Though restaurants have been the central preoccupation of my professional life, I have never eaten in one with my daughter. Food is a huge plank of our connection. We bake challah together and pick peas in our curbside garden. But my toddler, who we call Puddin’, was raised in a pandemic. So I never had to navigate a restaurant visit with her.
A few days before visiting friends and family in Toronto, I asked the good people of Twitter for tips. Shockingly, I got no sass, but only sincere, helpful advice covering everything from logistics to mental preparation:
- Get food on the table right away to minimize restlessness.
- Choose child-friendly restaurants where a little noise is not a disruption.
- Lunch or early dinner is better.
- If they act up, one parent removes them. Be prepared to leave suddenly.
- Play restaurant at home.
- Assemble a restaurant activity kit with a collection of toys so they associate restaurants with fun.
- Order for them. A busy server’s time is not a teaching moment for your child.
- Walk around with them, but don’t let them wander on their own.
- While respecting other people, don’t worry so much about disturbing other diners – which doesn’t mean don’t care at all – that it detracts from what should be a fun adventure.
- Clean up after them.
- Ask for the bill while you’re still eating.
- Tip generously.
- Be confident that it will go better than you think.
The issue that divides parents is using a device to distract your child. Several people tell me to bring an iPad if I want to enjoy a restaurant. Others insist that a screen is the antithesis of the experience we all seek from hospitality.
A friend warns me that bringing an iPad will irrevocably turn my daughter into a terror when we don’t have one, and advises us to make the restaurant fun for her.
I’ve seen kids in restaurants, narcotized by their screens. With no judgment, their parents looked happy, and were able to engage in conversation and enjoy their meals. But I think that restaurants are as fascinating as any park or museum we might go to. There is so much to see, smell and taste. If letting her watch cartoons means she is going to mentally disengage every time we go out to eat, I don’t think that’s worth the benefit of catching up with friends.
Over three restaurant meals, we have the opportunity to road test every piece of advice I was given.
The first restaurant
Dim Sum King, on the third floor of a Chinatown building, is the kind of expansive space where it’s not obnoxious for me to wheel a stroller or wagon right up to our table.
Puddin’ is dazzled by the huge, red-carpeted room, where servers whiz about pushing carts that trail steam. By the time we wind our way to our table, she is spellbound and needs a few minutes sitting still just to process the stimulation.
Passing servers offer us luobo gao (turnip cakes) and char siu bao (steamed pork buns). So there is immediately food on the table for her. After 30 minutes she begins to fidget, so I pull a Fantastic Four lunch box from my backpack. Opening the lid slowly to tease out the anticipation, I slide it over to Puddin’. For the rest of the meal, she is transfixed by the collection of crayons, colouring pages, stickers and multihued pipe cleaners, occasionally pausing to try a new food item, switch seats or oscillate her neck to take in the room’s flurry of motion.
The second restaurant
“How fast could we get some fries on the table?” I whisper to the host at our second meal out. I’d chosen Barque, a barbecue restaurant, because I’d recently done some consulting work for the owner, helping him and his staff navigate a shift away from tipping, toward pricing that enables a livable wage for workers. But it’s also a loud place where noisy children are expected. To my delighted surprise, the host stand has a bucket of Play-Doh. Puddin’ picks a colour and is completely engrossed until the food arrives.
The third restaurant
If you’re going to take a toddler out for dinner, 5 p.m. is the sweet spot.
At Fonda Balam – a Mexican restaurant with exclusively counter seating, modelled after Apple Pan in Los Angeles – I order corn for Puddin’. She eats the lime wedge instead. It’s early for the restaurant, with only a few other patrons scattered about. The servers have time to coo over our little show pony, who soaks up the attention. However, it’s late for her. After 30 minutes perched on her stool, placing sapphire stickers over Wonder Woman’s eyes in a colouring book, she’s into the goof-em-ups phase of her evening.
At this time of day, she’s usually climbing the big rock at the park, so I can’t blame her for wanting to run around in circles. However, if we allow that behaviour to continue in a space where people are trying to serve food and make money, we can absolutely be blamed. I see from the expressions of the staff that our status is straddling the razor’s edge between proud parents of an adorable muppet and negligent guardians of a soon-to-be out of control child.
My wife, Victoria, takes Puddin’ outside so I can have some extra time with my friend. I apologize to the server. She tells us that this is nothing. Recently, she recounts, there was a kid operating a remote-controlled truck that whizzed around her feet while she was carrying plates, and another set of parents who sat on the patio and let their children run around the inside of the restaurant, even behind the bar, unaccompanied.
I feel better. But I know enough to go out on a high note. We say our goodbyes, and leave with a collection of new memories, and new confidence as parents.
Every parent dreams of sharing their interests with their kid. Why else would a sensible adult put skis on a child? I only know that for the last 20 years, restaurants have been my career. And I love being a dad more than I could have imagined. So it felt like a lot was riding on merging these two worlds.
Despite that pressure, these first three restaurant meals with Puddin’ couldn’t feel more triumphant had we flown to the moon.