dining out with little ones

natalieI’ve seen the looks. I’ve heard the comments. We’ve felt the tension as we walk past your table and our party of three is seated next to you. You’re out for a nice evening and the last thing you want is some screaming kid about to ruin your night out. Or worse, we are seated in your section and you’re stuck waiting on us and left picking up the mess that our daughter will enthusiastically leave behind. Or so you think.

From the time Natalie was three weeks old, we’ve taken her out to dinner with us. She’s been everywhere, from Lola to Momocho to L’Albatros to Valentine’s dinner at Fahrenheit last week (Natalie loved Rocco’s short ribs) — she is well on her way to taking over this blog someday. We decided before she was born that we were going to incorporate her into our life and our routine as much as possible. And we believed the more we exposed her to early on, the better off we’d be in the long run. Granted we’ve only been parents for 14.5 months, but so far so good.

Sure, there are plenty of times when we get a sitter and dine sans toddler, but for the most part, we like keeping the band together. Our goal when dining out as a family is to have an enjoyable night out and maybe make a new memory; not to ruin your evening in the process. So when Natalie is with us, we plan ahead so that we can avoid being that family. We eat early (last week at Fahrenheit we made rezzies for 4 and were out by 4:45 before the rush), we ask for the check as soon as our food arrives (you never know when the meal could be to go), we have snacks handy (and when we leave we  make sure all goldfish are accounted for, it’s not a server’s job to clean up after our kid – I was a server once and am very consciousness of this) and always bring table toppers so she can be a neat little diner. And if Natalie should cry, and it’s one of those cries, we’re outta there in 60 seconds flat (we have an escape plan and to date have only had to execute it twice). Like I said, we do not and will not ruin anyone else’s meal.

I will say this though, most of the looks we’ve had have been from fellow customers, but once we’re well into our meal and they see  how well-behaved and happy-go-lucky our daughter is, and just how ridiculously cute her chubby cheeks are, people are won over. And for the most part, restaurants are extremely accommodating and welcoming. Parallax encouraged us to bring our daughter, the staff at Lola oohed and aahed, Greenhouse Tavern and Momocho are simply fantastic for families and when Natalie met Rocco Whalen, he looked at our daughter with a big smile and told her how excited he was to cook for her for the next 20 plus years. And we know he meant it.

Our daughter truly is a foodie in the making. Saying she loves food is an understatement. We have yet to find anything she won’t eat — from Indian to Thai to Mexican to Italian, she’s an equal opportunity eater. And boy can she put it away. Just this morning at Vine & Bean, she enjoyed a plate of waffles for breakfast and fruit (I was a mean mommy and refused to share my pecan-crusted bacon). And at B Spot, she ate half a Plain Jane burger and helped us finish a shake. But her favorite dish just might be short ribs of any kind (the kid’s got good taste). If we order them out or make at home, look out – she will throw down her bib and fight you for every last bite.

So if you’re part senior citizen like us and are eating out before 5 and see us coming, don’t worry – I guarantee you won’t even know we’re there. And if you’re a family with little ones and have been sticking to the chains when dining out as a family for fear of what might happen, give one of our many local places a shot. With a few modifications, you can have a great family night out – and a much better meal in the process (and pay just the same, sometimes less – hello Lolita, Bar Symon, GHT, Sunday Supper at Momocho just to name a few). And if your kids are older than mine, you may not even have to alter a thing. Happy eating!

16 Comments

  1. Posted February 21, 2010 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Right on, Michelle. Pretty much every restaurant is kid-friendly, it is all about the timing. Go early, go often. Other parents ask us how we can get the kids to behave well while out and the answer is because we have exposed them since early on. We also try to impose the same behavior at home as out at restaurants. If the children get out of hand, we leave, but that has rarely happened.

    Great post.

  2. Dagmar McGannon
    Posted February 21, 2010 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    Hi Michelle,
    Loved your blog entry. We too took Julia out to dine with us since she was born and now at 18 loves to try new restaurants and new foods. Her favorite by far is Graham Elliot in Chicago!

  3. Posted February 21, 2010 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    Good post. I think it’s important to start them when they are young. Our daughter is almost 10 months and her first restaurant experience was at Momocho when she was less than 2 weeks old. She is a regular at Bar Symon and enjoyed an amazing (unplanned) 4 hour dinner at AMP 150 earlier this week. We follow the same game plan you describe and my wife does not hesitate to remove her if she starts to fuss at all. We have received so many compliments about her behavior and have even received food on the house because, “she’s so cute.” I feel bad for those who feel they can’t take their kids to good restaurants or give us dirty looks when they see us walk in with ours.

  4. Posted February 21, 2010 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    I’m not a mother (yet), so I am usually one of those evil people shooting looks at parents with ill behaved children at restaurants, on airplanes and at Target. However, I applaud you for being a unselfish human being and knowing that when your daughter is SCREAMING HER HEAD OFF, that maybe you should take her home.

    I also LOVE that you are introducing your daughter to an array of food at such a young age. My 28 year old husband won’t eat onions or mushrooms AND IT DRIVES ME CRAZY! His younger sisters won’t eat veggies – it frightens me to see them eat over processed foods on a regular basis.

