Friday, February 18, 2011

Perspectives on Dining With Children: Ellen Kassoff Gray

I've never considered the posts I write on restaurants to be reviews, per se. I'm no culinary professional, and I don't have the luxury of unlimited funds to visit restaurants as regularly as would be necessary to term what I write reviews. Instead, I like to share my experiences, and thoughts, for what they may be worth to my valued readers. So, when I recently sat down to write about our not-so-positive experience at a supposedly kid-friendly joint in Dupont, I just wasn't motivated. I think most of this had to do with not wanting to re-live the whole debacle.

What this experience did contribute, however, was some additional perspective on the notion of dining out with children in tow. I like to consider myself a rational and reasonable person. I also consider the idea of dining out with our very active toddler a tad bit daunting. To date, we've stuck to lunch at our neighborhood joints in the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor, those with which we are comfortable and know what to expect. We also plan accordingly for the experiences - we wait until after H has his nap, we pack appetizers (usually veggies, cereal, maybe a fruit bar), and we go in with the expectation that we may have to take part of our adult meals home if things get out of hand. This recent experience to which I've alluded, however, just soured me and made me self-analyze - Are my expectations unreasonable? Am I just being a whiny mother?  Am I failing to take the restaurant's perspective into account here?! So, I went to the source - a mom and restaurateur - to see just what is within bounds in dining out with children.

Ellen Kassoff Gray, owner/operator at Equinox, and Watershed, coming to the NoMa neighborhood, wife to chef Todd Gray, and mom to Harrison, 11, shares her perspective on dining out with kids.

Teach them. Grow them.

Kids have their own tastes and their own preferences. Sure, they go through stages of certain affinities, and those affinities change. Ultimately, though, we are responsible for helping our kid's tastes develop, and for establish healthy eating habits.

Ellen says that if the parents are connoisseurs of fine food, it's more than likely the kiddies will turn out to be mini-connoisseurs too. For this reason, we cultivate them; we teach them how to dine. If we want our kids to be adventurous eaters, like ourselves, that sense of adventure will ultimately grow out of their own experiences. In other words, start them dining out early and often. Don't limit your children, and don't limit yourself.

Be Reasonable

With the ideal that we set the tone for raising little eaters, we have to be reasonable in what we expect of our children and of our fellow diners. Be prepared for the experience. When asked just what is unreasonable, Ellen doesn't hesitate in answering. "Don't ignore your screaming kids," she says. It's not fair to a child to let them get to such a point, and then to ignore it. Nor is it fair to your fellow diners to force them to experience the hell that is a child screaming, particularly when they are paying for the experience.

As a parent of a little man who can quickly turn to a little screamer, I would add that parents should always come prepared with a back-up plan, and if necessary, a quick exit strategy. Pack snacks because food will not arrive instantaneously. Bring something to entertain a slightly older toddler. Take a little walk to break up the scenery. With the expectation of trying new things, know your child's needs and capabilities, and be prepared to be flexible. This will help everyone involved.

The Golden Rule

If you come prepared to proceed with reasonable caution with your child, you should be able to expect the same reasonableness from the restaurant. Expect that a restaurant has a high chair, and a booster seat. Don't expect to nurse your child without cover at the bar. Make your expectations for early service of the kid's meal clear to your server. Don't expect the menu to be gluten, dairy, and nut free without special requests. You see what I'm getting at.

Some restaurants are particularly willing to be reasonable, and these might be the places you want to return again and again. Ellen shares that the philosophy at Equinox is that every diner, from 5 months to 50, is a potential customer-for-life, and she feels that each should be treated as such. She goes the extra mile to make sure the littlest customers have a great experience. As a parent, I can attest that restaurants where the staff is willing to make everyone feel at home are indeed the types of places that we will repeatedly return, along with our munchkin. Whether they are white tablecloth establishments, or family diners, restaurants that treat their customers as extensions of their own families (Ellen's theory on welcoming the youngest customers), are the types that we will frequent as a family.

If All Else Fails, Bribe

Kid acting out? Ellen has a few tips. As a mom who has wondered exactly what do to in these precise situations, my reaction?! Brilliant!

As we all know, we can take every conceivable step to make sure our kids stay happy, and still, they have a meltdown. Most of the time, we can either take a walk, or leave, if desperate.  There are times though, that these are not options. Ellen's solution (she says that she has consistently done this on airplane rides) is to buy those around you a round of drinks. Now, why didn't I think of that?

Desperate for happy hour with the girls? Ellen's advice is to go to a hotel lobby lounge. "They're always full of kids," she notes. Meet up with the girls, have a cocktail and a snack, bring along the kiddies and some entertainment, enjoy yourselves, and take a cab home. I'm not saying this will work with a little one under two, but it's a fun idea. Particularly given the number of hotels within walking distance in my neighborhood.

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