trash from outside the establishment. That drives me insane. I don’t care about cleaning up after your child — but don’t leave your Starbucks cup at my table,” says White.
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.