Advice from a restaurant professional and parent.
Let's be honest: when you're child-free and headed to an upscale restaurant, the last thing you want to see is a table loaded with young children. Michael Schulson, CEO of Schulson Collective restaurant group and parent to two boys, gets it. "Young children can disrupt the others’ dining experience when expectations aren’t set beforehand," he says. And that worry can be enough to make any parent pass on a nice evening out with the kids.
On the flip slide, however, "as a parent, I know it is easy to feel embarrassed when your child is being fussy or making a mess, but in any decent restaurant your server and the managers will not be upset about it," says Jen Fields, director of operations at Alden & Harlow and Waypoint. So with the right tips—and the right restaurant—any parent can have an enjoyable (and fancy) dining experience with kids. Here's how.
1. Include your child in the reservations. You're not just a party of three—you're a party of three including a tot, and it's important to make that distinction when you make your restaurant reservation, says Fields. That way, when you reserve a table, you can also touch base with the hostess or other staff members about any special needs your child might have, such as a high chair or a low-top table. (You can also make these requests in the notes on online reservations.) "Restaurants these days have so much counter and high-top seating, and on busy nights, seating options can be limited," Fields points out. "And given the unpredictable nature of little ones, no parent wants to wait with a potentially fussy and hungry kid for a low-top table." Plus, she adds, "there are also certain areas which are more conducive to little ones —think: well-lit for drawing, with a good view of the kitchen—so it's always nice for a restaurant to be able to plan in advance for a good, family-friendly table."
2. Have a talk about expectations. Schulson recommends that before you leave home, you speak with your child about the behavior you'll expect from him or her at the restaurant—assuming he or she is old enough to understand, of course. After all, when it comes to a fancy restaurant, "expectations may vary from parent to parent, but good manners are essential," he says. For example, you might want to instruct your child to "place a napkin on his lap, chew with his mouth closed, not to talk with food in his mouth, and to be polite, just a few," Schulson suggests.
3. Get your child food, stat. If you arrive at the restaurant with a hungry kid, don't wait until your server has returned with drinks to place his or her order. Instead, "let your server know as soon as you sit down," Fields says. "Most restaurants will be happy to rush out some bread or cut up a little fruit." You can also pack snacks for a picky kid, Fields says. Or, if you'd like your child's meal to come out before yours so you can feed him or her and have a shot at enjoying your (possibly expensive) meal while it’s hot, "make sure to let your server know," she says. "Restaurants work hard to course everything and will not fire an entree for your child early unless you tell them to."
4. Take your child for a walk. If your kid gets antsy, don't hesitate to take him for a little walk around the restaurant, Fields suggests. "As long as you are aware of your surroundings, most restaurants will be OK with a little trip over to an open kitchen to watch the action or a jaunt around the dining room to look at art work, cool light fixtures, or anything else that catches his eye," she says.
5. Be ready for a meltdown. Let's be honest: even the best behaved children have their moments—the kind of moments you wish they wouldn't have in public. So if your child chooses to have a meltdown inside the restaurant, Schulson advises you "leave the table with him as soon as behavior gets disruptive. Take him into the bathroom or outside to calm down. And be prepared to leave if you can't restore order. Those dining around you will appreciate your consideration."
6. Consider brunch. "If you're dying to try a hip or bustling restaurant but afraid to risk it with a little one at dinner, think brunch," encourages Fields. You'll still get the same great food and service, but the environment will be a tad more relaxed. What's more, "servers are very accustomed to having families in at brunch, and there will most likely be other tables with small children around you," she says. "It's my favorite service of the week to work—lots of tiny babies, toddlers munching on bagels, and parents commiserating and joking with the neighboring tables. Plus, a cranky toddler is still way easier to deal with than a hungover college student, so you are already starting out at an advantage to the average brunch guest."