Should fine dining be child-free?
My local pub has seen its fair share of drunk and disorderly disasters. Over the years it has survived groggy onslaughts from stonkered labourers, juiced-up trivia contestants and spiflicated garage banders.
Pretty much the lot, really. But last Wednesday the crusty tranquility of my favourite beer garden was invaded by an undesirable element more riotous than any which had come before.
The barbarians invaded at exactly beer o’clock. Their eyes were wild, their garments were dishevelled and they ate and drank with Conan-strength abandon.
Deaf to the pleas and pules of their fellow patrons, these raging revellers thought nothing of fighting, smashing glasses, and hurling soggy chicken nuggets at anyone foolish enough to complain.
At one dreadful point, several lost complete control (and we’re talking bladders and bowels). They were tsunami-like, they really were.
And I wanted to move to a quieter section of the pub, I really did.
But as the mother of one of the ringleaders of this pack of party hard preschoolers, I felt obliged to sit it out, occasionally shouting “please don’t steal the nice emo’s cigarettes” and “how about NOT using the glass ashtray as a Frisbee?” to create at least the illusion of responsible motherhood.
The back story is that someone from my daughter’s day care centre had suggested we all meet down at our local’s “family friendly” beer garden for dinner.
It certainly seemed like a good idea at the time. Plus it gave us the chance to train our two-, three- and four-year-olds to say “see ya down the pub” (a perversely pleasurable activity on par with the politically incorrect frisson offered by Noni Hazlehurst reading “go the f—- to sleep”).
Anyway. As you may have gathered, it all went horribly pear shaped, as well as occasionally puke and poo shaped.
The main problem was the irresistible lure of age appropriate activities. We grown ups did our best to remain parent-like. But the unexpected combination of alcohol and adult company at 5.30 on a school night was truly intoxicating, and many of us found ourselves distracted by quiet and civilized conversations about topics that had nothing to do with “eating up” or “your vegetables”.
The small people, meanwhile, made a token effort to sit up at the tables like humans. But the unexpected presence of so many raucous peers during what was usually “calming down time” left them helpless in the face of their deep biological urges to create as much chaos, make as much noise, and use as many bar stools as astronautic launching pads as possible.
As a procreator whose parenting style leans towards the helicopter method, I did spend some time hovering over the swarm in an attempt to keep the plant wreckage, goth staring and gaming room invasions to a minimum.
Peeved patrons and – at one point – the disgruntled publican therefore singled me out as the spokesparent for the group, offering assorted instructions and censures.
“Control your children,” hissed one ancient outdoor smoker who looked well on her way to cat woman-ism. “Control your sidestream emissions of carcinogens and particulate-matter,” I wanted to hiss back.
But by then I’d lost the power of speech. By then I was too horror-stricken at the realisation that I had crossed over: I had stopped being one of those people who tch tch-s and ostentatiously changes tables to avoid loud children, and become the official representative of the menace.
It is in this weighty role, therefore, that I weigh into the Debate du Jour about whether more fine dining and wining establishments should be child-free.
A jet set version of this argument erupted earlier this year when Malaysia Airlines banned infants flying in its first class cabins.
Now this (literally quite sticky) issue has flared again in Pennsylvania where an eatery attached to a golf driving range has decided to institute the restaurant equivalent of one of those “you must be this high to ride” sideshow signs by banning patrons under six.
McDain’s bills itself as upscale and has never had an official children’s menu (although it does offer a number of distinctly G-rated dishes including broccoli and cheese bites, stuffed tater tots and something called chicken Ashlee).
“I’m doing this on behalf of all the kind, refined people who have emailed me who have had meals ruined,” says Mike Vuick, the former high school sociology and psychology teacher who owns McDain’s. “I’ve decided someone in our society had to dig their heels in on this issue.”
Vuick has since become a pin-up bloke for child-free civility, conducting international radio and television interviews, and receiving thousands of emails, which are apparently running about 11 to 1 in his favour.
Denying accusations of child-hating, Vuick is especially down on babies and their uncontrollable volumes. “There may be restaurants that prefer to cater to such things,” he’s said. “[But] not here. I think it’s the height of being impolite and selfish and so, therefore, I instituted a policy.”
Well. I’ll be the first to admit that my whippersnapper routinely adds a raucousness to other people’s fine dining experiences – including, on multiple occasions, my own.
Yet, like freak hour traffic, post-cyclone banana prices, and flatulent pensioners who moult into their custard, surely crazy kids are simply one of those annoying facts of life we sometimes just have to endure with grace.
It’s also worth remembering that many pub-goers who do not have age as an excuse engage in anti-social activities. (Beery ogling, post-schooner street fighting and tuneless group singing as just three scary examples.)
Grown ups are also guilty of objectionable behaviour in fancy tater tot restaurants such as McDain’s. I once dined at Tetsuya’s and the dude at the table next door made about 200 increasingly drunk and voluminous mobile phone calls to tell everyone he was dining at Tetsuya’s. Certainly no-one intervened to withdraw his cheese bite privileges.
In short, I think that while parents in cafes, restaurants and beer gardens can sometimes be a little slack, childless diners frequently overreact rather than modelling good, tolerant behaviour of their own.
Hint: a side serve of live-and-let-live-ism is the perfect accompaniment to a steaming bowl of chicken Epponnee-Rae…
And now, if you will excuse me, I’m off to lunch at one of those restaurants with crisp linen, white china and rows of inexplicable oyster forks. I will be dragging my four-year-old along, but hope to keep her quiet by plugging her Matrix-style into some sort of electronic iDevice.
Now that’ll stop the judgmental looks and head shaking about my bad parenting.
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