The baby in question is now a 22-year-old high school economics teacher, but I recall the incident that launched a thousand letters as if it were yesterday. She had placed her pudgy little fingers on the edge of the glass table topper just as the waiter slammed the neighboring table into place against it. She looked startled, her lip trembled, and then she let out a yowp that could divert a herd of wildebeest.
I scooped my daughter up into my arms to take her outside, but apparently not fast enough.
The manager came over, his voice dripping with condescension. “I’m afraid the young lady will have to leave,” he said, snapping shut our menus. “We can’t have crying babies in this restaurant.”
We explained the situation — I remember saying, “I would’ve cried if the waited had pinched my fingers between two tables.” — and stayed for our meal. But the manager made it clear he wanted us out as soon as possible and wouldn’t support “any more outbursts.” Young, foolish restaurant critic that I was, I wrote about the whole incident.
Ah, the crying-baby-in-the-restaurant story. It’s as old as the cliche “cooked to perfection.” We hate seeing the little things when we go out to eat, right? Momentarily cute, possible stinky, willfully oblivious to the glory around them as they sit in their car seats sleeping with heads tilted, noses crusty, drool pooling at the corners of their button mouths.
And then bam, they freak out. Just as you’re going, “Oooh, foie gras,” they’re shouting to the heavens, “Get me out of this hellhole!”
The restaurant baby has been all over the news for a couple of weeks thanks to an exasperated tweet from Chicago chef Grant Achatz:
“Tbl brings 8mo.Old. It cries. Diners mad. Tell ppl no kids? Subject diners 2crying? Ppl take infants 2 plays? Concerts? Hate saying no,but…”
The Twitterverse shivered. People brought a baby to Alinea? The restaurant that serves a zillion courses over the course of four hours at a cost that starts at $225 per person? The restaurant where reservations are so rare you’ve got to buy non-refundable tickets online?
They did. The media seized upon this age-old story given new immediacy. Baby haters took up their pitchforks. (Be gone, cutie pies! Out of our town!) Achatz appeared on “Good Morning America” to defend his tweet. A reasonably funny parody Twitter account (@AlineaBaby) made a quick entrance, center stage.
The Chicago Reader had to sort through all the erroneously media chatter about a couple who lost their babysitter to find out the real story. The table was a party of four that brought the baby without any warning or apology. A manager had to eventually ask the baby’s presumed mother to walk it around the foyer, but she returned after a minute and let it continue crying. Achatz doesn’t have any intention to ban babies from his gastro-temple, but that he blames parents like these who are oblivious to the comfort of others. “It almost felt like it was people projecting this entitlement,” he told the newspaper. “Like ‘We’re here, we can do whatever we want, we paid for it.’ “
That sounds like a fair response. But we still hate babies in restaurants, right? The way they pull at those silly plush toys tangling from their stroller bars. The way their squeals of delight are the wrong kinds of public squeals. (Not like, say, squealing drunk people, who are to be expected.)
Babies are a perpetual reminder of things we’d really prefer to not think about when we dine. Food dropped on floors. Incontinence. Our mothers. Ugh. A baby in this restaurant? Really? Can’t those people get a babysitter?
Older kids don’t get a much warmer welcome. They play video games at the table! They color, they read, they take out decks of cards and half-naked Barbies and splay them about. Can’t those people get a babysitter?
Anyone who has ever written a restaurant restaurant review and had the temerity to mention a kid knows to prepare for the backlash. “You brought your brat to that restaurant?” “I’m glad I wasn’t sitting next to you.” “I hope you left your waitress a nice tip because she hated you.”
We keep doing it, though, because we’re parents. Some of us are bad parents who let our kids run loose, practice their outdoor voices and leave handfuls of noodles dribbled down the side of a highchair and onto the floor. Some of us are good parents who clean up after ourselves, tip generously and take the shrieky ones outside for a toddle around the shopping mall until we get the “food’s here” text.
I’ve been dealing with this issue for more than two decades, ever since I wrote that first review. Man, I got so many letters. Most people hated on me for bringing my kid into a restaurant. A few commiserated.
The best letter came from the chef, who apologized for the manager’s behavior and told me that his wife often watched their own two toddlers in a back space they had turned into a playroom. If she was around, she was always happy to invite kids back so their parents could enjoy a few minutes of peace during dinner. Could I help spread the word? I did, and before long that restaurant was known as one of the nicest kid-friendly places in town.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog