You’ve saved up for months for that special-occasion dinner at Café Fancy Schmancy. Things are going swimmingly when you arrive, dressed to the nines, and are shown to a table with a thick white cloth and a chilled bottle of Champagne.
Ten minutes later, the hostess seats Mr. and Mrs. Frazzled and their tantrum-throwing 2-year-old right next to you. The din drowns out the sweet nothings your date is whispering, and an errant blob of airborne mashed potato lands on your dress.
Or ... maybe the couple pulls out some crayons and a snack, and things turn out just fine.
Whether kids belong in nice restaurants is a subject of heated debate. On the Chowhound and eGullet forums, hundreds of posters have chimed in. Some say well-behaved children should be welcomed at five-star spots, noting that they’re preferable to obnoxiously drunk adults. Others say prepubescents and their parents should be relegated to the likes of McDonald’s and Friendly’s.
We conducted an informal poll of area parents — plus University of Vermont alum and Food Network star Melissa d’Arabian — and found a higher level of consensus. Most of our interviewees believe youngsters deserve the chance to try out restaurants that don’t offer Happy Meals, but nobody argues they should be ordering tasting menus at Vermont’s finest eateries. And every single respondent notes that parents have a responsibility to their fellow diners.
Being a parent doesn’t make you immune to annoyance when someone else’s kid interrupts your evening. “I don’t want to be sitting next to families if I’m not with my family,” admits Burlington attorney and mom-of-one Jessica Oski.
D’Arabian, who has four young daughters, echoes her sentiment: “The worst thing is paying for a babysitter so I can have a nice night out with my husband — and having to listen to somebody else’s kids.”
So, why take the SpongeBob set out to eat in the first place? For one thing, they’ll never learn proper manners if they don’t practice. “It’s a training program,” says Mirabelles co-owner Alison Lane, who has two young boys. “They have to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and learn how to order.”
D’Arabian sets her little ones up for success by having a family huddle before they head out. “We let them know they’re going to an adult restaurant, that it’s a special occasion, and they have to act like young ladies,” she says. “I believe everybody has to know what the rules are before they can be expected to follow them.”
UVM psychology professor Rex Forehand, author of a book called Parenting the Strong-Willed Child, says parents who take their children out to eat — or to the movies or the grocery store — must stay “child focused.” “It really requires a conscious decision,” he says. The youngster, not the cabernet or the perfectly seared sea scallop on your plate, is where your attention should be. “If parents are willing to spend the time and effort to work with their children in fine restaurants,” says Forehand, “then it’s perfectly acceptable.”
To lessen the impact on other eaters, most parents quickly learn that early dinners are a boon. The d’Arabian family sometimes eats as early as 4:30 p.m. to beat the dinner rush and the date-night crowd. When parents become aware that their kids are an anomaly in a roomful of gourmands, Lane says, things can get stressful and rushed. “You’re worried about all the other people, and you’re downing your wine like it’s shots,” she jokes.
Establishments that are naturally bustling and noisy — think American Flatbread and the new Farmhouse Tap & Grill in Burlington — can be great places to introduce kids to public dining and a variety of new foods without making a scene. A spot that pairs a dining room with a more casual tavern, such as The Bearded Frog in Shelburne, can be a good choice, too.
Want to know if a restaurant welcomes children? Call ahead and ask — you may be surprised. At Burlington’s L’Amante, one of the city’s finest eateries, children are accommodated with high chairs and smaller portions of “kids’ pasta” for $7. More adventurous eaters may share their parents’ entrées or order an appetizer-sized portion of penne Bolognese, which co-owner Kathi Cleary likens to pasta with “crushed-up meatballs.”
“A lot of our regular customers have gotten engaged here, have gotten married and had children,” Cleary notes. “[Bringing the whole family] has always been fine.” Her view is that the parents are often more stressed out by the scenario than their fellow diners.
