A night without my kids (or yours)

Barbara Kay, National Post · Friday, Jul. 9, 2010

Touchy subject, kids in restaurants. Some people seem to think restaurants are like public parks and must accept all comers who want to share the space. Others, like me, realize that while parks are paid for with our tax dollars and can't go out of business, restaurants are paid for out of owners' pockets and can. In successful restaurants, atmosphere is as important as good food, and owners have the right to control the atmosphere within reason.

Does "within reason" include "ageism"?

Newly opened Taylor's Wine and Food Bar in Ottawa became a cynosure for both praise and fury, depending on viewpoint, when it was made public that a woman making reservations for a party including her three-month old nephew was told by the owner that the infant wasn't welcome. Besides there being no diaper-changing facilities, his presence was "not conducive to the atmosphere that she was trying to create."

A good rule of thumb should be that restaurants don't have the right to exclude patrons on the basis of immutable traits, like skin colour or sex, but can on mutable ones. So the ill-dressed, obstreperous and intoxicated --all conditions over which customers have choice -- can definitely be excluded at the owner's discretion.

Age is a hybrid case. Restaurants shouldn't exclude the elderly because the elderly can't get younger. But the unsocialized young? It's reasonable to exclude them because it's only a matter of time until they're eligible for admission.

I don't understand this mania nowadays for bringing babies and unsocialized toddlers to fine restaurants. In my day (cue the music from Jurassic Park), unlike today, actually having children was very popular -- three was average and four not uncommon-- but we drew sharp distinctions between adult-only pleasures and adults-with-children pleasures. Maybe we didn't feel guilty leaving our kids at home at night because we saw so much of them during the day. That was the case for us mothers at any rate, for whom a night without cooking and a few hours in the company of other adults was pure heaven.

In my own case, the feeling of respite in a child-free dining ambiance was particularly acute. My older child was -- well, let's say "unsocialized" is a bit of a euphemism to describe his behaviour at table. He was, shall we say, "wilful," another pleasant circumlocution to describe his gastronomic barbarism.

He was not a fun dining companion anywhere, let alone restaurants. He didn't eat what others ate, for one thing. He only ate Kraft cheese sandwiches on white bread. Grilled was also acceptable. And when I say "only" Kraft cheese sandwiches, I am not exaggerating. The deluxe kind, not the plasticated singles. The occasional fruit yogourt. That's it. He would wolf down his sandwich and no power on earth could make him sit at the table once he'd finished. Dinner table "conversation" was as foreign to his nature as Sudoku to a baboon.

So going to restaurants with him was no fun for us and no fun for other people, who were treated to his cries of rage when we forcibly restrained him from leaving the table. He wasn't interested in drawing on paper place mats. There were no iPod Touches in those days, no portable DVD players and no hope of any interlocutory gambits that interested him.

I remember a restaurant episode in New York that still makes us shudder. He was perhaps seven years old then. We'd ordered him his grilled cheese sandwich. It came, but the cheese inside was pale yellow, not the neon orange he was used to. He refused to eat it, but there was nothing else he would eat, either. His father got stubborn --you know what New York prices are -- and said we would sit there until he ate it. He sat staring at the plate in mute defiance. The rest of the hour-long standoff is rather hazy in my mind, but I remember it ending in a flood of tears on my son's part, remonstrances of my husband's stubbornness on my part, disapproving stares at us from surrounding tables and my husband eaten up with remorse at his overreaction.

Children in parks, the more the merrier. Children in McDonald's, bring them on. Children in all the restaurants that want them, come on in. Adult-only restaurants: Send me your co-ordinates; I'll make a rez.