My husband and I have always loved to eat out, and we did not really stop once we had kids. We are not interested in limiting our outings to typical family restaurants either. We enjoy going to the hot spots with exceptional culinary experiences. In response to the “Alinea baby” incident, it is important that chefs and restaurant owners know that families and parents are still very important customers and contributors to the restaurant business. Families with children are typically more stable and more advanced in their careers so that means they are potentially higher paying customers, in addition to the fact that a larger party will naturally ring up a higher bill and more food. This is something that any good business would recognize. If a restaurant truly desires to have a child and baby free atmosphere, then they should consider my novel idea to include a child care room located within in the restaurant in which parents can reserve a spot for their child or infant and pay for onsite childcare. I am even going to go on a stretch and say it is discriminatory to exclude babies or adults with babies because not everyone has the luxury of a trusty and reliable family member or friend to watch their baby. And in my case, if a new mother is exclusively breastfeeding (e.g. baby does not and will not take a bottle) then she is required, physically and for the survival of the infant, to keep her baby with her in any outing that requires separation for over 2 hours. So who are we to limit where people go and dine? However, manners are manners and there are a few important factors to take into consideration to be able to do this without losing your mind…and dignity.
- Do not go out at or past the children’s bedtime or nap time! If you do, you WILL suffer. Children and babies critically need their rest and they rightfully will act crazy if you force them to go out and be up beyond their sleep time. For me, it just isn’t worth it and I would never do it! Time your outings or get a sitter.
- Always have new and different activities or distractions to engage your child in case they do start to get restless. I don’t care who you are or what you believe; a restaurant is NOT a place to allow your kids to run around. Aside from it being rude to others, it is not safe. Waiters are carrying and balancing platters of food, hot beverages, or piles of utensils, knives, and glassware. I usually have a little academic activity book with a talking pen, crayons, play dough, stickers, magnetic dolls, wiki stix, or silly putty and other random cheap toys or objects I pick up from dollar stores, party favors, or the house. I have also resorted to a video on my phone at a few desperate times when I had no other distractions, but this is always a last resort because I do not favor sticking my children in front of video media to keep them occupied.
- For younger toddlers ages 1-2, have a few finger foods handy in your bag; kids are usually quiet while stuffing their faces with something they enjoy. Some of our favorites are organic animal crackers, yogurt puffs, baby carrots, or string cheese. For older toddlers and children, just order their food right away or start giving them some of the appetizers. I find those bread baskets very handy for this!
- Do not expect to walk into a quiet and fancy restaurant where the only thing you can hear is the relaxing tunes of classical music playing and then have to constantly shush your children. Unless you know you have quiet, well behaved kids who are capable of sitting still and sitting quietly for over an hour (miraculous!), you will just get frustrated constantly telling your kids to be quiet. Not enjoyable for anybody. Have realistic expectations. Don’t get frustrated at your kids for being kids, and don’t ruin everyone else’s experience by bringing your band of rowdy children into a quiet intimate dining room. However, I have managed to do this several times because my baby and toddler fell asleep in the stroller or car seat, and I was able to stroll in and enjoy a few quiet meals and even afternoon tea like this while baby snoozes! If baby wakes and starts to peep I quickly duck out to the rest room or lobby to nurse her and calm her down. No harm done to anyone.
So with these few standards in place, we are able to enjoy many of our favorite restaurants. And hey, if you know your kids can stay seated but probably won’t be quiet, try some of the equally loud, hip places around. For example, Sushi Samba or Cantina Laredo are a couple of favorites of ours in Chicago because of the great food and VERY loud atmosphere; nobody will hear my squealing infant (including parents if you are not watching!) or the temper tantrum my three year old is throwing!
So we set out to share our experiences and recommendations on places to dine with your children in some of our favorite and frequently visited cities. We review the experience based on some standard, essential criteria to parents who enjoy a good meal and dining experience:
- 1) Food: (5 points) Clearly this is the most important! The taste, presentation, quantity (for budget conscious families this is important!), and quality. When I say quality I am looking at whether it is locally sourced, organic, and fresh. I am not interested in canned foods, foods imported from China, and skipping over the hard working local farmers and producers just to get a slightly cheaper and less fresh product. So I try to learn about the quality and source of the food as much as possible and comment about this whenever possible.
- 2) Service: (5 points) Parents do not have time to wait around and watch their kids’ good behavior and patience expire. Parents have nap times and bedtimes to meet. Even if you are not a parent, nobody likes to wait around just to ask for a glass of water.
- 3) Child friendly: (5 points) These are like bonus points; having adequate child friendly seating such as spacious tables and seats, booster and high chairs, having children’s activities and menu items, and just being friendly to kids are all welcome and important gestures to parents and families!
- 4) Ambiance: (5 points) We critique the ambiance in general in terms of being clean, nice, fun, friendly, appropriate for children, the decor and being overall impressive.
- 5) Value: (5 points) The price of the food for the quantity and quality received. For us we use a median of $10-$15 for starters (including salads), and $15-$25 for an entree. This is neither on the low end of the scale or on the high end. For that price we would also expect a generous amount of food, not a tiny slither of meat garnished with parsley and hollandaise sauce. We think this is a fair and average expectation for dining in Chicago and other big cities.