Before my first son was born, people told me to go out to restaurants when he was a baby. “They just sleep all the time when they're little,” friends would say. “It’s a good time to go out to eat.”
Of course, the subtext that I didn’t understand at the time was this: Your days of eating out in restaurants are numbered.
Turns out, our baby didn’t sleep all the time. He slept very little of the time and any time he was sleeping I was usually scouring books and websites about how to get him sleep better, so we didn’t even attempt dining out.
Around six months we tested the waters and took him out a bit. He was usually happy to hang out and was easily distracted by watching the waitstaff or a really good ceiling light.
Then he turned into a toddler.
Eating out with a toddler is like dining with an octopus. They thrash around and grab at everything – utensils, sugar packets, hot trays of food. I try to study the online menu before I visit a restaurant, because once I arrive there will be no time to contemplate choices. The clock is ticking from the moment you sit down. It’s best to ask for your check when you order your food, and when the food arrives you shove down what you can while feeding books, toys, and stuffed animals into their eager hands.
Still, my husband and I took my first son out when he was young. Going out to eat was an aspect of my pre-kid life that I really enjoyed and tried to hold onto in some way.
We would typically get to a restaurant at 5 p.m. to avoid being there anywhere near his bedtime. There were usually a few other kids in a joint at that hour and whenever I saw a youngish couple out to eat I had to resist the urge to run over to them and say, “What are you doing here so early? Go home and do nothing for a couple of hours and then come back at 7 o’clock. Then hit up a movie in an actual theater, because at some point in your future you may only be able to watch a movie in 20-minute increments spread over six nights!”
I never actually gave my speech, but I did feel bad when our kiddo would start screaming over something traumatic like a slightly misshapen pancake. We never went anywhere that wasn’t kid-friendly, but I was constantly aware of trying to not ruin someone else’s meal.
One sunny Friday afternoon we got a table on the patio of a neighborhood restaurant. Dining al fresco was a little less guilt-inducing since there was some chance birds would eat some of the 200 cheerios my son would drop, and the street traffic drowned out some of his noise. If we were lucky, a fire truck may even go by with its sirens on.
The waitress brought our toddler a water in a copper Moscow mule cup with a straw, which was unusual but also kind of awesome, and then I noticed several tables filling with young people. Why are you here so early people? I thought to myself. But none of them were looking at us – they were talking to their friends and sipping cocktails. It was happy hour. Kid hour coincided with happy hour.
If the patrons next to me were downing $2 margaritas I suddenly felt less bad about bringing a toddler who may lose his marbles when his strawberries come out from the kitchen sliced instead of whole. In this one small space, we could happily coexist together.