Full Plate: Should You Invade a Nice Restaurant With Kids in Tow?

CFO and partner at Ethan Stowell Restaurants Angela Stowell weighs in on kids and nice restaurants

Editor's Note: Angela Stowell is CFO and partner at Ethan Stowell Restaurants in Seattle, which encompasses 12 restaurants including Tavolàta and How to Cook a Wolf. Angela also helped found Eat RunHope, an annual 5K and culinary event that benefits the Fetal Health Foundation. Angela and Ethan have two young sons.

cute kid with salad

When our son was 10 months old, we went to visit a friend’s restaurant in Boston. It was sushi, so we figured we could make a quick exit if a massive meltdown ensued. What we didn’t realize was that the restaurant was actually a little more “Nobu” than casual sushi counter, and we had just plopped our ticking time bomb down next to a couple who was about to spend $300 per person on a tasting menu. Lucky for us, our son was the perfect dining companion. But substitute our second son into the same scenario, we later came to learn, and it would have been no dice.

That night we experienced a familiar anxiety for a parent: How do I get through this meal, in public, if my child totally loses it? There have been several notable instances in the press and on social media over the past few years about restaurant owners kicking parents out for their unruly — or maybe just unhappy — little customers. These overpublicized incidents, which often go viral on social media thanks to video and our gawker culture, make a lot of parents even more nervous about dining out with their kids.

My husband and I own a dozen Seattle restaurants, from casual pizza joints to a fine dining restaurant in the Four Seasons. So what do we think about kids in restaurants? I look at it in the same way I look at teaching a kid to ride a bike or swim: They will never learn how to do it if you don’t try.

Eating in your favorite restaurant is not an experience that has to wait until your kids are old enough to sit quietly through the entire meal, though dining with older kids is certainly much easier. That’s not to say that I would personally take my cranky 2-year-old to a three-course dinner right at his bedtime, but I would take him to my favorite “grown-up” restaurant at 5 p.m. For me, it comes down to knowing your child, being aware of how long of a window you have to entertain him or her and having the right tools to get through dinner so you can all enjoy yourselves.

We have friends who dine with their two small children at least once a week and always pack a special bag of quiet toys that the kids only get to play with when they’re in a restaurant. I can never quite pull that off, so I’m usually scrambling to find a peg board and cars for our little one and some coloring books for our 3-and-a-half-year-old. I also do not fault parents, or myself, for pulling out an iPad or iPhone if that is what it takes to finish a meal (and my glass of wine) in peace.

My general recommendations for dining out with kids:

  • Know where you’re going. Maybe skip the restaurant that doesn’t take reservations and has an hour-long wait.
  • Accept that there are some restaurants that are just off-limits to kids. I can’t wait until my kids are old enough to experience a fine dining restaurant like Canlis, but I would never dream of taking them there now.
  • Practice by taking them to brunch or lunch, or to a restaurant that is geared toward kids.
  • Tell your kids when you’re planning to go out and talk about it at home so they know what to expect at the restaurant. Tell them what the food is like, what it will be like to sit at the table and what you’re excited to try.
  • Reward good behavior with dessert, and don’t beat yourself up if you need to bribe them with an iPad.
  • Accept the fact that sometimes things are not going to go as planned and you may have to shovel food into your mouth, box up the remainders, pound your glass of wine and make as graceful of an exit as possible. And then you plan for your next night out with the kids.

As a mother and a restaurateur, my hope is that parents start teaching their kids about food and eating out at an early age. Eating out is such a wonderful way to connect and celebrate with family and friends. There is no reason to leave your favorite little dining companions at home.

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