Sunday, May 22, 2011

Dining Out With Kids

Last month, Twitter was in a flitter over a Cambridge restaurant who announced that their restaurant wasn't suitable for anyone under age 14. After some backlash, the restaurant backpedalled and said that kids were okay as long as they didn't bother the other customers.

Well, the backlash got sorted out, although I am afraid that the restaurant did lose some customers in the process. But it did get me thinking about kids and dining out. What parents expect of them, what the other patrons expect of them and how a restaurant can find the fine line between providing an upscale environment for all customers while also continuing to serve the upscale customers they have who also happen to be parents.

I've been the chef in a restaurant that hears the customer complaints about the child picking his nose, staring over the seats and banging his fork on the plate and I've also been the parent who's getting dirty looks from my fellow diners. Here's my two cents:

Children are spending their entire childhood learning how to be productive, respectful adults. If we, as parents, do not take them out to eat, how can we ever expect them to instinctually know how to behave in a restaurant? That being said, did I start my kids off eating in restaurants like Verses and Pangaea? No, I spent my fair share of time in places like Oscars, Pho Dau Bo and the Stone Crock, all places that were relatively happy to participate in the civilization project of my children.

Then we moved on to places such as The Bauer Kitchen, Wildcraft, Boa Nova and Classico's. They were all restaurants with a slightly higher decibel rating that muffled the whines.

Nowadays, I don't hesitate to take my boys to any restaurant. We've dined at Verses, the 41, North 44, Nota Bene and Langdon Hall... among many others.

As parents, we know our children pretty well. If baby A has been whiny all day, throwing tantrums and generally being a meat-head... perhaps you need to re-think your dinner plans. But... we all know that our children generally behave better in public than they do at home. How many times have you said "why doesn't he do that at home?!?!"

As customers, we're paying for an experience when we go out to dine. I certainly understand what it's like to have some little brat staring at you, running around or talking about poo-poo during dinner and it's not cool... trust me, if my kids acted like that we'd be out in a split second. But as a chef, a parent and a food lover who is raising future food lovers, I ask that you be patient. If the parent is ignoring their child's behaviour then you certainly have reason to say something to your server but if the parent is trying their best, please respect that this is an education for the child that they cannot learn at home.

For restaurants, I suggest that the best way for you to advertise is not to say children aren't welcome. There are a whole lot of parents out there who would boycott your restaurant on the principle alone, even if they would never dream of bringing their own children there. If you are really against children in your restaurant, you can subtly get this message across by not offering the dreaded "children's menu" or not having high chairs. But you do need to be flexible when a child comes into your restaurant. If some of the world's best and busiest restaurants can whip up a vegan gluten free meal at the drop of a hat, it wouldn't kill you to hand bread a few chicken strips or make a plain cheese pasta. And be friendly to the kids. If the chef has time, a quick hello to the child or even a wave from the kitchen relaxes the kids and makes the experience more enjoyable. Kids are fascinated by food and the workings of a kitchen, so if they stop by the kitchen door and stare at you, dust off a couple of your show-off moves and put on a spectacle for them. If they order gelato for desert, make 3 scoops into a snowman with blueberry eyes. Kids know when they have behaved and most are smart enough to know that if they behave, they will get to enjoy the same experience again, so help them have a fun time that they will want to come back to. Remember, if you hope to be in business for a long time, these children may someday BE your customers.

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