I remember so vividly the first time that my wife and I brought our baby daughter to dinner at a restaurant, because nothing happened.
Our daughter was only 4 weeks old, and we packed her diaper bag as if we were traveling to the moon: diapers and wipes and bottles of premixed formula and burp cloths and pacifiers and this vaguely elephantlike toy that crinkled like tissue paper and could be counted on to distract her for, oh, three minutes.
The restaurant wasn’t fancy, by any means, but its vibe didn’t exactly scream family-friendly, either. It was publike: dark, beery, adult. It wasn’t the ideal choice for the baby’s first dining expedition, but it was next on my review schedule, I was tired of dining out alone, and, a month into her maternity leave, my wife was going stir-crazy.
We double- and triple-checked the diaper bag. We gamed out how we’d handle diaper scenarios of increasing severity. We neither dawdled over the menu nor lingered over our drinks.
Our daughter, strapped into her car seat on my wife’s side of our booth, slept through the entire meal.
Piece of cake, I thought.
Where should we go next week?
Dining out with babies and young children is an evergreen topic, awaiting each new outrageous anecdote to surface again.
In January, the world-renowned Chicago chef Grant Achatz tweeted that a couple dining at his avant-garde restaurant Alinea, where dinner stretches over several hours and nearly 20 courses, where the final bill for two can easily top $1,000, had brought along their 8-month-old.
“It cries. Diners mad,” he wrote. “Tell (people) no kids? Subject diners (to) crying?”
The reaction was almost unanimously incredulous. Of course, you shouldn’t bring a baby to a restaurant like Alinea. I certainly wouldn’t take my daughter there.
(Though I’ll admit to a twinge of sympathy for the parents. Alinea sells its seats as tickets, so the couple had already spent around $500 before they even arrived at the restaurant. What would you do if, after you’d spent that much, say, your sitter had canceled at the last minute? And was Twitter the best venue for Achatz to vent his frustrations? Did anyone at the restaurant, you know, talk to the parents about the kid?)
Locally, my esteemed colleague Joe Holleman kicked up a little social-media fuss last month when he expressed bafflement that movie theaters and restaurants in California might have been — but ultimately weren’t — required to provide diaper-changing stations in their men’s rooms.
Holleman’s elegant solution to the larger matter of bringing babies to movie theaters and restaurants?
“Keep your babies at home.”
Now, I can’t speak to the question of babies in movie theaters. I can’t keep up with my Netflix queue, let alone what’s playing now at the AMC 74.
When it comes to the issue of kids in restaurants, however, I don’t think I’m puffing my chest to call myself something like an expert. For 15 months now, I’ve been a parent as well as a professional restaurant critic — and, believe me, my daughter no longer sleeps through dinner.
So, with all due respect to Holleman — who, besides being my colleague, is a swell guy who showed me great sympathy during the MLB playoffs while my beloved hometown Orioles were being steamrolled by the Royals — I must disagree.
Parents, you needn’t avoid all restaurants until your children are old enough to demand that their chicken be free-range and their beef grass-fed.
But, oh, yes, you’d better believe a whole bunch of qualifiers accompany that statement.
If anyone could offer advice on the sticky situation of dining out with kids — literally sticky: You never know when a wily toddler will realize that a tube of GoGurt works equally well as food and squirt gun — I figured it would be chefs who are also parents of young children.
Find a corner table, said Josh Galliano, the executive chef at the Libertine in Clayton and the father of three kids under 7. “Box your kids in.”
Galliano and his wife, Audra, tend to favor places where they know they can order food for the kids quickly — only then do they worry about what they’re going to eat.
They also tend to choose restaurants that the kids are liable to enjoy. “Sometimes it’s really simple food — nothing fancy,” he told me. “Fried chicken, Chinese food. It helps when it’s also combined with a good dessert.”
Gerard Craft, whose restaurant group includes the four-star Niche and the much more casual, family-friendly Pastaria, is also a parent of two girls under 9.
“We’ve always known our limits” as parents, he said. “In the very early stages, it was a lot of (my wife) Suzie and I taking turns, going out for sushi, one of us would take the baby outside out while she was crying.”
Still, there was a learning curve: “One time we stumbled into a two-Michelin-star restaurant. That was an incredibly uncomfortable lunch for us and for them.”
As a restaurateur, Craft sets no rules about children in his establishments.
“We have kids who dine at Niche all the time,” he told me.
Galliano doesn’t print a kid’s menu at the Libertine, but he and his staff are always aware of how they can help out tables that include children.
“We do a lot of trying to make sure the kids’ food comes out fast, that they feel very comfortable,” Galliano said.
If the kitchen has, say, popsicles or fruit on hand, they’ll make sure the kids get some — whatever will help the parents also enjoy the meal.
After all, he said, “We’re pretty sure the parents are trying to eat.”
When I wrote a shorter online version of this article last month, I concluded that parents who want to take their babies or kids with them to a restaurant should use common sense.
I still believe that, but Craft provided me with an even better guiding principle.
“You know your kids,” he told me. “If they’re screamers, you don’t want to go to superfine dining.”
Of course, these days the most exciting new restaurants tend to be more casual spots, not palaces of fine dining. So is a restaurant that, say, encourages communal sharing of small plates also by definition family-friendly?
It’s dicey. Last year, a few weeks after our daughter’s first dining trip, my wife and I took her to a restaurant that, in hindsight, we probably shouldn’t have.
This particular restaurant wasn’t a palace of fine dining, but it was sophisticated. Trendy, if you like. (It ranked very high on my list of last year’s best new spots.) We gambled again that she would sleep through dinner. We were wrong. She fussed, and my wife and I took turns holding her throughout the meal. We were fortunate that this happened to be Halloween evening, and the place wasn’t busy.
When in doubt, call the restaurant ahead of time. Don’t say, “We’re coming in with a baby. You can accommodate us, right?” Say you’re really interested in dining there but can’t find a baby sitter (or whatever) and were wondering if it would be OK to bring your baby along. It doesn’t hurt to add that you totally understand if the restaurant can’t accommodate you and that you absolutely will give them a try when circumstances permit it.
You’re confident that your dining destination is baby-friendly? Again: Use common sense and be considerate. Bring a snack for the kid, a toy or two to keep him or her occupied and, above all else, a pacifier. Smartphone app stores offer numerous games to entrance toddlers. (Our daughter is partial to Daniel Tiger.)
Give the staff profuse thanks for even such simple steps as bringing your baby a cup of water with a lid and straw. Clean up all the Cheerios your baby will scatter under your table.
Go early. Is your kid a talker or prone to the occasional shout? Choose a restaurant on the noisy side. (Good news: Most of the hip new restaurants you want to check out are very noisy indeed.)
Is the baby losing it? Take her out of the dining room for a bit. Is the baby really losing it? Time to box up your meal and go home.
Does the baby need his diaper changed? Worried that the restroom won’t have a changing station? Buy a portable changing mat. It folds into your diaper bag. DON’T USE IT AT THE TABLE.
It also helps to keep this entire issue in some perspective. I’ve been a restaurant critic for more than eight years now. That’s a few thousand restaurant visits, at least. And I can’t think of one lunch or dinner ruined by another table’s crying baby or unruly kid.
Sure, there have been moments when I’ve cringed or rolled my eyes at some misbehavior, but I think the idea that today’s parents all see their kids as “special snowflakes” who can do no wrong is a gross generalization.
“There are some adults who probably shouldn’t go to fine-dining restaurants,” Craft added. “If you have a screamer for a significant other, don’t bring him or her, either.”