Friday, January 2, 2009

A Surreal Meal

Last night, my husband, son and I had a very strange meal at one of our new favorite restaurants, Anteprima. 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 was generating. Then, it 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 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 4 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. The first time we brought our older son (now almost 4 years old) to a restaurant, he was barely 4 weeks old (Mother's Day) and we haven't stopped taking him or his brother out to eat since.

    The rules for us are the same at home--it's a meal, you stay in your seat and you mind your manners or we will leave (at home, you go into time out). So far it's worked--and interestingly enough, when we do go out without the kids, it's a bit strange--we still go early out of habit and eat quickly out of habit. I'm sure that will change as they get older and the dinner window expands a bit!

  2. I like the point about interaction. It astounds me that at their kid's most socially impressionable stage, so many parents choose to shut their kids off from the world. That kid with the DVD player is likely going to grow up to be an ass. Thor is going to know how to talk to people and likely be more successful because of the fact that he'll have a personality.

    When my wife was a kid, in the car her father would have her help navigate home. She learned landmarks, streets, and all about her neighborhood. Much better than burying a kid's face in a DVD player.

    Excellent post.

  3. Rock on sister. What always bugged me about the Taste of Heaven dust up was that a few rude parents were causing problems for the rest of us trying really hard to instill good restaurant manners. The uncontrollable kids make restaurant experiences difficult for all of us. What particularly irritated me about the DVD incident was the fact that I then had to answer questions about why Thor couldn't have one. It's just like candy in school. It shouldn't be allowed as a snack, not so much because kids shouldn't eat it, but because it makes it far harder for the parents who are trying to instill healthy eating habits - few kids would prefer a carrot over a candy bar.