You’ve heard tales about French kids — the ones who eat snails, drink watered-down wine, and quietly sit for hours at the dinner table while their parents discuss Sartre. How do Parisians get their kids to sit still while you’re ordering off a menu with a maze and being serenaded by cartoon rat?
Sam Sifton, Food Editor for The New York Times and its former restaurant critic, used to eat out 5 or 6 times a week, and occasionally it was bring-your-kids-to-work day. He says that not only was it possible to take his children to fancier restaurants (i.e. any place that doesn’t serve hot dogs or mac and cheese), but it benefited their appreciation for food.
“Kids are awesome and they should be part of the dining experience,” says Sifton. “Anytime we go to a restaurant, we are entering into a social contract with everyone else in the restaurant. I’m not trying to ruin your good time, and you’re not trying to ruin mine. It’s important to model that behavior, so kids can accept the social contract and have a good time.”
Have Some Confidence
As in most social situations, confidence is everything. Project how you want your evening to go (a 4-year-old who knows a seafood fork from a salad fork? Impressive!) and be prepared for how it actually might go (an extended visit to the coat check and an entree that’s getting cold). “I always went in with a positive attitude that everything was going to work out well and be fun and exciting,” says Sifton.
Be A Model For Manners
As a restaurant critic, Sifton also observed a lot of kids in the dining room that weren’t his. Most of the time, if they were acting up, it wasn’t their fault. “I’ve inwardly rolled my eyes at the sight of children coming into a restaurant and thought, ‘Oh boy, how is this going to go?’ But mainly, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. When I’ve been annoyed by behavior, it’s generally the parents. You need to teach the kid how to be in the restaurant. This experience is different than eating at home. It’s more formal. It demands manners that we sometimes forget. That pays dividends down the line.”
Some Restaurants Work, Some Don’t
Although Sifton’s kids have tasted more Michelin-rated cuisine than you, there’s still one food frontier he hasn’t exposed them to. “I haven’t ever taken my kids to a proper tasting menu restaurant like a Per Se, where all choice is taken off the table and everything is up to the chef. That strikes me as stacking the deck against a parent of small children,” says Sifton
That’s not to say you can’t pull up a high chair at Daniel or Jean Georges, but work your way up to that level of sophistication. “Fortunately, we’re not in a particularly snooty period of fine dining. It used to be men had to be in coats and ties. That makes it harder on children.” Here are a few upper, but not too upscale, types of establishments you should test:
- Farm to Table – Save up for a trip to a restaurant like Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Your kids will know more about how that carrot ended up on their plate than they’d ever think to ask.
- Family Style Italian – Not Olive Garden (even though when you’re there, you’re family), but old school red sauce places. The food is familiar, but it still requires utensils, napkins, and patience.
- Steakhouses – “Although there are some exceptions to steakhouses when they get too burly, Midwestern, and male,” says Sifton
- Bistros and Brasseries – They’re a la carte, family-friendly, and “bistros provide butcher paper tablecloths. When they bust out some crayons, it can go gangbusters.”
Never Order Off The “Kids Menu”
“Strenuously avoid anything approaching a kids menu or some sort of special order for a child,” says Sifton. “There is almost always something on a fine dining menu that is palatable to a kid. And the social pressure of being in public often leads them to eat things that they wouldn’t ordinarily consume.”
So, if you’re panicked because the cornerstone of your child’s diet is macaroni and cheese, and all this joint serves is cacio e pepe, you might be surprised. “My kids’ feelings about mac and cheese remains the same as it did when they were little,” he says. “They don’t ever think it’s a dish you should eat out.”
You Probably Feel More Put Out Than The Waiter
Don’t project your dining anxieties on to the wait staff. They’re only pissed because you changed your order after the kitchen already fired the lamb, not because your fussy baby needs to eat. Sifton remembers a time his wife had to breastfeed at the table in the middle of a busy dinner service, “The manager, striding through his kingdom, came past, looked down at my wife and me, smiled and said, ‘You know we have a corkage fee.’ I thought that was so great and so welcoming. It was one of those great moments in restaurant service in my experience.”
Skip The Apps
“[Giving your child your phone] seems like a pretty good play if you’re going to the local pizza place, or if you’re eating with another friend and you don’t want to deal with your kid. But if I’m taking my kid to a fine dining restaurant, it’s because I want them to experience fine dining,” says Sifton. “I’d like to avoid having them stare at the phone for $70.”
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