Located in the tiny, gilded principality of Monaco, on the illumined Golden Square that boasts the famed Hotel de Paris and the Casino de Monte Carlo, sits a delightful and popular cafe. Ranked as one of France's -- and certainly Western Europe's -- most famed restaurants, the chic hub of moneyed jet-setters is a gourmand's frosted dream. When my sister Katherine and I traveled to the French Riviera in search of off-season sun, frivolous buys and museum hopping, it was our first destination of choice. Sadly, we weren't alone.
When we arrived at the bustling hotspot, we were nearly side-swiped by a precocious toddler, who had broken free of his otherwise preoccupied mother. Like a midsummer F5 tornado, he whizzed among the carefully dressed tables for sport. Then, as if not to be outdone, came the loud operatic cries of an infant from across the dining room. Before either set of parents could silence their broods, the little boy, having burned out like a comet, threw himself to the floor and let out a blood-curdling scream, silencing the entire restaurant, including the baby who now suddenly seemed as appalled as the rest of us. In what seemed like an infinitesimal pause, all the diners collectively turned their ire toward the toddler's flushed parents. And while my French is provincial at best, even I could tell that the conversation between the hostesses -- whose lips were pursed in disdain -- and the young family was laden with polite ultimatums and a few too many invectives.
My sister and I didn't mind the presence of pets in the restaurant, but we were surprised to find the tiny pitter-patter of les enfants during a late night dinner. A large, bejeweled poodle, I'm sad to report, was far better suited for such sublime dining. Seen but not heard, the pooch, behaving as though he was to the manor born, quietly drank from his chilled water bowl, which was discreetly placed far under the table. The children however, in two different languages, were decidedly less conspicuous. They screamed. Patrons screamed, and before long, it seemed everyone screamed.
Though I'm not for expelling children from decidedly mature European playgrounds, I am in favor of kid-free dining. What is one family's easily ignorable background chatter (ie: kids being kids) is another's theater of the absurd. And granted, it would have been in poor taste for me to ask the parents to ask their children to use their indoor voices, it apparently wasn't improper for them to bring toddlers to a dinner attended by adults who pay a premium for a refined and thus pleasant (read: quite) dining experience. And when you've circled the globe for a filet mignon that has received more international reviews than many politicians, the sound of a little one clearing their lungs because they do not serve French fries is reason enough to mull room service.
Full disclosure: I do not yet have children. One day I, too hope to trace the globe with my young family in tow. I imagine there's nothing like seeing the world through the doe-eyes of a child for whom everything is a feast for the senses. And I also suspect it's somewhat challenging to dine out with children, even when you have the luxury of mobile nannies. There are far too many instances to count in which I've bore witness to a tantrum of epic proportions in a crowded restaurant or cafe. These beleaguered parents have my undying sympathies. But it's principally considered that painting the town red with your offspring should also entail respecting fellow diners, whether it's in a neighborhood coffee shop or a five-star restaurant that requires more than mere reservations to gain admittance.
Recently, I learned that Britain's Queen Elizabeth II also has a firm opinion on the topic of dinning with little ones. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's newborn monarch, Britain's Prince George, was relegated to the children's quarters during traditional Christmas lunch at Sandringham because, as it was widely reported, the Queen Mother chooses to only dine with those who've learned and can abide by strict codes of conduct. Children can gain acceptable social skills when dining among their peers, where they're free to make and learn from their mistakes without harsh judgments.
Speaking to NBC's "The Today Show," Daniel Post Senning, the great-great grandson of etiquette doyenne, Emily Post, and co-author of Emily Post's Etiquette, 18th edition, says, "There is a certain expectation that until kids are old enough you don't put them in that position to fail." Additionally, other etiquette experts recommend parents practice appropriate dining manners with their children at home or in establishments that cater to little people before dining with them at restaurants where proper behavior is commanded. According to Vogue's 1963 Book of Etiquette, "It shows lack of consideration for the patrons of a sophisticated restaurant to expect them to accept with pleasure the presence of youngsters."
