Food & Drink

Kids can learn to handle dining out

Fletcher Popp, 11, is at ease dining out. His parents believe kids should learn how to navigate the restaurant experience as early as possible.
Fletcher Popp, 11, is at ease dining out. His parents believe kids should learn how to navigate the restaurant experience as early as possible.

A decade ago, it seemed like a good idea. Evan Elsberry would open a casual fine dining restaurant in East Sacramento where parents could enjoy a gourmet meal and not have to worry if their children were bothering other guests.

His dining room would include a corner where kids could be kids. While the adults ate grilled salmon, prosciutto-wrapped scallops and lobster ravioli, the children would be within eye and ear-shot in a designated play area, doing their thing.

Initially called the Family Room, the restaurant opened, and this novel concept got its real-world test. To be sure, the parents enjoyed the well-crafted food and fine wine, and the kids had a cool new adventure ... until things got out of control.

There were fights. There was screaming. Parents who were supposed to be looking after their young ones often failed to regulate behavior, assuming that a play area translated into “anything goes.” One night, a little boy hurled a block across the restaurant and struck a woman in the head.

Two years into this well-intentioned social experiment, Elsberry pulled the plug on the play area and re-branded the establishment as Evan’s Kitchen. A father of two grown children, Elsberry realized that there can be no passive experience for parents who want to enjoy a more refined dining experience with their kids.

“You want to raise your children to behave, but so many parents just don’t get it,” he said. “(Eating out) can be really good for them, but kids have to be taught by their parents. You need to practice at home. You need to set expectations and there need to be consequences.”

Despite those early experiences, Elsberry believes that kids can behave – and even thrive – at higher-end restaurants. Yes, we’ve heard horror stories, but we’ve also met parents who have found success taking their little ones out to eat.

While many parents either don’t worry enough about their kids’ behavior or are too terrified their children will act up and cause public humiliation to even bother going out, some parents and restaurant staffers say it can be done, and done well.

Many avid restaurant goers who take their kids with them insist that when children understand how to behave in restaurants, they also learn self-discipline, respect for others – all the little things that add up to good manners, from placing a napkin on their lap to chewing with their mouth closed to looking people in the eye when speaking. More than anything, these are lessons they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

But some restaurant folks say it’s not just the kids who need the etiquette tutorial. They say too many parents are so focused on their own dining experience that they let their kids act up and spoil it for others.

“It’s a generational thing,” said Scott Smith, general manager of Biba. “Kids that behave well, you look at the parents ... and it often goes hand in hand. If you see kids running around and they look like they need to be on a leash, you look at the parents. They are often oblivious to what’s going on.”

While it’s not much a challenge to have kids fit in at child-centric eateries like Chuck E. Cheese’s or family-friendly chains, more serious restaurants require other considerations.

Elsberry advises that parents get baby sitters when their kids are age 5 and under, but others believe that younger children can handle a spot at the table.

Pamela Wu and her husband didn’t want to avoid eating at their favorite restaurants simply because they had a child nearly four years ago. They didn’t go to most sit-down restaurants when their son was a baby, but once he reached age 2, they went for it – after plenty of coaching at home.

That’s something Elsberry says is crucial. Rehearse the fundamentals – how to order, how to say thank-you and please, how to sit still and speak without shouting – at home before graduating to an actual restaurant setting. You can make it a role-playing game to get more of a buy-in from the child.

It’s worth the effort, Wu says.

“Getting him comfortable eating at restaurants and teaching good behavior means you and your husband aren’t stuck eating at home all the time.” said Wu, communications director at UC Davis School of Law. “Plus, it is good for him to learn these lessons. I want him to learn table manners and how to act appropriately at restaurants. Those are learned behaviors and habits that are built over time. I hope he’ll grow up to be a courteous restaurant patron and a considerate person in general.”

Before they reach the restaurant, mom and dad go over the basics again, setting boundaries and expectations. And they aren’t adverse to using electronics when needed.

“I tell him to use what we call ‘quiet restaurant voice.’ He’s usually really good, but if he gets antsy during a long meal I’ll let him look at videos on my iPhone. That’s a treat for him because we limit his screen time at home.”

