Miniature John Candys in Weeboks conducting table-side experiments with snot. Pint-size Roseanne Barrs pulling assorted forms of insect life from their pinafore pockets at inappropriate moments. Or short Sam Kinisons peering up your female companion's skirt, complete with running commentary.
Say "children in restaurants," and these nightmarish visions are what probably come to mind. Well, it's time to set the record straight. As the working mother of a two-year-old who's chowed down at some of the finest eateries in this town, I know that "obnoxious" and "kid at the table next to yours" are not necessarily synonymous. Face it, I've seen drunks and loudmouths in restaurants (including certain compatriots at this newspaper) who've been more rambunctious, rowdy and rude than my tot at her crankiest. (Besides, eating out with children can't be that bad--any week now I'm about to add another dining companion to the family, and believe me, my tolerance for public humiliation is as low as the next person's.)
What's actually at work here is a vicious cultural stereotype perpetuated by people who could care less about stuff like the preservation of the nuclear-family unit as long as their Beaujolais can breathe in peace. You know the type. "Oh, it's not that I don't like children," they'll simper. "I love children . . . so long as they're someone else's." At which point they'll whinny with laughter like William Buckley on acid. It's time to stop treating people who take their kids into restaurants like Visigoths from hell towing little Visigoths in diapers. This comes down to a simple matter of prejudice--baby bigotry, if you will--and like all prejudice, it stems from misunderstanding. So I'm asking all you advocates of dining apartheid to chew on this for a while:
Normal people who eat in restaurants don't realize what parents who eat in restaurants are dealing with. From the outside looking in, the obvious question is, Why don't these people hire a baby sitter? You must understand that parents are not exactly flush with cash. These are folks who are buying diapers, day care and Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles, so if they have decided to eat at Frederick's House of Frankfurters, it's probably meant a month of scrimping. And unless they can persuade their cousin-in-law twice removed who lives in Outer Apache Junction to baby-sit (again) or that "best" buddy (they never seem to call anymore), they will have to actually monetarily compensate someone to watch their beloved offspring. Which means, these days, $2 or $3 an hour with a $10 minimum. You're talking $15 easy, and you haven't even laid eyes on a shrimp cocktail. Whether parents opt for pizza or prime rib, baby sitting is always a caviar cost.
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Okay, the easiest comeback is, Why don't parents just avail themselves of the numerous high-quality take-out or pizza delivery establishments in the Valley and stay home and leave us in peace? Well, fishfork breath, after having children, one of the first social niceties to go (along with sleep, sex that lasts longer than ten minutes and wearing clothes that need to be ironed) is eating out in restaurants. Epicurean excursions like hot dogs at the circus or hot pretzels at the zoo become your idea of life in the fast lane. But there comes a time when everyone eats out. You celebrate a birthday, a promotion--and you want the whole family there. Besides, should families have to totally cut themselves off from one of life's great pleasures just so as not to disrupt someone's pasta primavera? So you narrow-minded noshers should understand what goes into a culinary quest like this. If you're dealing with an infant, you must load into the car a stroller, infant seat, diaper bag, assorted bottles of juice, milk and water, teddy bears, favorite rattles, blankets, more Kleenex than Byrd took to the South Pole and enough baby wipes to service the 86th Airborne Division. At this point, the baby will probably decide to poop, so you will head back to the house for a diaper change. Then, without fail, the phone will ring mid-change and you'll answer just in case it's important. Then while you're getting rid of the solar-water heater seller, the baby will start screaming with hunger so you'll mix up a bottle really quick so that you don't use your stash for the restaurant. Just as you get the key in the door, the baby will poop again. One diaper later, you will be halfway down the block before you remember you forgot a pacifier . . . Normal people who eat out probably ask themselves, Why put yourself through this? Is this anyone's idea of fun? Normal people who eat out are not working parents. So they don't realize that when you only get to see your kid for a few hours a day, you get weird and possessive about those hours. Not to mention guilty. And convinced that if you don't spend every waking moment with your poor, neglected children, they'll grow up warped and sad and subscribe to Soldier of Fortune and go on a shooting spree at a neighborhood post office. So what a choice: You can abandon your beloved children and blow a small fortune on baby sitting, or you can gather the gang and break bread together.
What's more, some people have to eat out. When Best of Phoenix time rolls around at New Times, I have little choice but to take my tyke with me as I do my part to explore the merits and mediocrities of the Phoenix eating scene. Sure, I wish I had live-in servants who catered to my every whim and prepared hot, wholesome meals for my family and could watch the fruit of my loins while I jaunted off on professional pursuits. Unfortunately, I don't, and sometimes the closest thing I've got to that (and sanity) is eating out. Besides, get real. You think the first and foremost thing on parents' minds when they take the kiddies out to eat is ruining your dining experience? "Hey, honey, let's go out on the town and make life hell for people paying $25 a pop for blackened octopus." Admittedly, you're talking about people for whom counting their baby's toes and watching her blow raspberries is high entertainment, but we're not that warped. Parents would be the first to admit they're borderline psychotic, but at least they're not sadists. Masochists, maybe. Sadists, no. I will allow that this kids-in-restaurant business is a two-way street. Parents shouldn't be so righteous that they abridge other diners' constitutional rights to privacy and pleasant dining experiences. Any Mom and Dad who think they can drag a two-year-old into a restaurant with a half-hour wait for a table for a leisurely tete-a-tete deserve what they get. And there are certain concessions parents should make out of common courtesy. It's best to dine early when the staff isn't frazzled and the restaurant is fairly empty. And you might opt for places that aren't as popular--they'll be glad for any customers. Smart parent-diners prepare for that endless parental exercise called "walking the baby." This means when the child starts to fuss, somebody has to cast one last forlorn look at their hot, steaming plate of $18 lamb chops and take the baby cruising for toothpicks, checking out the lobby decorations (especially if there's an aquarium) and making numerous trips to the restaurant potty, which for some reason is always much more fascinating than the one at home. Don't order anything that's going to require two hands to eat, like lobster, and forget anything that needs to be eaten at a leisurely pace, like most of the stuff on the menu. What's more, remember that while you have become hardened to exposure of assorted bodily fluids, non-parents still tend to cringe. Most mothers can change a loaded diaper faster than Ben Johnson does the 100-yard dash, but it's best to do that kind of stuff away from people trying to eat. (In fact, one of the reasons I adore Coyote Cafe--aside from the pumpkin soup and black bean cakes--is that it has a nice wide shelf in the bathroom that's perfect for changing diapers.) And if worse comes to worst, and things are getting out of hand, leave and say a silent thank-you to the inventor of doggie bags.
Remember, if it didn't work out this time, try again. Oh, yeah, the anti-kid contingent will hiss at this. Actually, unlike some people, children are infinitely flexible. The more you take them out, the more your kids will adapt to restaurant eating. In fact, at that point, they can probably teach your basic normal person a thing or two about etiquette. Like, it's rude to stare, and if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. Of course, keep in mind that we parent-patrons will have the ultimate revenge. All in good time, even the most hard-core of these naysaying nibblers (such as my esteemed colleague Steven Weiss) will probably end up having kids of their own. And then we'll get to find out: They can dish it out, but can they take it?