Due to a rise in customer complaints, there have been numerous well-documented instances in which American restaurants have adopted a no-kids policy. Some purveyors only allow diners of a certain age. And, as expected, it has left a bad taste in the mouths of some parents who are already struggling to find quality time with their families. In an era in which parents are older and far busier then their predecessors, there seems to be fewer hours in already overly-scheduled days. So, the question remains: Who should acquiesce, parents or diners who prefer kid-free dining?
In Texas, a restaurant called the police when a family with two little ones failed to quiet their children. Corporate offices for the restaurant later issued an apology to the family, but many on social media sites cried foul, saying dining out is luxury, not an inherent right. Misbehaving children, they argued, are the responsibility of their parents ,not diners. And a Chicago coffee house gained notoriety after they banned children due to an onslaught of customer complaints. As expected, many long-time customers took their business elsewhere. Still, the owner stood by his decision, and later gained a decidedly more mature clientele that welcomed a ban on children under 12.
As the product of cotillions, finishing social clubs and a mother who, to this day, continues to pine for the days when Life magazine chose an annual Debutante of the Year for its cover, I grew up in a household where one's manners were expected to be beyond reproach. Thank-you notes were always timely. We carried linen handkerchiefs in our backpacks. And we ate dinner in the kitchen at a small table with other children before graduating to the dining room, only after mother deemed our manners sufficient. It was an honor to sit with the adults, whether we were at home or while traveling with family and friends.
Dining manners were clear. We listened more than we spoke, and when we did speak, we addressed our guests properly. Otherwise, we were to observe with quiet dignity. It wasn't enough to merely know which fork to use and where to place our dinner napkin following dessert. From the tone of our voice, to knowing which topics we were allowed to comment on, to adhering to our host's specific customs, dining with adults was a rite of passage similar to getting one's driver's license. The goal was never to hold ourselves to a standard of perfection, but rather grace.
Recently, while on holiday in my home state of Colorado, I took a quick day trip to Aspen where I met college girlfriends for lunch. One of my former classmates, a new mother, who wasn't yet comfortable with leaving her child with a nanny, arrived at the restaurant, winded, and exhausted. Like most new mothers, she hadn't slept in as many days. Unbeknownst to us, we would all soon need a nap. While we tried to linger over lunch, reveling in the ambiance of the chic mountain town, we could hardly hear ourselves over her baby's non-stop shrieking, to ridiculous effect. Twice, I suggested we move our lunch to a more family-friendly restaurant. Everyone declined. That is until an older couple sent us over a lovely pastry-pink dessert box, to go. Attached was a note that read:
Congratulations to the new mother! There's a family oriented restaurant just down the road in Snowmass. It's perfect for children! Our little one's love their fruit and cheese platter!
Kindly, the Smith family.
Initially, my friend clutched her child like one might clutch their pearls in offense. But we eventually had a cathartic finish to our lunch when she came to the obvious conclusion that taking her young child to fancy restaurant was a more aspirational decision than it was a practical one. The Smith's were correct in recommending a more suitable restaurant. We were the ones who deserved reprimand for interrupting other's lunch. Children get restless quickly. And their tantrums can hardly be predicted or, often, governed. There weren't any other children in the restaurant, which wasn't equipped with small toys or even a children's menu. And because my friend was too busy tending to her little one she hadn't so much as touched her $70 salad. Furthermore, we couldn't fully savor the experience when we all felt the eyes of the entire restaurant trained in our direction.
In fact, it's only when we politely deferred to the Smith's recommendation that we were finally able to enjoy the meal we had traveled hundreds of miles for. Sure, we could have dug in our stilettoes and remained steadfast in our corner of the restaurant, but that wouldn't have been considerate to all the other diners who had a right to expect a pleasant, civilized dining experience. Besides, children of a certain age shouldn't have to be muffled when there are sundry other places that actually cater to families with young children.
Looking back, I found the Smith's gesture equal parts thoughtful and appropriate under the circumstances. Diners who are bothered by disruptive children usually have few options other than saying something to the parents, thus risking a nasty confrontation, or asking a staffer to intervene on their behalf. They could have shot us disapproving side-glances, or worse yet, asked the restaurant to ask us to leave. Instead, they kindly gave us an alternative option, cloaked in sympathy and buttery croissants, a gesture we would feast on in more ways than one.