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To ban or not to ban: should kids be allowed in fine-dining restaurants?

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We’ve all been there. It’s Friday night, you’re all dressed up, enjoying a romantic evening at your favorite restaurant. Or rather, trying to enjoy a romantic evening. If it weren’t for the screaming four-year-old throwing food at your next-door table, the same one who was running around the restaurant minutes before, maybe you would actually be able to enjoy yourself.

Sadly, as adorable as kids may be, they’re not usually the most appealing dinner companions. In fact, several restaurants find them so disagreeable that they’ve gone so far as to ban children across the board. 

“We’d ask parents to remove the child and they’d be offended and sometimes even walk out on checks."

- Mike Vuick, owner of McDains restaurant

Take McDains, the Pennsylvania club-style restaurant on the golf course of the same name, where all children under six are banned.

Or the forthcoming 18-and-older-only sushi restaurant in Alexandria, Va., where angry parents likened the ban on kids to "apartheid." Owner Mike Anderson, who also runs three other restaurants in the area, recently told WTOP: “It's meant to be a spot for husband and wife to come and kind of reconnect in kind of a sexy setting…[without having] to interact with young children.” 

Or Atlanta’s Grant Central Pizza, who banned crying children last year.

Clearly, eating out is not looking so promising for children anymore. 

“This has been accumulating over the years as an increasing number of young children and babies, whose chief form of communication is crying, were coming in,” explains McDains owner Mike Vuick. “We’d ask parents to remove the child and they’d be offended and sometimes even walk out on checks. And other people, who came in expecting a quiet dinner, would complain they have to pay for a sitter and then be disturbed by someone else’s kid.”

So in July 2011, Vuick banned anyone under six, citing it as the best decision he’s made. “I’ve gotten an overwhelming response from people all over the world, and it’s a thousand to one in favor of what we’ve done. Every day a customer seeks me out to thank me for the policy, or someone writes to tell me they wish a restaurant near them would institute this policy. Business is up and it’s even helped me get some staff I wouldn’t have otherwise attracted.”

Some restaurateurs have a different strategy, like Allen Routt, chef and co-owner of The Painted Lady in Newberg, Ore., where children are not banned, but guests are encouraged to leave children under seven at home due to the length of the meal (around three hours) and the mature menu (a multi-course tasting menu).  

“My restaurant isn’t for some adults, and it’s not for some children,” admits Routt. “But banning children seems like a knee jerk reaction. We are raising the next generation and if we can expose children to manners and etiquette and finer experiences, they will mature into more well-adjusted people.”

Alex Tiches, general manager at LJ's & the Kat Lounge in Maryland, agrees: “Exposing children to the dining experience early and expecting proper behavior, courtesy, and knowledge of food, service, and even wine from them, is the best policy.”

Rather than banishment, restaurants need a gameplan for disruptive kids, says Routt. “We use our private dining room for families with small children, and we also have outdoor dining.” 

Routt even sets up babysitting for longtime guests. “Restaurants should maintain the same level of respect for all clients, regardless of age,” adds Robin Wells, president of Etiquette Manor and director or marketing for Caffe Abbracci in Coral Gables, Fla. “And if the front-of-the-house is on top of diners, with eyes on everyone constantly, there shouldn’t be a problem.”

Of course, there’s always an exception. When that happens, go directly to the parents, but with the right tone, advises Wells. “Conflict will never work. You can’t be hostile or angry at someone else’s child, or the parent, so you have to put the right personality in charge, and you have to show other patrons that you’re doing something about a negative situation.”

Or consider hosting dinner parties with etiquette classes, like the one LJ’s hosted for the Boys and Girls Club of Washington County. The key is to consistently set the tone for all guests from the get go with attire policies and professional service, says Tiches, who doesn’t allow any guests to wear hats, tank tops or cut-off shorts in the restaurant. “Some people choose to leave, but the policy will not change, because it sets a tone for all guests.”

Andrew Fritz, manager and co-owner of Citizen Public House and The Gladly in Arizona, seconds that notion: “It’s silly to forbid or place restrictions on who walks through your doors; your target clientele can pick up on the physical evidence in your store (price points, plates and silverware, cuisine, dress code, clientele and ambiance) to determine if your dining establishment is right for them. Plus, well-trained management and staff should be able to mitigate issues pertaining to children and adults alike.”

So just how should parents determine whether or not to bring the kids along? Herewith, 10 tips from restaurant and etiquette experts across the country to help you decide:

Start at home. 

"Start with eating more formal dinners at home where everyone eats the same thing and has serious discussions, connecting the family," says Routt. "People who have problems taking children out often serve kids something separate in front of the TV, so there’s already that disconnect."

Be considerate of everyone at the restaurant.

Adults need to take time for themselves without their kids, or someone else’s, says Fritz. A night out at a great restaurant can provide just the type of break they might need, but unruly children can ruin not only your meal, but also the meals of those seated around you. Disruptive children also inhibit a waitstaff’s ability to provide an optimal dining experience.

Do your research. 

Call the restaurant ahead of time and gauge their “kid-friendliness” by asking a few pointed questions, suggests Fritz: Do they have a children’s menu or high chairs? Is there a bar? “The host’s responses, not to mention their tone of voice, will help you determine if it’s the right choice for your family,” says Fritz. “If you do make a reservation, let the host know that you’ll have children in your party, so the restaurant can have a chance to plan accordingly.”

Consider what's appropriate for kids.

"Children can be exposed to inappropriate behaviors at trendy and energetic restaurants, especially when alcohol is involved," says Fritz. "Bars, even restaurant bars, are forbidden territory." Though, "it's up to parents to decide what they want to expose their children to," adds Routt.

Set expectations for your kids. 

“Kids over six can usually understand the ROI, as in when they act great, they’ll get rewarded, and vice-versa,” says Wells. “From the time my son was six months old, he knew going out was a privilege and that we would leave a restaurant at any sign of misbehavior. Nobody should have to tolerate my son’s inability to behave for an hour or two." 

Talk to your server.

“Communicate openly and directly with your server,” says Fritz. “They’re there to make your dining experience as wonderful as possible, so let them know what your child enjoys so they can guide them through the dining experience just as they would with you.”

Pay attention to warning signs. 

Leave the restaurant if any of the following occurs, suggests Wells: if your child isn’t hungry or if they’re sick or it’s after 9:00 pm. “Also sense the tone of the restaurant: if there’s romantic couples all around you, it’s not going to work.”

Engage your children. 

“Don’t sit down and give your kids a handful of cheerios and a gameboy and then start adult conversations. That’s the fastest way to say I’m not interested in you, and the child will do anything to gain to attention,” says Wells. “Not only should kids talk directly with the waitstaff, but parents should discuss the menu with them, ask them what they think about the restaurant, anything to engage them.”

Come prepared. 

It never hurts to bring a few games or activities with you in case of emergency. But don’t make them your first line of defense. Try this tactic instead: “If your child becomes bored, which is usually a sign that they’re feeling ignored, tell them to say: Excuse me, does anyone mind if I play my game?” suggests Wells. “This usually prompts the adults to bring the conversation back to something kids care about, or it gives the kid something to do, rather than letting them fend for themselves. If you don’t want to or don’t have the time to engage with your kids, you can’t rely on the restaurant.”

Be safe, and keep kids seated. 

“I’ve had to interact with parents regarding a toddler running around the restaurant, barefoot even,” says Tiches. “Guests forget the restaurant is a dangerous place, with sharp utensils, broken pieces of glass, hot oils and sauces, quick-paced servers, other oblivious guests. I ask the parents to keep the children in their seat for the child's safety.”