    Fantastic post. Hope to see you and the fam out dining some time soon so my faith in parents can be restored for all time :)

  5. Posted February 21, 2010 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Hi Michelle,

    Don’t have kids, but my best friend has a 3 year old who is “that kid”. I couldn’t imagine having children who didn’t like the food I made or didn’t like eating out, but it could happen to anybody. My mother always had the tactic of “eat what I made or don’t eat” which worked out great because we are not picky at all. Congrats on being such well balanced adults even with a kid. I feel like I can barely keep it together and it’s just me!

  6. Posted February 22, 2010 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    We LOVE our friends with kids. Being a parent is hard work, and I am glad that I do not have to do it! We have friends whose kids are well behaved and always have been and love going out to eat with them. That being said, even they have a melt down sometimes, and we have even eaten in the car. I have waited tables, and I am usually the one picking up all those darn goldfish, too! It is refreshing to see though that you are training the diners of tomorrow and that the Cleveland foodie scene is in no danger!

  7. Older than Dirt
    Posted February 22, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Kudos to you, Natalie and Jamie from a “seasoned” server who has pretty much seen “everything.” Your end of the spectrum is so refreshing when I consider the alternatives. And it just proves that parents can be the decisive factor in a child’s positive experience at a great “non chain” restaurant. Nuclear Cheerio explosions, crayons in the carpet, ronis on the chair cushion, maybe a little throwup…all this and more are part of the experience of learning.

    So I say….to all the Natalies, Collins and Mollys out there….keep on eating in good restaurants with your Mom and Dad, and do it often!!! This old waiter loves to have you in his station, especially when I consider the alternative…”70 somethings” who leave just as much mess as a toddler…and that damn ubiquitous used kleenex!!!

    Cheers!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Posted February 22, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    We used to be you, M went with us just about everywhere. We ate early, were ready to leave in a heartbeat, cleaned all the goldfish dibris and always tipped at least 20% (more often 30%). She at least tried everything we put in front of her and more often then not was totally happy sharing our meals.

    But then she hit about 2 1/2 and it just doesn’t happen anymore, it’s too much of a fight with my own internal “parent radar”. Yours Truly is our go-to place with the girl, most other places I feel too rushed, too hyper-alert to how other patrons are reacting to every little sound and movement. A lot of this is me, I realize, but it doesn’t make for a relaxing dinner so we don’t do it that often.

    Hopefully, in the next year or so we’ll venture out more but the the 18 months – 2 years from about 2.5 on are full of landmines.

  9. Robin
    Posted February 22, 2010 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Both my daughters have enjoyed some of the best independent restaurants here and we refuse to do chains. We’ve even “practiced” reading using menus. We, too, have escape plans but rarely had to use them, but we have been lucky enough to have had some of the best wait staff and dining experiences. It’s wonderful to expose your kids to exciting new foods.

  10. Suzie
    Posted February 22, 2010 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    I will admit that I am guilty of not being happy when I see a baby when dining at some restaurants. I have often thought that certain places/events should be off limits to the little ones. I usually expect the worse. Crying, screaming, tantrums and roaming about the restaurant. I have seen it happen too many times and the parents not do a thing in response. Those times have made me rather prejudice. When looking at it from your point of view I realize it is completely unfair of me to make such assumptions. When I am a parent I hope that I approach dining out with my kiddos the same way you and your husband do. I don’t want to miss out on the good times with my family and learning opportunities with my children but will be prepared to not inconvenience my fellow diners. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Posted February 22, 2010 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    Excellent strategies, all around. With three, I find preparing like a military incursion is spot-on for dining out. May her enthusiasm continue ever after!

  12. Posted February 23, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    The baby is very cute…Yeah i agree that its important that we should bring our babies in restaurants for them to see new ambiance…I already have a daughter,and we always bring her every time we go to our fave restaurant..No one can pay her enjoyment every time she’s with us..

  13. Posted February 23, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Hi michelle, I have 4 kids ]( mostly grown now ) and they have been everywhere from Babbo in NYC to to the bar at the Flying Fig. How else will our children learn to behave in public spaces if we don’t take them out in public. We have always put a lot of emphasis on the ” family dinner ” It is probably the most important part of our day when we can share our thoughts, yes even 2 year olds have thoughts. Keep on doing what your doing and don’t let those old fuddy duddies get in your way.

  14. Posted February 23, 2010 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    Our kids one MONTH birthday was celebrated at Lolita and they are raised on Momocho’s guacamole and Jonathon Sawyers’ frites.

    As you said, raise them on it and they “get it.”

    I’ve seen the looks too. I just laugh when kids are better behaved than the drunk adult sitting at the next table.

    Cheers!

  15. Bay
    Posted February 25, 2010 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Whoo! How were those indian food diapers!!

  16. Linda Griffith
    Posted March 11, 2010 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Would love to be sitting next to your table, anytime!! What a doll you have. Sounds like she eats better than many of the people we know.