Saturday, March 3, 2012

What I've Learned about Urban Dining and Babies

This morning, we did one of our favorite weekend activities. We walked about a mile to one of our favorite local restaurants, a bakery that makes cupcakes from scratch and a select few delicious meals that vary from week to week. We got there in time for breakfast, which was made from scratch huevos rancheros, a homemade blackberry "Pop Tart" (way better than an actual Pop Tart), and herb goat cheese quiche. Oh, and cupcakes, but that should go without saying.

As we walked back, I was thinking about how much having a baby has changed the way I think about restaurants. In the past, I looked at the philosophy behind these decisions, but today I'm thinking about a much more practical question: how do you decide if a restaurant is baby friendly? We've always loved eating out, especially at local places, but having a kid makes the process of choosing a restaurant pretty complicated. For one, space in the city is limited, and the restaurants tend to be smaller. That means there's not a lot of room for maneuvering, say, a stroller into one. And if you go sans stroller, there's not really any space to let a toddler wander that isn't going to be invasive to someone else. Then, if it's your first time trying the restaurant, you run the risk of making the dreaded shameful parent entry.

See, very few restaurants put signs on their doors saying "No Kids Allowed." I mean, it not unheard of, but it's certainly not common. But that doesn't mean there's not an invisible "No Kids Allowed" sign, one that all of the people who go there regularly know exists, and they will stare you down when you break the rules. Plus, this is often a sign that it won't be a very enjoyable eating experience for us, either. It's a lose-lose. We make the staff and other customers upset. We have a bad meal.

Here is my baby girl when she was a few days old. Not a good dinner guest. 
I'm not complaining about these unspoken rules. In fact, I almost wish there were more signs on the door. I completely get it. There are times when I want to eat at a place that doesn't cater to children. It's not necessarily the children that I want gone, but it's that a child-friendly atmosphere isn't always going to fit the bill: dim lights, classy music, decadent menus. Sometimes there are clearly child-free spaces (or at least loud, just-learning-the-social-ropes baby-free places). These are not the places I'm talking about.

I'm talking about little hole-in-the-wall cafes. I'm talking about local pizza joints. I'm talking about coffee shops. Places that aren't by their inherent nature child-free, but may have become child-free through their culture. And, again, I'm not complaining. I understand why there would be a coffee shop free of crying babies and food tossed onto the floor, but sometimes it's really hard to figure out which ones they are without going there.

Once I get there, I can usually tell right away. The signs?
  • There are no other babies. Not anywhere. 
  • There are no high chairs in sight, or, there is one, it looks decades old, the straps are broken and it's tucked away and looks like it hasn't moved in a while. 
  • The tables are so close together that you couldn't fit the one high chair they have anywhere anyway. 
  • There's no kids menu (not necessarily a sign of a child-free space, but it can help you decide if you're on the fence.) 
  • The place is quiet. Lots of people are working on laptops alone, and the conversations are in whispers. 
But what do you do if you're already in there? You're in the door, you can see a few eye rolls from the seated patrons, but you don't want to be weird and just walk out. If it's a small cafe place, there've been times we've just ordered a coffee to go and kept looking for a more suitable restaurant, but sometimes that's not really feasible. 

So, the best thing to do is to try to figure these things out ahead of time. Here are a few ways NOT to do that:
  • Ask friends who don't have kids. This is especially true if you're out of town and the friends are making the dining arrangements. Several times I've asked, "Is it kid-friendly" and my childless friends will say, "Oh, yeah. Completely child-friendly." We'll get there and, inevitably, it is not. 
  • Ask the restaurant directly. If you call and ask if a place is child-friendly, the restaurant is likely to say yes. They may hedge, which can be a sign that it's actually a "no," but I think most places are afraid of making parents mad.
So, how do you figure it out?
  • For small, local places, we scout. We'll peer in windows when we're walking and look for high chairs. We look at how much space there is inside, whether people are laughing and talking loudly. These are good signs. 
  • Another favorite is the takeout run. We'll order takeout from a place we're thinking of going to, and one of us will go pick it up, giving us a chance to scope the place out without being weird. And if it isn't child-friendly? Well, we still got a locally-made meal, even if we have to eat it at home. 
  • Try it at different times of day. There are a few restaurants we love that are completely child friendly before 5pm, but then the atmosphere changes. Lunch spots are not necessarily dinner spots. 
  • For out of town places or bigger restaurants, we'll call and ask "Do you have high chairs?" or check the website for a kids menu.
What about you? What seemingly simple decisions have been turned into a matrix of checklists by the presence of babies?