Well-behaved as he might be, Wu’s son knows he can’t push it too far. He learned that the hard way. Wu remembers one incident at a greasy spoon when she and her husband had to bail early.

“He was bouncing around and running his fork all over this sticky booth and dusty windowsill, and it was just gross. I said, ‘If you keep doing that, we’re going to have to go home.’ We gave him a few warnings,” Wu recalled. “So when he smiled at me and did it again, my husband picked him up and walked out of the restaurant. I paid the check and put our half-eaten meals in takeout boxes, and we got in the car. He was upset on the way back home, crying ‘I want to go back.’ I felt bad that he was so unhappy, but he got the point, and we haven’t had a similar problem since then.”

It may seem like old-school parenting, but Curtis Popp, of Popp + Littrell Architecture & Interiors, believes it’s vital for kids to learn how to navigate the restaurant experience as early as possible. Since he and his wife, Susan, both work, dining out is a time for them to interact with their two kids, a 13-year-old daughter, Olivia, and an 11-year-old son, Fletcher.

He says parents need to be mindful of others in the restaurant and not let their kids go too far. But he also believes other patrons need be tolerant if parents are doing their best and struggling to get a handle on their kids’ behavior.

“Life is all about balance,” said Popp. “A parent’s job is to teach their kids how to do things so that when they’re 22 and on their own, they know how to do things.”

Developing a familiarity with an eatery and its employees also can affect a child’s behavior, Popp said, helping to create a situation of positive reinforcement that extends beyond the parents.

“We cultivate relationships with the places where we eat,” he said. “When we go to Ella, Magpie, Kru or Lalo’s, they know our kids. The kids behave and there’s never an issue,” Popp added. “When I think back, one of my favorite things about growing up was when my parents took me out to eat.”

As most parents know, instruction of this kind is easier said than done; teaching appropriate restaurant behavior will likely be a process with small triumphs and moments of setbacks. But the common ingredients are steady effort and, of course, patience.

Vigilance also matters, especially in our technology-saturated world. Smith remembers a recent party of 18 people at Biba when things got out of hand.

“It was a big celebration and there were three little kids running around wild and their parents were on their cellphones,” Smith said. “It was a packed dining room and it was just crazy. At some point, you would think they would tell the kids to stop doing that, but it never happened. When you go over and say something, they look at you like, ‘How dare you.’”

Then there are the kids – and parents – who get it. When Smith sees a well-behaved child having a nice meal, it’s practically thrilling.

“It kind of chokes you up a bit,” he said. “It’s so cute and you think that parent is doing a good thing. They’re learning how to order, how to eat, which fork to use, how to ask to use the restroom. It adds so much to their education, their maturity and their self-esteem.”

At Biba, it’s not uncommon for a restaurant employee, or Biba Caggiano herself, to take a youngster on a tour of the kitchen, the idea being that a two-hour sit-down dinner can be too monotonous without breaking it up with something entertaining.

Deb Ray, who owns Rebel Confectionery & Jams, a small gourmet food company, said she and her husband never shied away from eating out with their son, who is now 24. Her main advice? Don’t set kids up to fail.

“He went with us everywhere from the time he was born, and we went to nice places. We wanted to enjoy life,” she said. “But we were prepared. You bring things to engage your child if they are at that age where they can’t sit still for two or three hours. You have to be there to guide them. You can’t just drop them into a situation and expect them to know what to do.”

Ray says it’s vital to be aware of the style of restaurant, other patrons and how your kids’ behavior might affect others.

“We were always taught that you don’t infringe upon the enjoyment of other people,” she said. “It’s more about basic manners, common courtesy and common sense.”

That emphasis on courtesy is one of the key lessons Wu wants to instill in her son.

“I think that modern parenting is so child-centric,” she said. “I really want to strike the balance between taking him out and showing him a good time, and making sure he’s considerate of the people around him – and not thinking it’s all about him.”

Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.

Keys for success with kids at restaurants

▪ Practice proper behavior at home first.

▪ Most kids under 5 can’t handle fine dining or meals longer than an hour.

▪ Set expectations for behavior and have consistent consequences if they are not met.

▪ Be aware of other customers and be sure your kids are not too disruptive.

▪ When all else fails, be prepared to bail – either for a break out in the parking lot or go home altogether.