Wednesday, February 23, 2011

When Good Restaurants (Parents) Do Stupid Things

Maybe it's because I just battled the flu, or because Lucy battled the flu too, and for awhile we were losing, with our night sweats and 102 temperatures and the days where all we wanted to do was have people leave us alone and let us nap, but we're feeling kind of snappy now. We're coming out the other side. And frankly, I feel like kicking a little ass.

The questions is, who's ass do I want to kick? Well, just this week, I've knocked two restaurants off my list of places to eat. Two, in one week. Two among a handful of places that had been fun for us adults and also for the kids - good food, good vibes, good folks. Not perfect, not worthy of critical accolades, just easy, un-stressful, comforting, not expensive, welcoming.

It's not easy to eat out with kids, but we've done it since they were babies. I've breast fed under blankets in restaurants, pulled screaming toddlers out from underneath tables, ran after one that ended up startled but weirdly happy in the arms of the chef in the kitchen. My children have dazzled guests and staff with their strangely obedient and demure behavior and table manners, and occasionally people have complimented us, told us how great our kids are, how mature and sane they are in public places, how cool we are as parents.

Also people have given us pissed off glances, rolled their eyes at us, and loudly remarked about how kids shouldn't be allowed in restaurants. We've been a beacon for other parents desperate to get out of the house, and social pariahs ruining the dinners and good times of the childless. It just depended on the day, really.

We've never allowed our children to destroy someone's meal and on more than one occasion, we've thrown in the towel, and simply left or when we couldn't leave, one of us took the hit for the team and walked up and down the sidewalk, comforting and coaxing our child to sleep while the other one stayed inside and entertained out of town guests or colleagues.

We're glad we did all of that...

Our kids know good food and good restaurants. And because of our whacked out sense of adventure, they know bad food and bad restaurants. But I'm finding it isn't enough to just eat out anymore. Just being out in the world and learning to eat in public, sit quietly and amuse oneself in a banquet, and try new food is no longer enough. The girls are older now. They are starting to develop habits, see certain things as normal. They are taking it all in. I have to be more conscious.

The truth is, we've been in a restaurant rut. At our place in the country, in New Paltz, one of our favorite places is Gomen Kudesai. We go there and love it - you can see why here, but that's not what this post is about. It's about how a restaurant the kids call "The Treasure Chest" and another called "Main Street Bistro" just got on my every last nerve this week. Maybe it's the fever talking, maybe it's my sleep-deprived, cranky self, but I've wiped them off our list. I won't be going back. I can hold a grudge.

The Treasure Chest (better known among adults as McGillicuddy's) re-opened last year with a bright new chef fresh out of the CIA and a manager/owner who was trying to upgrade everything about the place; the outside facade, the food, the clientele. He was on a mission. Every time they saw us, the chef poured out of the kitchen with the newest steaming dish they created and were just about to add to the menu. They proudly offered us a sample. We loved their joy, their sense of hope, their anticipation of the future, the way they wanted to create something.

They also instituted "The Treasure Chest", a big plastic pirate trunk filled with dollar store toys. The kids got to pick a couple and spent the majority of the dinner playing with pink fairies or painting little wooden flowers. David and I got to have that extra glass of wine and sit for a little instead of eating and running out of the restaurant with irritated, crazed children.

We also felt catered to. They wanted to attract families. We got that the treasure chest was a cheap marketing ploy - a step up from a McDonald's Happy Meal, I suppose - but we appreciated the effort, the attempt to woo us. The food was definitely bar food, nothing new or surprising, but they were trying and that meant something to us. We wanted to wait them out, give them a shot. Anyway, the steak and salmon fajitas were fresh, hot, predictable in a good way, and we stuck to what was good.

That is until this week. The kids begged to go mostly because of the damned treasure chest. As if it were Disney World. We went. We chose our toys. We all ordered food and with the exception of David's steak fajita, it was all bland, limp, flavorless, gross. The salad I ordered was mushy globs of head lettuce. The pasta the kids ordered didn't even have salt. I cursed myself that I didn't order them the salmon fajita, but I want them to be independent, have choices, not have a food nazi mother.

The food was so bad it was a revelation.

The food had been getting worse lately, but I had turned a blind eye, wanted to give them a chance, hoped they'd pull it together. I let the stupid trunk of toys set the agenda for where we ate even though I knew the food was getting more and more pathetic. The bright young chef from CIA either sucked, or he gave up, or they let him go. We won't be going back. They are off the list.

