The debate started with a single Instagram post. In late February, New Jersey Italian restaurant Nettie’s posted a policy change, stating in an all-text post “Children under 10 will no longer be permitted to dine at Nettie’s,” accompanied with an earnest post outlining the restaurant’s reasoning.
Dear reader, what ensued was an internet war with passion levels typically reserved for Vanderpump Rules drama. The comments section blew up with people arguing both sides, and the post went viral, making national news and even ending up on the pages of UK tabloids.
All of this got us wondering…what’s a restaurant-loving parent to do? To answer that, we turned to the experts: hospitality pros with kids.
“I’m a huge proponent of taking kids to eat out with the family. This is an activity that children should learn how to do in a public setting at an early age,” says Kathy Fang, a second-generation restaurateur and owner of San Francisco’s Fang Restaurant.
To learn how to keep everyone happy on both sides of the table, we enlisted Fang and other hospitality pros with kids to answer one not-so-simple question: What are your golden rules for dining out with kids? Here’s what they told us.
Rule #1: Pick the right restaurant
Let’s face it: Some restaurants just aren’t kid-friendly. But that doesn’t mean that you have to settle for chicken fingers and fries. “I do like to go to nice restaurants with my kids as long as the space has some energy. If a space is a little louder and convivial, their being a little louder or me correcting them isn’t going to be noticed by anyone,” says Cristina Flores, vice president of product for Eataly North America.
Quick ways to vet a spot? Call and ask whether they have high chairs, a dedicated kids’ menu, or are willing to make modifications for little ones. Places that are good for groups tend to also be a good bet.
Rule #2: Go at a reasonable hour
The earlier you go, the more relaxed everyone will be—including the restaurant’s staff. Not only does an early seating align better with most bedtimes, but when the restaurant is slower, you’re also less likely to experience delays that can result in a hunger-induced meltdown.
Adam Burke, vice president of operations for The Smith, a restaurant with locations in NYC, Chicago, and D.C., knows this all too well from dining out with his own son. “Getting food and drinks quickly for kids is often important, and we [at The Smith] make sure we can accommodate a quicker-paced meal for families,” he says.
Rule #3: Bring entertainment and snacks
“It’s a good idea for parents to pack something to help entertain the little ones, whether it’s coloring books, toy cars, or you can even pull out the big guns with a tablet if all else fails!” says Noel Hunwick, co-founder of London’s inamo (where, it’s worth noting, the tables themselves have interactive games!).
But if you do break out the tablet, that doesn’t mean you can entertain the entire dining room. “Make sure you have headphones ready,” urges Sachi Nakato Takahara, owner of Atlanta’s Nakato.
Rule #4: Minimize the mess—and maximize your tips
“Toddlers and babies are learning how to eat, so they create messes. I understand that,” says Fang. “I do, however, think it would be nice for parents to be mindful of it.” Flores and her husband try to help leave the table in the best shape possible. “We never want a server to have to deal with a big mess during or after our meal,” she says.
And if the mess is truly out of control? Takahara recommends showing the staff that you care by adding an extra 10% to the tip with an apology.
Rule #5: Set expectations, and reward good behavior
Mike Chau has been documenting his family’s dining adventures on his Instagram @foodbabyny for years, which sometimes includes visits to higher-end spots. “For the occasional meal that’s a little tougher and less kid-friendly, we prep them and ask them to try to be on their best behavior … potentially with some dessert incentives aka bribes.”
Takahara even does this for the rest of the table. “Inform the rest of the guests and party that if the children do not act appropriately, there may be a chance that part of the party may have to leave … AND be ready to follow through with it!” she says. If things are going well, Burke likes to keep it fun by letting his kids get something special at the meal, like a dessert or a Shirley Temple.
Now here comes the fun part: Go out and practice. “Kids will learn how to dine outside if they are given many chances to learn,” says Fang.
Flores agrees, pointing out that dining with kids—especially little ones—is rarely smooth 100% of the time. “Keep going out and practicing,” she says. “They’ll hit an age where the white-tablecloth, six-course menu is doable. But there’s no need to rush it.”
Stefanie Tuder, Aarti Virani, and Tanay Warerkar contributed reporting to this story.