Dishin' That: Kids eat free, adults pay the price

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Last week’s column was a bit of a dissertation on why some children behave poorly in restaurants, and who, if anyone, is really to blame.

One reader called it a “cultural reflection, also mirrored in other areas of American life, but not overseas.” Another sang to the choir and said the “hands-on coping tactics of adults determine where the behavior-o-meter points.”

One former restaurateur from New York City, a father of three, said he’s ashamed to admit he purposely made his hours, menu and prices anti-kids. If they came in anyway, the unlucky server who waited on them always got a drink on the house.

Some readers offered lovely suggestions for how to calm unhappy kids, and one baseball fan said he was willing to tolerate “children being children.”

“I’m an uncle to six nieces and nephews ranging from 2 to 9 years old,” read my favorite submission. “I love them to death, but hate to go out to dinner as a whole family. My dad would have backhanded one of us if we ran around or yelled when we went to Cole Farms on Sundays after church. If I had children, they’d never behave like that.”

Be it parenting through intimidation, or kids dining out with familiarity and gentle guidance, Uncle Know-It-All made a point I’ll begrudgingly give him.

Why begrudgingly? Because people without children always make the very best parenting decisions. Be it in restaurants, school, the movies or any public place with potential for an embarrassing moment, don’t they always seem to know best?

As a mom who budgeted meals around Kid’s Eat Free Nights (back in the day, Ricetta’s in South Portland was the favorite because they let my daughters play with the dough), I could always spot the childless people. They were the ones who undoubtedly lived in immaculate homes with pointed-corner glass coffee tables. Judgement oozed from them.

Nonetheless, explain and justify as I may, I have long been on the serving end of bratty, misbehaving children in the various places I’ve worked. While I can empathize with everyday mini-episodes, what follows are some of the worst real-life experiences.

• One mom used to leave several dirty diapers from more than one kid in a small bathroom that opened directly into a crowded foyer. It was as if she saved them, or brought them in from the car. This nastiness is on the mom, but is indirectly the fault of the kid.

• There comes an age when children should just know better about restaurant protocol. Worse than screaming babies are the tweeners who like to play with the salt, put ketchup in their sibling’s soda and talk back loudly to parents feigning discipline. This is a common summertime behavior pattern (think camp visiting days). As much as I hate it, I’d rather see the kid stick his nose in his iPhone and shut up.

• I’m hard pressed to forget a group of four moms who brought their toddlers into the restaurant and used the space as if it were a play-group facility. They had an arsenal of coloring books, crayons, puzzles and other things to occupy their kids (this is good). Then, they ordered glasses of wine, three orders of french fries and ignored the little ones altogether (this is bad). After a few consecutive weeks of taking up three tables, and making a colossal mess of squished fries and spilled milk, one of my co-workers pointedly asked the women if they’d like us to arrange for a babysitter the next time they came in. We never saw them again.

• One little guy used his arms like windshield wipers, not once, but three times, to projectile-missile chicken nuggets from his high chair tray to the laps and plates of surrounding diners. No one except the kid was amused.

• A lasting memory is of the little girl who repeatedly yelled, “you’re stupid” and “shut up” at the top of her lungs. This went on until a fellow diner said something to the dad, who in turn, told him to shut up. Fisticuffs almost followed and the night was ruined for everyone present. Other guests were uncomfortable and, per usual in negative situations, tips reflected it.

The list of printable incidents surrounding kids misbehaving in restaurants (to say nothing of the unprintable) goes on. Shoot me an email if you’d like more of this train wreck we can’t look away from.

Peas & Q’s

Question: You used to recommend out-of-the-way places that were interesting. Can you suggest a day-trip place where we can escape the tourists when it gets a little nicer? — Sharon M., Portland

Answer: I’m not sure if you’re referring to the Black Bear Inn in Bolton, Vermont, but that’s one of the all-time, greatly understated B&Bs ever. A new favorite is The Woodbound Inn in Rindge, New Hampshire. While a full breakfast is included in the cost of the room ($79 shoulder season for a jacuzzi suite?!), stay over on a Saturday and pay $8 extra for their Sunday brunch in The Grove restaurant. It rivals anything Portland has to offer.

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Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to nladd@theforecaster.net, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @natalieladd.

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