One cardinal — and counterintuitive — rule: Kids should never show up at a restaurant hungry. Food writer and UVM communications specialist Lee Ann Cox, who has a 9- and a 6-year-old, notes, “If they’re really starving, their idea of a long wait can be measured in seconds.” Like Cox, d’Arabian always offers a snack beforehand, and brings another one along just in case.
Most of these parents agree that even nonpicky kids should be exposed to new foods at home rather than in restaurants. “Do I get them the halibut poached in olive oil served on braised Swiss chard?” d’Arabian asks. “No. That’s 30 bucks out of my pocket for nothing. It’s not the time for them to learn to like crazy things.” For frugality’s sake, Oski agrees, “I’m not inclined to order something for [my 6-year-old] unless I’m sure she’s going to eat it.”
Lane does things a bit differently with her sons, whom she calls “pretty good eaters.” At Sonoma Station in Richmond, one of her family’s favorites, she’ll narrow the menu down to a couple of options, such as quesadillas or peanut noodles with beef. “Too much choice is not a good thing,” she suggests. “We’ll say, ‘There’s this or this,’ and they’re usually fine with whatever.” A good mac ’n’ cheese or a burger with hand-cut fries generally makes it onto the list.
Sometimes even restaurants that offer special options for children get a bit too fancy. “I think sometimes [eateries] think they have kids’ options, but they feel the need to embellish them in some way that kids don’t want,” Cox says. “In my experience, going to a restaurant isn’t fun for anybody if the children don’t enjoy the food.” In short: Chefs, leave the fried capers and the dusting of smoked paprika for the grown-ups.
What should restaurants do to be more kid friendly? Susan Holson, copublisher of Kids VT, has some ideas. Children’s meals should be delivered a few minutes early, to give parents a chance to cut up meat and make sure items aren’t too hot, but not so early that the kids are sated and restless before their parents can fork up a bite.
Coloring books and trivia cards make things fun for families, and keeping nutrition a priority — by automatically offering sides of apple sauce or broccoli instead of French fries, for example — will earn an eatery a gold star. But the main thing Holson looks for is flexibility. “If the kid wants butter on the spaghetti and it only comes with red sauce, that’s going to be a problem,” she notes. “Most children are picky.”
Needless to say, there will be occasions when even the best-behaved youngsters are pushed beyond their limits. That’s when coloring books, toys and understanding restaurant staffers are extra important.
For times like those, d’Arabian has what she calls a “go-to emergency strategy that I can use at almost any restaurant, anywhere.” What’s the secret? Ice cream. “If they’re flipping, if there are meltdowns, I’ll say, ‘Can you bring them each a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and the check?’” she says. “That buys me 10 minutes, maybe 20.”
Plenty of places will cater to kids when asked, but here are a few Vermont spots that are particularly kid friendly.
Hearth & Candle, 4323 VT Route 108 South, Smugglers’ Notch Resort, Jeffersonville, 644-8090
Akash Parikh and Shawn Calley — Hearth & Candle owners and dads — know how to satisfy both fussy and adventurous eaters while making what could be a stuffy fine-dining experience fun for patrons of all ages.
They offer two menus for young ’uns. One, featuring chicken fingers and hot dogs, is geared toward smaller kids with less-developed palates. The “young diners’” menu is for older children with more sophisticated tastes. It boasts the Oscar Jr., a 5-ounce filet mignon with grilled jumbo shrimp, mashed potatoes and green beans. “Sammy” is salmon with risotto.
Every kids’ menu features a drawing to color, and each day the children’s pièces de résistance are entered in a contest. The winner receives a free sundae. Despite all the fun and games, grown-ups don’t have to worry about their families getting too rowdy: There’s a separate adults-only dining room away from the hustle and bustle.
Fire & Ice Restaurant, 26 Seymour Street, Middlebury, 388-7166
Junior diners reign at this popular steak house. Tours of the kitchen and the lobster tanks are common, and general manager/exectutive chef Patrick Needham says the only reason kids aren’t rolling around on the floor is that “someone may trip over them with a tray full of hot dinners.”
