Friday, January 1, 2010

Twelve Days: Kids' Dining Tips

Welcome 2010! Our family celebrated the new decade's arrival with our second annual New Year's Day tradition: dinner at Anteprima. This meal reminded me of an earlier blog post written after last year's celebration - one that I thought worth resurrecting.

Anteprima is an artisanal Italian restaurant in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago. Naming the neighborhood is relevant is important in understanding the restaurant’s demographics. Not too long ago, the area received some national notoriety as a result of another restaurateur’s decision to post a sign, which stirred a fierce conflict between two of the neighborhood’s largest inhabitant groups: gay men and urban straight parents.

Back in 2005, the owner of Taste of Heaven, a coffee shop, tired of rowdy children and the parents who ignored them posted a kid-level sign, with child-like handprints stating that “children of all ages have to behave and use indoor voices.” Both the Chicago Tribune and Time Out Chicago wrote short pieces about the sign and the controversy it generated. Then, the news hit the New York Times – reported on no less than the front page. The Trib revived the story in columns by Eric Zorn and John Kass. Pages and pages of blog posts ensued on the Stew, the Trib’s blog, which gave voice to the back story only alluded to in the Times’s piece – the conflict between childless gay men and affluent moms. On other sites, I saw words like “breeder” and “fag” bandied about with abandon. Fortunately, however, there were reasonable people on either side of the issue who were willing to see each other’s side – i.e., kids shouldn’t be allowed to run around and scream in any restaurant setting, unless it has the word Play Place attached to it and that customers of a coffee shop with a huge picture of an ice cream cone on its front door shouldn’t expect total solitude while drinking their double soy cappucino.

Last night, we got sandwiched between these demographics making for an interesting evening. A couple with a son about Thor’s age (5) walked in shortly after us and were seated just west of us. After about a minute, the father pulled out a DVD player, popped some earphones on the kid (pronouncing that he looked like a rock star) and fired it up. Other than climbing his feet along the restaurant’s wall, the kid was pretty quiet. Certainly more quiet than the gay couple who walked in and sat to the east of us. I’m not sure how it started, but by the time our entrees arrived, we learned much about their relationship, which was crashing upon the rocks before our very eyes.

Now we eat out a lot and so while surreal, this wasn’t the weirdest restaurant moment we’ve had by a long shot. I think that would be between my buying a painting from a homeless man at El Tinajon or Thor cleaning baseboards at our friend Stephen Dunne’s restaurant in Roscoe Village. But it of course reminded me of how our dining experience can be impacted by the behavior of others, especially children. Because of Purple Asparagus and our family dining focus, I’ve been interviewed on the question of eating out with children several times. Thor has been going to restaurants since he was born and for the most part is a very good patron. He’s gotten gifts from our regular waitresses, been allowed to help process the credit card from others and has frequently gotten us special treats from the kitchen. Here are my top six tips.

Eat Early:

When we go out with Thor, we eat as early as possible. We really like to arrive between 5 and 6. Most people who don’t want to eat out with kids in a restaurant don’t go at that time, but instead later, like 8. In most restaurants, it’s either not very busy or full of other families making a perfect and relatively stress-free time to dine with a 5 year old.

Butt on Wood (or whatever the chair is made of):

The rule is, unless he’s going to the bathroom, arriving, or departing, the butt must be in the chair. Waiters are busy and are focusing their attention at the adult level, not kid level. If your kid is running around, it’s not just rude, it’s

Sotto Voce (otherwise known as “Inside Voice”):

This is most often our biggest challenge especially with a boisterous 5 year old, one that requires constant reinforcement. We also find that the busier and noisier the restaurant, the better. We’ll actually try to sit near the kitchen or by a door. We find that the background noises will overtake even the pierce of a 5 year old’s occasional shriek. We did certainly find that an arguing set of gay men drowned him out. Unfortunately, I think they needed to follow this advice.

Bring the Carrot and the Stick:

I’m sure that many a child psychologist would scold me, but I’m not above bribery or threats. Dessert is a good carrot and the loss of TV time a fine stick.

Encourage Kids to Interact:

Thor orders for himself. He must say please and must say thank you. And if he’s rude, he must apologize. He won over one of his biggest fans when he apologized for being naughty. It was a new waiter at one of our favorite restaurants. He was being a pill and we could see how she was categorizing us in her mind as that type of parent with that type of kid. Under duress, he apologized and her mood just melted. She gave him hot chocolate sauce on his ice cream gratis and he started to understand the power of honey versus vinegar.

We also require him to interact with us. As I mentioned, the child in my story was generally quiet, but he was shut off from the waitstaff, other patrons and his parents. He might as well have been sitting in front of a TV at home. While we do allow Thor to bring quiet and unobtrusive toys to distract him (crayons, paper, a small car or train), we do not allow anything that isolates him – I’m not certain how bringing a DVD player to dinner is any different than an adult spending the meal on a cell phone or a blackberry.

Tip Well:

For the small spills on the floor, for the four top that must be set for what is essentially 2 diners, and just for the general inconvenience, we tip well (20% and up). For me, it’s like a corkage fee. We pay a little extra for the ability to bring our son. Waiters remember that and will be happy to see you the next time. And remember, it’s still cheaper than a baby sitter.


  1. Melissa, I love this advice!!! We've been taking our son, Sam (now 10) out to restaurants since he was a month old, and people are always amazed at his nice manners. If you don't mind, here are a few more tips:

    1) Regularly have dinner as a family at home. This way, when you take your children to a restaurant, they are already accustomed to eating with you and vice-versa.

    2) Choose restaurants that don't have televisions in the dining room. Any chance of a civilized conversation between us and Sam is dead when faced with the option of watching tv.

    3) Don't go out when your child is starving. In the past, we've held back on giving a snack at home, so that Sam has a good appetite at the restaurant, only to face disaster. By the time we arrive, are seated, place our order and receive food, he is hungry beyond belief and sometimes in full meltdown mode. For this reason, we'll give him a healthy snack (apple, whole grain crackers) as we're leaving for the restaurant. This way, he can wait for food to arrive, and we're all able to make healthy dining choices.

    Thanks, again, Melissa. We hope to find ourselves by you guys and Thor at one of Chicago's fine restaurants!

  2. Jill,

    Thanks for your comment. These are terrific suggestions. I especially appreciate the first. If kids don't eat with you at home, how are they to know how to act when they're out? We too try to eat with Thor almost every evening, even if it means eating a little on the later side.

    I hope things are well and that 2010 will be a great year for both of us!

  3. I have 8 children and have been taking them either singly or en masse to restaurants their whole lives... I always receive compliments on how they act. Over the years we have had a few meltdowns but overall it is a pleasant experience. I think letting them know what is expected of them beforehand is also important.

  4. Christy,

    I am impressed. To instill good manners in one is a hard enough task. In 8, that's quite a feat! You're absolutely right. Given them a sense of what is expected and what they're walking into eases the process. Thanks for posting and I hope you'll come back soon.


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