For our fourth wedding anniversary, in November last year, my wife and I went for a rare evening meal out at Michelin award-winning pub The Marksman in Hackney, having left our toddler with my mother-in-law. On a nearby table were some intrepid hipsters with a newborn. While part of me admired their bravery in carting about a bun so fresh out of the oven, another lamented that we couldn’t enjoy even one dinner free of kids in restaurants. As it was, the baby barely made a peep. Nevertheless, we were disquieted.
Similarly, when in January we went for a last-hurrah supper at ever-reliable restaurant Bistrotheque before the birth of our second child, we found ourselves on a table next to a family with a little girl who can’t have been older than five. Again, I couldn’t fault her behaviour, but her presence was enough to make us uneasy. And, as at The Marksman, our reservation was for 9pm, way past bedtime for any small child, special occasion or no.
‘Kids menu or no, restaurants don’t cater for their natural appetites’
Perhaps our fellow diners hailed from mainland Europe, where eating out late en famille is more palatable. Famously, French children don’t throw food, according to the title of the book by Pamela Druckerman. Among other cultural differences, the francophile parenting style endorses waiting a few minutes before responding to crying infants, allowing them to resettle themselves and thus develop patience and self-control. French restaurants don’t provide children’s menus, while crèches serve turkey au basilica in a provençal cream sauce. But even on the accepting continent, Roman fish restaurant La Fraschetta netted international attention when it banned bambini under five ‘due to some unpleasant incidents caused by a lack of manners’, as the sign on the door read.
This divisive topic is ripe for opinionated newspaper columns variously defending the writer’s right to dine in peace or the company of their offspring, in the absence of an available or affordable babysitter. And there’s an argument that kids will only learn how to conduct themselves in restaurants with practice. But there’s also a case for restricting this to lunchtime and early dinners (say, 5pm), so that they can still go to bed at a decent hour. And some establishments are more suitable for kids, with, for example, available high chairs, colouring equipment, buggy parking, Happy Meals.
The reality is that, separate menu or no, restaurants fundamentally don’t cater for children’s natural appetites: sitting still in silence at a table for an extended period is far from a mouthwatering prospect, and constantly shushing or quelling them with an i-Pacifier leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It’s like weddings: you can take kids (unless they’re banned). But they, you and everyone else will probably have a better time if you don’t.
Jamie Millar is our regular fatherhood columnist and strongly advocates finding a babysitter