I just can't send a message that one of "our places" is full of mediocre food, prepared with a flippancy and lack of care that you can taste on the fork. That is not a message I want to send for an $80-$100 family outing. Or any outing.

The other restaurant to get thrown off my list, The Main Street Bistro, cooks all kinds of wholesome vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free menu items. They are hippie-dippie. Cheap food, nothing fancy, but real food. Try to get a table there for Sunday brunch, just try, the line heads down the street. The Main Street Bistro is the kind of place that attracts brunch-goers, foodies looking for a casual lunch, and college students. The kind of place where you know when you order that burrito, it will come out to you hot, fat and over-stuffed with tomatoes, avocados, chunks of chicken and thick globs of salsa and sour cream. Just the way you want to eat it after a hangover.

I got exactly what I thought I would, which is why when Edie said she wanted chicken nuggets, I said great. She wanted clam chowder or another kind of soup, but I knew the jalapeno soup wasn't going to go down well. So, I figured these people probably did a decent nugget. Surely a place like this - so focused on healthy food and things garnished with alfalfa sprouts - would make their own chicken nuggets.

It didn't even occur to me that the processed, crap food on the menu at this restaurant was reserved for the children. That healthy was for adults only. That all that catering to food preferences and food allergies didn't extend to catering to children. Maybe because they don't have a voice. Maybe because they'll accept whatever crap we put in front of them.

Truth is, The Main Street Bistro pissed me off more than McGillicuddy's. I expected mediocre bar food from a third rate bar. I expected our kids would get the shitty food we got. I saw it coming. In my heart of hearts, I knew it, saw the decline coming, the lack of attention, the enthusiasm waning, even if I didn't want to admit it. Even if I was rooting for them. But the Bistro really pissed me off.

Don't flaunt your cool, wholesome, hip, organic, vegan, gluten-free menu options at me and then deliver my kid completely gross, processed chicken nuggets from a box. Put your money where your mouth is and roll a few bits of chicken in panko, salt it and bake it. A little parsley garnish wouldn't kill you. Don't make it so obvious that you care about the people with the wallets but you're willing to serve my kids the crappiest food available.

Do not short-change my kid. I'll pay a little more if I have to. I'll order an app size of a main for my kid when I can - some shrimp on the grill and a good hearty soup maybe - but every so often my kid wants some chicken nuggets and I want to say yes. Serve your own kids the box stuff at your own house, but don't do it at your healthy restaurant. Be true to who you are. Be healthy, hippie-dippy or just make crappy bar food and bring out a treasure chest full of cheap gifts.

Either way, I'm not going to back to either of your restaurants. Because my kids are watching what we do. And I need to do better. That's on me.

Lesson learned.




Krista said...

I hate the kids menu items in most restaurants, the lack of care, the processed crap "food" cut into cutesy dinosaur shapes, most important the lack of tastes. It's as if they think children don't have taste buds! That place would be wise to revamp their kids menu, I hope you're not the only Momma to notice that the kids are getting the short end of the stick and care enough about your babies health to not come back.

Liz the Chef said...

Terrific post, one that appeals to everyone looking for tasty food for our family without gobs of fat and, just as deadly, salt. Since my husband's heart attack 2 weeks ago, we are going to eat at home for a bit. We went out to lunch yesterday and I woke up this morning puffy and bloated from all the salt in a should-have-been "healthy" salad. Ready to kick ass with you, Kim!

Barbara | VinoLuciStyle said...

I was a single parent for most of my children's lives and the economic reality of that situation meant taking them out was a rarity. A twofold one. I so identify with your issues...I didn't want the restaurants marketing to kids to mask whether they had a good meal and I sure didn't want my requirement for a kids price to do that either.

Lucky for me (and them) the trend toward salad bar type establishments came into being. My kids loved soup and salad. No gimmicks, just rows of food that they could choose themselves and I could afford. Souper Salad will always have a fond memory in my heart!

I would also like to say thank you too. Thank you for taking responsibility for your kids when you do go out. I love kids but never allowed mine and don't enjoy others making any meal miserable with crying or fighting. Your actions show respect for other patrons and I'm sure that's been appreciated many times over.

dp said...

Like you, we've always taken our kid with us whenever we eat out. I guess it's easy to do with just one child and he's always been an easy kid. We never let him run around or throw fits. This was the same at home. Dinner, if not the other meals, has always been at a table, with no TV or distractions. He's 7 now and a very savvy restaurant patron. We let him order whatever he likes, and oftentimes it's not from the kids' menu because the selection is so limited and tasteless. Kids know the difference and I wish the restaurants would catch on.

