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The Restaurant Dilemma: Kids or No Kids?

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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... THE tweet from @Gachatz

Our son must have been not more than 8 or 9 months old at the time. We had been visiting my mother in Florida and decided to eat lunch at an Oceanside seafood restaurant and of course Clément, said son, came with us. I seem to remember him sitting in a highchair at our table, laughing along with us and happily tasting whatever food we placed in front of him. Surely we had brought along his favorite stuffed toy, a couple of jars of baby food and a bottle just in case. What I do distinctly remember is the arrival of an older woman to our table as we neared the end of our meal. "I just wanted to thank you," the woman started, smiling at us and at our son. "What a pleasure to see your baby so happy! I want to congratulate you for having such a well-behaved child in a restaurant." Considering we had expected to be scolded for bringing a baby so young to a public dining spot -- and she admitted that when she saw us walk in she had expected the worst -- we were tickled pink with her evident joy and her kind words of encouragement. "We also bring our son to eat out with us from time to time, and he, too, is pretty well behaved." she continued with a twinkle in her eye, "He is 32 years old, but still, parents should always be responsible for their children!"

Chef Grant Achatz' recent tweet about diners in his 3-star Chicago restaurant Alinea bringing an 8-month-old baby -- who apparently proceeded to cry during the meal -- has started quite a buzz. And should start quite a discussion, at least among parents. It stirred up this long-ago image of dining out with our infant and I began to think through all the years of bringing both of our sons to restaurants.

Believing, as does Chef Achatz, that children should experience fine dining and dining out in general, we made it a habit to bring our sons with us, whether pizzeria, diner or restaurant, and have been since they were born. We have always believed that our kids should have culinary adventures, discovering, tasting and trying new things. And the experience of sitting in a chair, at a table and eating surrounded by strangers to the rhythm of a chef and kitchen staff was a very good lesson in expectations and behavior, as well.

I do think we were lucky in having well-tempered children, but we did make the conscious effort to teach them how to behave in public and in restaurants by taking them often and from the time they were very young. A great education, whether culinary or cultural, was what we wanted for our boys, and they accompanied us to restaurants, museums, monuments, and theaters.

Of course, we always hoped for and expected the best, but as parents, we ultimately took responsibility for their behavior. We've all been there... fussy babies and cranky children happen. Sometimes taking the kids is just not a choice -- on an airplane, at a family reunion... and a babysitter isn't always feasible. But sometimes we just want to have our babies or children along with us, as in the case of bringing them to dine out. But one can never be sure that a child's good mood will last through an entire meal -- they fluctuate and changes are often immediate and unexpected. If our boys ever acted up, got antsy and could not sit still or even cried, it was decided on in advance who would take the child outside, our strategy discussed and agreed upon before ever leaving home. We always brought paper and pencil to entertain them while waiting for our meal to be served. We ALL were expected to act respectfully, sit still and eat what we ordered, guaranteeing everyone a fun time, but we understood their limits and made decisions accordingly, knew what they liked and what they didn't, and always left home prepared.

We also understood when and where it was appropriate to bring a baby or a child, even a well-behaved one. We would never bring them to a restaurant unless we were sure there were dishes on the menu they would eat and enjoy. If they were overtired and unhappy before leaving home, we either called in a sitter or cancelled the reservation. We never brought them to a high-end or starred restaurant where behavior and service were more formal, the atmosphere calmer and more subdued, the time between dishes too long for a child to wait. An Alinea meal, for example, can last up to four hours, much too long for most infants and children.

We've dined in restaurants more than once where a tableful of parents let their grade-school-aged children have free run of the establishment, dashing, running, screeching (with joy) up and down between the tables while the parents chatted amongst themselves until the meal was served, much to the displeasure of and despite disturbing other clients and waitstaff. We've been to restaurants where parents dealt with naughty, hyperactive or attention-grabbing kids (the noisy ones who won't sit still and the quiet, sullen ones who refuse to eat) with a non-stop, running commentary (and NOT in their "restaurant voices"), in a vain attempt to get the child to notice the dishes being served and begging begging begging the kid to eat. And, again, it was evident that every other diner in the place was bothered by the crazy noise and hysteria.

Across the internet, on comment threads and forums where the Alinea case was discussed, there were so many accusations of "baby haters". But those who suggested that anyone who supported banning small infants and children from high-end restaurants or anyone who thought these parents and their child should have been removed from the dining room somehow hated children missed the point.

To most of us, the crying baby situation at Alinea seemed like such a no brainer. As a parent, it seemed more than obvious that a baby that age should not have been brought to such a place; once the baby began crying, it should have been obvious to any parent that one of the two should have stood up and taken the infant outside. As Chef Achatz intimated, restaurant owners and staff are ultimately responsible for the well being of all of their diners and their enjoyment of the meal, both the food and the atmosphere, and when parents do nothing to reign in the noise, fussy or unruly behavior of an infant or child the restaurant staff certainly has the right to step in. It is simply a matter of common sense and respect.

"This was not the first time an infant had crossed the threshold of Alinea, Achatz told me. There have been other infants, and there have been breastfeeding mothers. But this baby's disruption was unprecedented, he said, because the adults refused to take responsibility for its behavior." -- from an interview of Chef Achatz on Chicagoreader.com

Personally, I found Chef Achatz' tweet to be reasonable, simply stating the fact and then asking for advice and opinions. His ultimate choice not to ban infants from Alinea is honorable, but I hope that enough of us parents voiced our support that next time he won't hesitate to act more firmly. And we hope that this discussion will make parents of young children think twice about their own duty and their own behavior when it comes to bringing their children to restaurants.

Jamie Schler lives, eats and writes in France. To read more of her work visit Life's a Feast.