The baby dining debate

Funny baby with a knife and fork eating foodTake note, parents: babies and young children belong in family restaurants, not high-end dining establishments where patrons pay for peace and quiet with their meal, writes Joe Banks.

If you’ve ever brought your littlest wee one to one of Ottawa’s high-end dining establishments, then you may have unwittingly played into a debate that began just over a year ago. That’s when an American seafood restaurant decided to ban children under eight years old from dining after 7 p.m.

Since then, the question of whether babies should be allowed in such establishments has not gone away. Five months ago, a Chicago chef, overseeing what described as a “temple of modernist cuisine,” openly wondered through Twitter what to do about a couple who had just brought in their eight-month-old baby.

“Tbl brings 8mo. old,” he tweeted. “It cries. Diners mad. Tell ppl no kids? Subject diners 2crying? Ppl take infants 2 plays? Concerts? Hate saying no, but…”

Now this place apparently isn’t your average two-fork posh shop. Walk-ins are out of the question. They don’t even take reservations. Diners have to buy tickets weeks and months in advance that run between $210 and $265 for the tasting menu-only dinner, minus taxes, tips or beverages.  Meals take three hours to get through because there are 18 courses.

The couple in question apparently claimed their babysitter cancelled at the last minute.

So what does the chef do?

Well, that’s not the question I might ask, even if he begs for an answer on Twitter. I’d rather loft this one out there, in as pleasant and as dignified manner as possible:


Seriously: I guess I missed the memo that said common courtesy was no longer common, that it had to be spooned out to young parents like pablum-foie-gras. What were they thinking?

Babies cry, and sometimes they cry a lot. It’s not because the flambé was tepid or the caviar was a trifle mushy or the service was just mediocre. It’s because they live with colic, poopy diapers, and hunger that only breast milk can assuage. Not to mention getting over that little thing called birth.

It’s the parents of course – it’s always the parents – who knew they were going to that “temple of modernist cuisine,” where two things are sought by patrons: a peace of mind and a piece of food, so exquisitely prepared, that it costs $20 a bite, give or take.

Nor is any blame to be imparted on the hapless and desperate chef, who after all, has a place of business to run, one whose clientele pay admittedly ridiculous sums for a product. That is his brand, and he has a right to protect it.  

There are these things called family restaurants. That’s why they’re called family restaurants; for families with children. Kids being kids, nobody can guarantee their wee one will be saintly and silent throughout mealtime. 

These are the eateries of merriment and mayhem that dole out crayons and colouring books. Squeezy toys. Sharp, pointy objects like forks and knives.

Maybe I jest about that last one, but surely there’s no point in debating babies in high-end restaurants without talking about the parents, and only the parents.

I think we were pretty good ones, if I do say so myself. When that unfathomable luxury of eating out with a baby or two came our way, we went to Champions, the town’s sports bar, where crying added to the ambience – mostly because it couldn’t be heard above the din of a boisterous clientele.

Then, and I’m talking the late ‘80s, the non-smoking section was confined to a corner where the smoke was only slightly less noticeable. I do remember that the menu was simple and full of comfort food and there wasn’t much talk about the ingredients. It was good, filling and the place pleased the girls. The servers made faces at them and played with their hair.

In the meantime, we were busy attending to messy faces and shushing and more; stuff parents busy themselves with: making their kids behave in public.

Maybe the girls cried, and probably did; I don’t remember.

And I doubt if those parents who squandered what should have been a unique and memorable night out, can either.

Photo: © evgenyataman