Natalie Sztern said...

at the very moment u pressed that publish button did yu not feel the best u have ever felt in a long time? I know so well what it is like to get something off our chest for the world to read...I hear you and I agree wholeheartedly more importantly you should quietly call and tell the resto owners.

A few years ago I took hubby and two friends for dinner at a posh steak house in Montreal and when I went to pay the bill and turned it over there was a printed saying that generally equated a good steak with a 'good woman'...I refused to pay that bill and made the maitre d write me by hand, another. I was going to be damned if I was going to dish out of pocket with a receipt that read that statement...Owner didn't give a shit and chalked it up to being a 'New York Style Steakhouse" :)) like that's a compliement right?

Christine said...

You have no obligation to, but why not send the owner/manager of the second restaurant a note to let them know about how disappointed you were with their kids' meal choices? It may be that they never gave it much thought, or that other people complained about meals their kids wouldn't eat...but maybe it gets something changing. They may never notice your absence otherwise, and they're unlikely to guess why you left, even if they did notice.

Hey maybe you initiate some change!

(Apropos of not too much, holy cow the girls are so BIG.)

Janis said...

I am sorry you had the crud. I think we may be coming down with it. I love the name McGillicuddy's because it reminds me of I Love Lucy but screw em if the food has gotten bad. Hope you are all better!

Cheryl Arkison said...

Seriously? Crap chicken nuggets?
We go to a similar type of place - there is that type - and our girls always default to grilled cheese. Real cheese, thank goodness.
Good for you for putting your foot down. And I'm pretty sure that isn't flu-related snarkiness!

Jennie said...

Kids menus are the kiss of death, but this example is particularly disappointing. I had a similar experience recently a restaurant on the upper eastside. They served grilled cheese on lovely slices of fresh pullman bread but used Kraft singles. Another example of restaurants assuming kids have no taste.

ittybittyfoodies said...

I absolutely HATE that restaurants do that to kids and worse still, you see heaps of parents doing the same thing. Ordering a fabulous meal or making a healthy meal at home for themselves and while their kids sit there and eat crap. Good on you for standing on your ground. I hope more restaurants open up in the place you live in! Thanks Yummy Mummy!

The Yummy Mummy said...

Chrsitine -

You're right.I should definitely email them and let them know my feelings. Maybe on another day, I wouldn't have cared but I just finally had enough. Thanks for the good advice.

And I know...the girls are HUGE. Where the hell did the time go?


Anonymous said...

I agree that you should talk to the restaurant about the chicken nuggets. I bet you they would change or at least make some healthy additions to the kids choices. You know some parents request this kind of stuff on the menu because they want their kids happy and occupied during dinner and they don't realize that the same kid fun food came be made in a healthy way.
My local diner now offers grilled chicken strips on their kid menu in addition to fried chickn fingers. So now my daughter happily eats grilled chicken "fingers" and mashed potatoes subbed in for the fries and is just as happy. Small changes can make a big difference.

madpiano said...

I have never understood why Restaurants seem to have the need to have a separate kids menu at all. Why not have 2 sizes of adult dishes - a small snack size and a large main size. The small size can be for a child, for someone who isn't that hungry or possibly even for a pick-and-mix where one could order 2 different small sizes, instead of one large. For children of toddler age, they could even offer smaller portions of any adult meal for free, it's not like they eat a lot?

Nuts about food said...

I've been there. The compliments about our well-behaved children, what adventurous eaters they are. And the dirty looks and raised eyebrows. We too have taken turns going out with a noisy or crying child or left restaurants early and in a rush. I respect that there are places and times when children are not appropriate. If I am having a lovely $200 meal I don't want a noisy or even just a restless child at the next table. These days eating out and spending money is a luxury. That is why I try to go to more casual places with my children, or to go out for lunch rather than dinner. But I also agree that adults have a right to continue living and socializing after becoming parents and that children should be allowed to experience restaurants and how to behave in them. And I totally agree that children should be guaranteed the same quality adults are!

Basia said...

Sigh, your post is unfortunately typical of what most of us parents have experienced with the "Children's Menu" in restaurants. Rare is the restaurant that caters to both the very young and their parents. I am so glad my son is out of that phase and now eats everything. However, the restaurant bill has grown along with him! :-))