The Littlest Customers

Adventures in child-friendly dining

About 10 years ago, I was talking to a neighbor-friend over the fence, a young immigrant father, about a baby on the way. My wife was visibly pregnant with our first child.

“Dat’s gonna change yo life, man,” he said in his North African accent.

“Yeah, I know,” I began to reply, casually.

“No!” he interrupted. “You don’t know how dat’s gonna change yo life! Dat’s gonna change. Yo. Life.”

Of course, he was right. Fast-forward 10 years and two kids later, my social calendar looks totally different. My bedtime has changed. My wakeup time has changed. And the places I choose for dinner have most definitely changed.

Oh, sure. We could hire a sitter when we want to go out to eat, and we do so now and then. But here’s the secret thing about being a parent that nobody tells you: Soon enough, you get to a point where you’d rather hang out with your kids than anyone else in the world. And as their table manners improve and they become less picky, the restaurant options get broader and broader.

But in the early going, it’s rough. The kids spill things. They pick up spoons and start banging them on the table. They reach for sharp knives. They get up and run around. They vocalize loudly and at random. They eat fried shrimp, but nothing else on the menu. They poo on themselves, then announce it to the whole restaurant. By the end of the meal, you’re exhausted. As you pay the bill, you think, “What a waste.”

Because of all that, in those early days, you’re looking for a few basic things: An atmosphere that tolerates cacophony, maybe even with outdoor seating; a children’s menu; something for the kids to color on, along with a handful of crayons; a high chair; and prices low enough to mitigate the regret you feel approximately 50 percent of the times you go out to dinner.

Often, you’re willing to take those odds because staying at home with the wee ones too long can give you cabin fever. They’re always on the move, always making noise, and their toys are everywhere. It’s worse if mom is at home all day, as was the case for us a couple of years there. She just needs to get out and see adult humans for a while.

There are times when everything works out fine. One night, when my daughter was still an infant, we met a group of friends at Crescent City Steakhouse. The din of the fully packed restaurant, bouncing off the tile floors, was just right to put her to sleep in her portable car seat for the entire meal. But when you up the ante and have more than one kid, that sort of lucky strike becomes a statistical impossibility.

Part of the problem is that kids are so unpredictable. On one occasion, when our kids were still toddlers, we took them to Venezia on Carrollton. In the middle of the meal, my daughter casually grabbed a piece of cheese pizza and, instead of biting into it, suddenly launched it high into the air. It landed on the table next to ours, where a gray-haired party of four was engrossed in conversation. (Weirdly, they didn’t seem to notice the pizza.)

Nowadays, the kids are 8 and 10. They have decent manners. An occasional elbow makes its way onto the table, and occasionally one of the kids will decide to slump down and announce: “I’m tired.” But nothing embarrassing happens. They’re still a bit picky, especially my son, so we tend to gravitate toward seafood and Italian restaurants or breakfast places, which always have something to please the young. They don’t need coloring books anymore (but are still happy to have them). We can sit and have a nice, quiet conversation as a family.

Strange to say, I already miss those early days at super-casual restaurants when any shrimp in my kids’ greasy little fingers had a 50-50 chance of landing on the floor. And I’m sure that, 10 years hence, I’ll be missing these days. But thank God for those restaurants known as “kid-friendly places,” where we can live out these scenes in our family’s life.


Categories: Food, Hospitality, The Magazine