Wednesday, January 11, 2012

To Dine or Not To Dine?

I admit that since becoming a Dad, and more so a stay-at-home, I have become more sensitive.  Okay, okay... extremely sensitive to the issue of family friendly dining.  On top of that, I am a bit of a food snob.  You won't catch me in a Denny's, IHOP or Souplantation with my kids.  No chance.  Not to say their food is necessarily bad, but as a good friend of mine once pointed out 'life is too short to eat crappy food'.  I agree whole-heartedly.  Give me good hoppy beers, pork belly/bacon, fresh local veggies - oh, and some place to stash my kids - and I am a happy man.

I guess I should define what family friendly is first.  There are levels to family friendliness, I will break it down for you from the basic to the parentally luxurious.  These descriptions have nothing to do with the quality of food that the establishment produces, simply their commitment to families, comfort and ability for parents to relax for 30-60 minutes while dining with their little monsters.


A basic family friendly restaurant will have crayons and some paper for the kids.  Sure, most of our kids have the attention span of Herman Cain at an intern recruiting event, just a little something to get them situated while you look over the menu is golden.  Another basic component is kid friendly menu options.  Kids are easy to cook for, most of the time.  A hot dog, grilled cheese, chicken/fish nuggets and mac'n'cheese is all you need to offer.  And lastly, the final basic family friendly restaurant component is a changing table in BOTH the mens and women's bathrooms.  I am happy to change both of my sons diapers on dining tables.  Absolutely no issue with it whatsoever.  But I would imagine the health inspector, not to mention the other patrons at the restaurant would frown upon this.  At the same time, I don't want to have to walk out to my car and change my kid's diapers in the trunk of my car nor do I want to put my kids on the floor of the often filthy bathrooms.  These are the basics.


Mid-range includes all of the basic options and then goes a few steps beyond.  Restaurants at this range have high chairs and/or booster seats.  Sitting with kids can be tough.  Give them the room to move around and they will cover every square inch around them, likely spreading into other areas too.  Kids are like diseases at the dinner table that way.  They want to touch and look at everything a hundred times until their grubby hand, nose and cheek prints are everywhere.  Recently, my 2 1/2 year old has gotten into the habit of lifting his shirt and pressing his chest and belly against the side/wall of the booth.  I have no idea what he is doing.  He thinks it's funny as hell.  I think it's weird.  You get the point.  The other upgrade is kid friendly cups.  Sure my son can use a standard cup/glass as long as we put a straw in it, but if it's a full sized glass or doesn't have a lid then we may need a mop, a bucket or at the very least a big stack of napkins.  Life is easier with a plastic cup with a lid and one that is preferably a smaller cup (maybe 8 oz).  Lastly, a mid-range restaurant will have more than crayons.  There may be used books, puzzles or games.  We have gotten used to letting our son watch some Curious George or Olivia on episodes we've downloaded to our iPhones.  But if you don't have an iPhone, or don't want your kids watching videos then having those other options drastically improves a families dining experience.  Now let's look at the upper echelon, the luxury.


Again, the luxury establishment will have all the basic and mid-range fixings, but it is their commitment to a true family escape that sets them apart.  See, at the end of the day a family goes out to eat for one of three reasons (or possibly a combination of said three): Mom and Dad are too tired to cook this afternoon/tonight, Mom and Dad want a break after a long day or the family has a cause for celebration.  So the ability to relax and have our kids entertained without having to be the entertainer is priceless.  And there is only one place I have ever been to that offers good food, good drink and all of the family friendly fixings described above PLUS a playground.  Nope, it's not McDonalds or any other fat food...I mean fast food spot.  Station Tavern and Grill in the San Diego neighborhood of South Park is a gem and why their model hasn't been copied is beyond my comprehension because the place does crazy business.  The playground, which his part of the outdoor picnic styled dining area, collects gently (or often more than gently) used toys over the year and kids can play with them.  Pails, shovels, matchbox cars, plastic constructions hats etc.  The only rules are no climbing the trolley (see above picture) and don't throw or eat the gravel.  So while Mom and Dad enjoy a decent burger, some sweet potato fries and a local pale ale, the kids can get their play on.  Albeit while Mom and Dad have a watchful eye on those happenings.  This is a break, not a vacation from parenting.  There are some lazy-ass parents who take this as a time to completely detach and have no idea that their Ditzy Daisy/Pisshead Peter is terrorizing the other kids or doing their best impression of Godzilla on top of the trolley; leaving folks like me with the lovely job of parenting their children in addition to my own.  However, that's a whole other post so I digress.  But this is family dining heaven.  I don't expect all restaurants to do this, by all means the basic option makes me happy enough.

Now that I have defined what is family friendly, let's look at what some shiesty places are starting to do.  

It's as easy to be family friendly as it is to be the opposite.  And disappointingly, I am noticing more and more places opting for the latter.  As I said, I am a foodie (nice way to say food snob) and as such I try to keep my ears peeled for any of my favorite chefs opening new restaurants.  When they do I am ready to pounce and try the new grub.  But I have learned that I need to do a dry run first.  Literally, I will drive by these places to see what I can see.  Primarily I am looking at seating.  The new thing is bar stool style seating.  Nothing quite says "you can bring your rug rats here, but we'd prefer you didn't" quite like bar stools and high tables.  Ever try and stick a 2 year old on a chair 3 1/2 feet off the ground?  It's an accident waiting to happen.  Why even put yourself in the situation?

The other kick in the face for families is the absence of, even the lack of desire to offer anything comparable to, a kids menu.  Some places won't have a kids menu, but if you ask, most are willing to make smaller portions of a basic meal.  I would never ask a waiter if they could have the chef whip up a kids sized eggs benny, but a small plate of scrambled eggs with some fresh fruit is certainly a reasonable request.  Same goes for a half sandwich with a half order of fries or steamed veggies.  But when a waiter tells you outright that they don't offer anything for kids, this irritates the hell out of me.  And yes this has happened.  And yes we make due by simply having our son eat off of something from our plates that is simple and relatively kid friendly.  But you can't get the spicy option or, at least with our son, many protein plates.  So it's basic carbs like pasta or the like.  To me this is just unacceptable, so I don't support these places and I go out of my way to tell other families to avoid them like the plague as well.

"But folks without kids should have a place to go where they don't have to deal with your kids".

If you're saying that right now, kiss my ass non-mater.  I tip better than you do and since I have kids I am a quick turnover table as well.  No two hour meals for this guy.  There are plenty of bars for folks wanting to get away from it all.  I should be able to take my kids out to eat where I choose, within reason.  I won't waste money at a fancy steak house or formal attire required restaurant with the boys.  I may be a pushy and perhaps even sometimes entitled parent, but I'm not stupid.  Why cut off a part of the population that is always growing?  Families can be a goldmine between parents who enjoy a cocktail or two, the quick turnover and most parents I know tip a little extra because we know our little ones make messes or can cause a little trouble for waiters/bussers.  As my father always said to me when asking me to stop doing something he found irritating: "I don't think I am asking for too much here".

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