To keep the little ones occupied, there’s “children’s theater”: While Mom and Dad dig into “king’s cut” prime rib or Champagne chicken, Junior can hang in a room stocked with 45 videos. Every $7.99 kids’ meal comes with a trip to the salad bar, where kids go cuckoo for the Monument Farms chocolate milk dispenser.
Norma’s Restaurant at Topnotch Resort, 4000 Mountain Road, Stowe, 253-6445
Chef Mark Timms believes it’s important for children to enjoy fine dining in a grown-up way. He’s eaten in top restaurants with his own kids to give them “a sense of belonging and class, and the confidence that comes from that.”
For the younger set, Norma’s offers fun food such as soft pretzels and veggie plates with dips. Chicken fingers are made in-house from Misty Knoll chicken and crumbs from Harvest Market bread. When it comes to entrées, Timms likes to offer smaller, less-expensive versions of his adult dishes, including a petite filet mignon and the fish of the day. For dessert, families can gather around the fire pit and roast up s’mores.
Open Arms Café, 52 Harbor Road, Shelburne, 985-9844
Why do families fill this casual café? According to owner Samantha Cofino, “It sounds boring, but the food is really good for you.” That’s because the wholesome smoothies and sandwiches are all organic and mostly local.
The space was built with home-style comfort in mind. There are places for moms to nurse and a special area complete with a chalkboard wall, a play kitchen and well-lit couches where youngsters read picture books. At mealtime, pancakes made with Butterworks Farm buttermilk and served with a side of homemade apple sauce are especially popular.
Lyndonville House of Pizza, 93 Main Street, Lyndonville, 626-4500
The TVs at this pizzeria are usually tuned to sports, but when a group with bambini enters, they’re quickly switched to cartoons. Menus have space on which to draw or color while kids choose between pizza and Greek specialties such as spanakopita. Lots of Northeast Kingdom youngsters select the pizza place for their birthday parties, and the staff has been known to proffer a personalized pie topped with candles for the birthday boy or girl.
Grey Fox Inn, 990 Mountain Road, Stowe, 253-8921
Foosball, anyone? The game room keeps kids entertained, but food is the focus at this Stowe inn’s pair of restaurants. Dinner at The Pub includes burgers and a bread bowl filled with beef stew.
Brunch at the Dutch Pancake Café consists of pannekoeken in the style of the Netherlands filled with a choice of nearly infinite combinations of sweet or savory ingredients. Kids, who often opt for the fruit or candy versions, can get their names or a special greeting written on top in powdered sugar.
Healthy Living Café, 222 Dorset Street, South Burlington, 863-2569
Wednesday is “family table” night at the market. The hot bar is packed with kid-friendly choices, including mac ’n’ cheese and grilled cheese. Tables are covered in butcher paper to facilitate the efforts of petit Picassos, and each small fry receives a free dessert (usually a cupcake) and balloons.
Each month, the Learning Center offers a class geared toward young chefs. In the past, they’ve made pretzels and cinnamon buns and even created edible art from fruits and vegetables. The next two sessions will feature veggie spring rolls and Popsicles.
Healthy Living’s farmers market will host special kids’ events on July 11 and September 18, featuring music, face painting and fire trucks.
The rest of the time, mini-carts allow little shoppers to help Mom and Dad.
Flatbread Factory and Taproom, Shelburne Bay Plaza, 2989 Shelburne Road, Shelburne, 985-3303
When members of the younger set order at Flatbread Factory, they get more than pizza sticks or chicken tenders. Each $5.99 kids’ meal arrives in a brightly colored metal lunch box complete with a portion of Teddy Grahams.
Kids won’t be bored while they wait, since there’s a fully equipped lounge just for them. Parents can dig into mango nachos and pear-and-prosciutto flatbread — washed down with craft brews — knowing that the little ones are enjoying themselves with a train table, chalkboard wall and age-appropriate programming on the flat-screen TV.