  1. Same holds true for us country mice! Though I guess there are some different categories. Like, the little hole-in-the-wall places? Often the best dining option for little ones around here. I took my 21-month-old to an amazing little BBQ joint in the mountains, and the funky no-nonsense vibe of the place was perfect for a baby. The customers were casual and chatty, so she was a topic of conversation. The sassy waitstaff liked playing with a toddler. Generally perfect all-around. I generally go with the "if it's expensive, I won't take my girls" rule of thumb, which usually works. Though scouting in advance is best, for sure.

  2. Do you think it's possible that the other patrons maybe aren't as bothered as you think they are? Since we don't have kids yet, I was just racking my brain for times when I've felt annoyed that people had kids with them in a restaurant where I was eating, and I can only come up with a couple instances....and both those instances involved the kids doing something that caused me serious discomfort. For example, Mark once asked a kid to stop opening and slamming the door to the small cafe where were eating. It was freezing cold outside and every open/slam brought another gust of cold air through the whole space. The parent was distracted paying at the back of the cafe or I'm sure she would have stopped him herself. Other than that, I can't think of many times when I've even really taken much notice of the kids eating around me.

  3. It's definitely possible that I'm sensitive to it and might see frustration from the patrons when there isn't any, but I definitely can tell when a baby isn't part of the cultural norm of a place. For us, this mostly comes up when the place is so small that there's no way to keep a kid contained. If she can literally reach over and grab the silverware off of the next table (and she will), it's bound to (rightly) annoy people. Or one time we were eating at a place we like to have lunch at, but it was later than usual, and they have live music in the evening. She's normally really well behaved in restaurants, but something about the music (maybe too loud) made her lose her mind. She was a screaming mess and we were only two bites into our meal. I couldn't calm her down, I had to take her outside while my husband got everything boxed up to go. I know we didn't make any friends that night. People weren't rude to us (we actually got plenty of sympathetic looks) but I was really aware of how out of place we were in that space.

    1. Another good resource is checking out Yelp reviews of places - you can just type in "kid friendly - for tips on what places are good for kids, times they may be good for kids, or the general noise level of a place. It's helped us out when traveling.

    2. I didn't know Yelp had that feature. Thanks!

  4. We've always just eaten wherever we wanted to eat. I'm sure the stress level of that approach varies by child--Noah wasn't a cry-y baby, just wanted to breastfeed, and then never went through a tantrum stage and always enjoyed being out and about--but I don't think the sheer fact that a baby/child is a baby/child makes it inappropriate to eat *anywhere* or at any time (or to be anywhere I would normally go), and honestly it never occurred to me to worry about it. We've never had access to family support or childcare. So we've had him at diners, pubs, friend's birthday parties at bars, fancy restaurants, social and professional events of many varieties, all sorts of places, and people either didn't notice us at all (they're typically living their own lives) or flirted with the baby.

    Interestingly, the only time anyone ever seemed at all disturbed by our child's presence was at a noisy, local, family-friendly pizza place, where a very angry man scolded us throughout our meal because baby Noah wanted to play with a spoon and dropped it on the floor a few times--couldn't have predicted that interaction, no matter how hard I thought about it in advance! The college kids at a nearby table stuck up for us, though (adorable young man, appalled on our behalf: "DUDE, it's a BABY!").

    The two times I was disturbed by other people's children at restaurants pre-having-my-own-child were because the parents obviously *wanted* to be on a date without their children (or out with friends without their children) and were totally not including them in the conversation at all. So the kids were running around (which is really dangerous for them and for servers) and/or getting really loud and pissed at the table because everybody was ignoring them. That doesn't work at 'kid-friendly' places any better than it works someplace with fancy napkins and dim lights--so I guess for me it's more about approach than place/time?

  5. That's true. And I hope I didn't come across as saying that people shouldn't take their kids places. We often take our daughter to spaces that aren't traditionally for children and have a great time. But experience has taught me that the size, atmosphere, etc. of some places are going to make them really hard to enjoy and make me feel like I'm invading on other people's enjoyment, too.

  6. Since having kids we have discovered (midwestern) Mexican restaurants are the best for taking children out to dinner. No matter how nice or dumpy the restaurant, waitstaff is friendly and accomodating. We've also discovered if you can go out to dinner at 4:30, you can go to nearly any restaurant with children. In the first place the restaurants are empty and in the second place my children are much better behaved at 4:30-5:00 pm than 6:00-6:30 pm.