How to take your kids to a fancy restaurant

Here are my best tips for successfully eating in a fancy restaurant WITH your kids. Yes, with them. So that you can return again some day. No black "x" by your name for you.

You see, the man and I adore travelling. High, low, urban, roughing it - all that and everything in between. I KNOW that I couldn't be with someone who didn't love to travel. It just wouldn't work.

Fast forward to us with the girl. I still wanted to travel. And not living near family it was either travel WITH the girl or not at all. You can guess the answer - her first NYC trip was at 6 months of age. Here she is in Madison Square Park. 

I also love good food - I'm not going to spend her childhood eating only what I call "yellow food". You know, chicken fingers, hot dogs, etc. She deserves to eat well as much as I do.

Here's the dilemma - what do you do when you want to eat well and avoid chain restaurants? Or those billed as "family" restaurants? How do you not be THAT family with the kids going crazy and the waiters frustrated and the other guests glaring at you? Got it solved and here's what you do:

1. Pick the restaurant

Probably the only place that I won't take the girl (6 1/2 now) is a restaurant where part of it's schtick is a long, involved meal with many courses. This is NOT the time to do the tasting menu. Save that for when you have babysitters.

For your first ventures out I'd stick with Italian or Japanese restaurants. Both have a varied enough menu and simple enough ingredients that you will find something that your kids will enjoy.

2. Have reasonable expectations

No, this won't be your romantic dinner a deux where you look lovingly into each other's eyes and "remember when". But this WILL be a dinner where you can teach your kids how to "be" in a restaurant. They can learn little by little how to order, how to have table manners, how to wait until everyone is done, how to have a conversation. Not all at once. Not the first time nor maybe even the 5th but it'll happen.

Reasonable expecttions? How about everyone fed and watered with minimal fuss and drama while also being welcomed back to the same restaurant again some day.

3. Make an early reservation

I've eaten as early as 5pm or 5:30pm but the restaurant won't be full of diners expecting THEIR romantic dinners. I make no apologies about being out in the world with my girl but I also am reasonable about when to be at a fancy restaurant. I did eat at Maialino in NYC at 10pm last month with the girl but that was the time change in action.

4. Consider the bar instead of the restaurant

Many upscale restaurants will have a bar area in addition to the sit-down dinner area. Consider eating in the bar area - it'll be the same food but with a bit more bustle and action so you won't have to feel like you are constantly shushing your kids.

5. Leave the iPhone and iPad at home BUT come prepared

Say what? Are you kidding me? Nope. Leave 'em at home. Once you create that expectation of screen time all.the.time in a restaurant, it's a killer to stop it. And don't go thinking that I have a quiet, frail flower of a daughter who sits by herself putting together puzzles. She's a big extrovert who is very active.

But no worries, you will come prepared. There is no kid alive who can sit through a restaurant meal like an adult can - trying to do so is a recipe for disaster.

So what do I bring along?

  • Markers (throw 'em in a zipper bag) and paper
  • Pocket Doodles - for boys and girls
  • a favourite stuffy or toy (small and noiseless)

What about that pre-dinner conversation? We have a few games that we play:

  • That old standby "I Spy"
    • "I spy with my little eye something that is [color]"
    • "I spy with my little eye something that starts with [letter]"
  • "Animals in the Zoo"
    • "I went to the zoo and I saw a/an [animal]"
    • The next person says the same thing but their animal must start with the last letter of your animal
    • whoever hesitates for too long loses
  • "Group Story"
    • Everyone adds one sentence to a story. Make it easy for the next person to add on.
    • "As I peeked from behind the tree I saw a large castle"...."I crept up to the castle and knocked on the door"..."No one answered so I turned the door handle"
  • And if your kids are younger, just ask them a few questions
    • What's your favourite colour?
    • What's your favourite book?
    • If you could be any animal, what would you be?

6. Order a main course plus an appetizer OR dessert - not both

You want this to be a success! I find that depending upon the age, you have 45 minutes at the least and maybe up to 1 1/2 hours when they get a bit older. I tend to spend about an hour at dinner.

With that in mind, order two courses. That's it. Just two. Order main courses for you two that can be made reasonably quickly.

7. But there's no children's menu

But that's what you want - no "yellow food"! If it's Italian, ask for a simple plate of pasta with butter and pecorino or parmesan. Or marinara sauce. It it's Japanese, yakitori (teriyaki chicken on skewers), rice and miso soup. If they are new to sushi, try kappa maki (cucumber roll). 

Every kitchen has some cucumber or sweet peppers - I often ask for a small plate of sliced raw veggies.

And don't worry about having to order a fancy dessert - again, they will be happy to dish out a scoop or two of ice cream.

8. Leave everyone wanting more

Bring wipes, no matter how old they are. When you are half way through dessert, ask for the bill. Tidy up as best you can. And leave a generous tip. This'll be a thanks for your family's dinner and every other family who goes to that restaurant.

So there you go - my tips for a successful dinner out with your kids. It's worth it as you get to eat good food AND your kids learn their restaurant manners. Everyone wins. How about you? Any other tips?