Gastronaut: No Child Left Behind

no-child-left-behind-kagan-mcleod

Making kids feel welcome in good restaurants is the best way to guarantee a generational commitment to food in any city. It’s time for more of that in Philly.

I  hate screaming children in restaurants.

I hate it when they run around like small, loud monsters—getting in the way of the staff and bothering everyone in the house while their parents sit by and do nothing.

I hate kids’ menus full of chicken fingers and hot-dog chunklets; parents who use waitresses as free babysitters; and the looks on the faces of other diners when shown to a table within the blast radius of any child brought out to dine.

But you know what bothers me more than any of this? To spend an evening in a good restaurant anywhere in Philly and see no children.

We’re very fortunate. We are living (and eating) in a golden age. Everywhere we look, there are great restaurants and great chefs doing great things. It’s hard to imagine a moment when we won’t have it so good.

But I know a bit about the life cycle of trends. And there is absolutely nothing to suggest that this golden age is going to be different from any other golden age—which is to say that someday, it will end. There will come a time when everything isn’t quite so culinarily wonderful as it is now. So the reason I worry when I see restaurants with no children in them is that every night it happens is a night that takes us one step closer to that inevitable bad day.

We learn to eat well the same way we learn to do anything else well: through practice. No one sits down at a table for the first time with an appreciation for foie gras or an understanding of tacos. We have to learn all of these things, and we learn them by doing. There’s no reason why that education can’t start young.

Speaking as a father and a professional eater—a man who hauled his daughter to her first fine-dining meal when she was two weeks old, and who has sat beside her ever since in street-corner pho shops and white-tablecloth temples of gastronomy—it’s not even tough. If kids are brought up understanding restaurant manners, they won’t be the terrors that other customers roll their eyes at. If they’re offered better than McNuggets, they’ll learn early to appreciate the vast and varying options available to them. If they are shown how important food is—how rare is the good, how plentiful the bad, and how special those magic moments are when everything comes together in a perfect dance—they will remember and internalize that and grow up knowing something absolutely vital about the human experience: that sometimes a meal means more than simply filling your snack hole.

Yes, all of this can be learned as a young adult. When you’re 16 and 18 and 21, restaurants can be a brave new world, entrée into a grown-up universe to be as carefully negotiated as any other. But to those who’ve learned to eat well as kids, there is no learning curve. These will be the kids who form the next generation of eaters and, more important, the next generation of chefs. And who will extend this golden age of dining beyond a mere eye-blink of faddishness.

First appeared in the June, 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

  • D’man Ryan

    Worst. Restaurant op-ed.. EVER!!!!

  • Elle

    This article needed something about how parents can achieve both — how to teach children to behave in a restaurant, or a set of rules for when you need to take your child outside. Right now the message is: “kids are awful in restaurants so bring them there.”

  • buffalobill

    I disagree. teach your kids in the privacy of your own home. Young children (or adults for that matter) who cannot understand how to sit quietly or talk with a normal conversation volume while eating a delicious meal shouldn’t go to nice restaurants… same goes for the movies – it’s rude and annoying

  • Ne

    Yes, a lifelong passion for good food and dining begins at a young age. That being said, it doesn’t mean fussy two-year-olds should be anywhere near a city’s adult-oriented fine dining establishments. You wean kids onto good food. Start by cooking good things for them yourself, then progress to no-fuss, good restaurant cooking (e.g. a solid Tex Mex or Italian place). When they’re at a more mature age (teens) is when you can start taking them to higher-rated places. To think that a one year old who is incapable of rational thought should be allowed in a vaunted temple of gastronomy is absurd.

  • HighwayMiles

    He’s absolutely right. Kids can control themselves at a very early age, if you tell them what’s expected and hold them to it. Learning at home is not the same thing. Parents are not servers (Hear that, kids? Your parents are NOT your servers!) and siblings are not other patrons. Of course, at the earliest ages there can be complications. A colicky baby tends to fuss during typical dining hours. At that age, it’s best to hope for a sit-down meal, but anticipate it turning into takeout. Skip the apps. But you do need to ease kids into it. Start with lunches, then early weekday dinners, and I mean be the first people in the restaurant when it opens. Dining out doesn’t have to mean 7pm on a Saturday. That’s too much pressure. Bring quiet activities for the child (no electronics), ask for extra napkins and see how it goes. If one parent has to bolt and the other settle the check, so be it. It’s not the end of the world. They’re children, not bombs. My parents took me to fine dining restaurants and there was never a problem, other than my tendency to order the most expensive thing on the menu. I didn’t act like an idiot in public because my parents wouldn’t tolerate me acting like an idiot anywhere!

  • natalie

    My parents never had us order from a “kids menu” and we learned to try new things and eat good food. They also instilled a sense of respect and fear in us if we were to act up. hahah

    Yes, some kids should be in restaurants but not the picky, loud, whiny ones. It’s also good to start at places like Pizza Hut or less gourmet chain places were no one is paying for the ambiance of the restaurant.

  • Mitchell Greenberg

    I feel the same way. In a restaurant, children should be seen and not heard. However, you might consider that most parents are on a fixed income and going out to eat is a treat, which most parents reserve for themselves. We took our children out to restaurants since they were infants. We also took turns outside when our children acted up. Most children have a limited palate, so chicken fingers and such are great, especially when my daughter takes her two out to eat. They will also try everything, and let you know if they like it or not. Parents do often think about the time when going out to dinner. Most children are on a schedule and taking them out to eat at 8 or 9 o’clock is unfair to them and the other diners. They also get bored very easily when waiting for food. Why do you think fast food is so popular? And the funny thing is, no matter where I sit in an average diner, I manage to be seated next to kids. There is a time and a place for children. No later than 6 o’clock is the time and home is pretty much the place.