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Fine dining with babies

High-end restaurants bring out the highest expectations and the worst of dismissive snark. Even running into that snark second-hand often puts me off discussing restaurants. (But it's annoyance with snark which inspires this post.) Because, you see, I really like to go to intensely creative, experimental, highly-recommended restaurants even if they are expensive. I don't do it all the time. It's a treat. It's a long-term hobby, if you will. It's an education. And it's a financial choice; other people are most welcome to choose to spend their money on things I don't. (I very much appreciate that I have the luxury of being able to make this choice.)

Alinea is in the news currently for its chef, Grant Achatz, insulting the crying baby who dared join its parents for dinner recently. (via aliettedb) They had a last-minute baby-sitter cancellation, and nonrefundable tickets for the currently very, very hard to get into restaurant. He reacted in horror at how a crying baby was likely disturbing all his other customers. I hope everyone else had a good evening that night, even if Achatz did not.

The good news it that not all restaurants competing in the creative, high-end league that Alinea is in, are like that. Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons makes its own fresh purées for babies with vegetables fresh from its garden. Toddler food is given equal care. It's in a hotel, it's true, but it's not alone.

We had lunch at L'Enclume the other week, taking advantage of familial childcare. It's currently rated by the Good Food Guide as the best restaurant in the UK. It was a gloriously wonderful, creative, largely seasonal, twenty-two course meal. Two other tables had each brought a young child. The parents of one, not quite an independent walker yet, handed over a supermarket ready meal for the staff to heat. The parents of the other fed their slightly older baby with food from their plates. The two high chairs the restaurant was using were very different from each other, so clearly they requisitions one from elsewhere for the reservation.

Especially having left Grouting behind, it was a delight seeing the other babies running around. When one because unhappy, one family member sacrificed the quality of their food for a happier child, taking them outside for a break. There aren't any changing facilities, but improvising changing places is an ongoing issue when out and about with a very small person.

One of the things about Alinea's food is that much of it is very time-dependent. If the mouthful isn't served with a minute or three of intention, it won't necessarily work. The hot/cold contrast will be lost. The broth-filled dumpling might be a little more underwhelming at the wrong temperature. It's a conflict between eating the food as the artist/chef intended, and caving to the realities of serving actual people. It's also a conflict over the roles of children in society, and whether or not "fine dining" should be a sphere in which young people grow up comfortable. It's also the endless conflict over parenting styles, tolerance of and reasons for a crying child.

I've eaten at Alinea, one of the very best meals of my entire life. It was years ago, before it was quiet as expensive as it is now, before the non-refundable ticketing system came into effect, valid only for quite of two or four. I called the week before and got a table for one.

Much as company is also good, one of the things that made that meal for me is that I was by myself. It just me and the food and my thoughts and people-watching. It was a meditative, as well as delicious, experience which I could take entirely at my own pace. I enjoyed eating the occasional thought-provoking, whimsical, humorous meal by myself.

Achatz may worry about saddling the baby's fellow diners with their company; but whether they want it or not, they're obliged to have company of some sort, in their multiples of two and four, quite apart from the lottery of whomever else has happened to buy tickets for that meal.

Edited to add: More concrete details on the story. The problem wasn't a baby at Alinea, but parents who weren't actively parenting.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 15th, 2014 08:03 pm (UTC)
There's a great long Metafilter thread on this, which was quite interesting. I have not eaten at Alinea, but it was interesting to see people compare it to a performance, rather than a meal; there was also some discussion about the ease of reselling your tickets, given they're non-refundable which also made it feel similar to a performance. I also didn't read Achatz's first tweet as being an asshole, but more sheer bewilderment that anyone would bring a baby to his restaurant, and he does say that the other diners were unhappy about it. I think it might have felt the same - at that price point a meal there would be a once in a lifetime experience, and a baby crying through the meal would probably make me pretty grumpy. If they took the baby out and sat somewhere else while it cried, I'd be fine with that, but at Alinea I guess that might mean missing courses?

I like babies and small people and think they are fun to have around, but I think there are some places where you shouldn't take them unless you're prepared to sacrifice some of your enjoyment so you don't disrupt the meals of everyone around you, and I don't know exactly where I would draw the line but it's somewhere under Alinea.
Jan. 15th, 2014 10:13 pm (UTC)
It was L'Enclune that treated me so badly:
No paper menu for me;
First course included cream cheese;
They had to pull one other thing they had for me because of milk;
They hadn't actually planned replacements for other things and told me they were trying to decide;
They served me one substitute dish twice;
And I was sick all night and took weeks to recover.

They have never apologised, only complained that I went public.
Jan. 15th, 2014 10:24 pm (UTC)
I remember. That's why this wasn't a review. I would've mentioned the major potential drawbacks for anyone with dietary limitations then.
Jan. 15th, 2014 10:25 pm (UTC)
It still depresses me. I'm glad you had a good time tho.
Jan. 16th, 2014 12:18 am (UTC)
I've been thinking about this kerfuffle as well, especially since K. and I take the Bine out quite a lot. We haven't really tried any fine dining places, but given that she has always been incredibly well behaved and very adventurous when it comes to food, i wouldn't hesitate to take her to mid-range places...

I'm still conflicted though, as to Achatz's tweets...grumble grumble.
Jan. 16th, 2014 03:25 am (UTC)
Personally, I would not take my child to a high-end restaurant (one in the $$$ category, say), even if he is seven now. He gets bored easily, faffs about, and can be a general nuisance.

But in an instance with nonrefundable tickets (sounds like a silly system to me, frankly, as it sounds like they'd have no trouble having a cancellation list for people who were okay with last-minute tickets), I'd probably bring my baby. However, even as a parent, I understand the disruption caused by a crying infant.

That said, what if the child had been ill, say, and bringing the baby to the restaurant would have put others at risk of contagion. What would they have done then with their nonrefundable tickets? Would they have brought the baby? Yes, crying and contagious illnesses are two different things but the fact remains that, as parents, we also have to be aware that plans may fall through at the last minute and sometimes that can mean subsequent cancellation of really fun and exciting activities.

What would seem more sensible to me would be Alinea offering an option to reschedule a meal OR refund tickets, so that parents wouldn't be put in that position, so that fellow diners would also not be put in the position of having a very expensive meal (I'm assuming) interrupted by a wailing child, which IS disruptive and unpleasant.
Jan. 16th, 2014 09:48 am (UTC)
I think the restaurant in question is getting a lot of publicity from being unreasonable and perhaps that's one of the reasons for acting that way.
Jan. 16th, 2014 11:04 am (UTC)
We had our wedding reception at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons and they were fantastic with the children.

I wouldn't want to go out for a really nice meal with the boys, even though Owen at least is pretty good in restaurants, because *I* want to enjoy it properly if I am spending lots of money.
Bill Olander
Feb. 8th, 2014 10:26 pm (UTC)
I'm sad to say I have long since given up. My main dining luxury is those rare times when I can hit an oyster bar... because no one else in my family will eat that.
(no subject) - zqqzzorro - Mar. 4th, 2014 10:45 am (UTC) - Expand
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )