How to eat out with kids. I’m sorry.

So who’s right, the restaurant owner who yelled at a toddler or the parents who let her “fuss” for over 40 minutes? I don’t know; probably neither of them. I’ve been in both positions and I’ve probably fallen short of ideal behavior as both a restaurant employee and as a parent. It’s not easy to eat out with kids.

Let’s look back at that one time I was working on the second floor of a certain Queen Street West restaurant in Toronto with an upstairs patio. At this particular restaurant, the servers made all their own drinks, bussed all their own tables, sat all the guests, ran all their food through the entire length of the downstairs dining room and then up the stairs to one of three dining areas. We also had to bring all dirty dishes and even glasses (!) back down to the kitchen ourselves. We did have a computer upstairs for placing orders that would get printed up in the kitchen, but any other communication with the kitchen staff who had varying levels of proficiency in English would require another trip down to the kitchen.

Right, so one sunny summer afternoon we got slammed. It had been busy all day which means that we were already short on bar stock and cutlery roll ups and all the other good prep work that is done to make your job go more smoothly, and we were all running on fumes. Some sort of festival or other (hey, this was more than a decade ago, I can’t remember) let out and the restaurant filled up. One of the tables was a family with young kids, though I don’t think any of them were babies or toddlers.

They sat on the patio and I took their order which was macaroni and cheese off the standard menu (we didn’t offer a kids menu) for the kids and probably burgers or sandwiches for the adults. I entered their order into the computer, brought their drinks and moved on to the approximately 15,000 other things I needed to do.

I did not:

  • warn them that we were slammed, so their meals would likely take a while
  • offer to put a rush on the kids meals so they would come up first
  • tell them that the cooks sometimes garnished the mac and cheese with chopped parsley and ask if that was okay
  • bring them crayons and paper (since the restaurant didn’t carry those anyway)
  • acknowledge their children in any way, shape, or form

Nor do I think it was my responsibility to have done any of those things. If I weren’t so busy, I would have been better able to accommodate extra needs. If I were waiting tables now, having had three kids of my own, it might occur to me to check about the parsley and offer to have the kids meals come first. But I was in my early 20s and, quite frankly, those extras were not in the job description at this particular restaurant.

Ultimately, I remember the parents complaining about how long the food was taking and being especially outraged that I hadn’t at least brought their kids’ meals first. All I could do was stand there panting and dripping with sweat and apologize for the wait, offer more bread and more water, and suggest that in the future they let their server know they would like the children’s food to arrive first when they place their order. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get much of a tip.

Part of the problem is that the kind of restaurant people feel comfortable bringing their children to is often also the kind of restaurant that is least able to accommodate them. (I’m not counting chains that cater to kids here.) Most people don’t take their kids to fine dining restos with a maître d, a full set of support staff for the servers, and a table to server ratio that is small and manageable. You don’t do it because it’s expensive and you don’t want to spend $30 for your kid’s bloody macaroni. You don’t want to risk bothering the other diners. And because if you do go out to that kind of restaurant, you don’t want your meal ruined by having to be constantly vigilant about your child’s behaviour. I get it. But, having worked in both kinds of restaurants, let me tell you that it is a hell of a lot easier to anticipate the needs of customers of any age when the menu is priced high enough that you don’t have to serve three times as many people with little-to-no support.

But here we are, parented up and desperate for some bourbon-infused french toast, and just a small taste of poached ducks eggs nestled on a bed of housemade cheese biscuits with a coating of lemony, herbed hollandaise. What’s a mom or dad to do? Well, you can all but forget about that new hot brunch spot for now (if you actually want to enjoy it). Sorry, but line ups are a no-go.

A few simple rules to keep in mind.

How to Eat Out with Kids

Of course, if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself stuck in a line up with three starving kids and nary a crayon in sight on a Saturday night because organization is not your strong suit. So you take antsy kids out for plenty of walks. You sacrifice your good lip gloss to be used for napkin doodles. You order as soon as possible. (Seriously, read the menu before you even walk inside.) You clean up those clumps of spaghetti from underneath the highchair before you leave. And I can promise you: that meal will suck. But eventually they do grow up and then you’ll really learn how expensive eating out as a family can be.

Good luck.

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