Kids Gone Wild

Dear Helena,

I am a server in an Italian restaurant. It’s not superfancy, but it’s a nice place. Recently a couple came in with two kids, aged around two and five. The younger kid sat in his high chair screaming incessantly and flinging couscous across the table. The other one roamed round the restaurant, tearing open sugar packets and emptying them onto the floor, and even knocking over a chair at one point. I felt bad for the other customers. But I was scared to ask the parents to control their kids in case they bit my head off. When kids run wild, when should the restaurant intervene, and what’s the best way to go about it? —Flustered Server

Dear Flustered Server,

How kids should behave in restaurants is a contentious issue on the Chowhound message boards. No parent likes to hear anyone tell him his children are misbehaving. But the fact is many children find restaurants pretty boring, and they’re likely to amuse themselves by shredding napkins, mashing food, or using french fries dipped in ketchup as paintbrushes.

On the restaurant’s end, it helps to be smart about where folks with kids are seated. Larry Bouchard, general manager of One Market Restaurant in San Francisco, says, “For the most part … we put families [with young children] in large Pullman booths so they’re contained, as opposed to being on open floor where messes are a little more noticeable.” This way, if the tots do get spaghetti in their hair or use the condiments to make Jackson Pollock–like splatters on their clothes, the only patrons who are bothered are Mom and Dad.

But if a kid drags those french fries along the divider between your booth and his, getting ketchup in your hair, you should feel comfortable asking the server to do something about it, and the server should entrust this sensitive task to someone in management. The same is true if the kids are making too much noise—for instance, screaming, crying, or running their fingers around the wetted rims of wineglasses to make a piercing sound. Of course, adult patrons make plenty of noise too, but arguably it’s more painful to listen to a screeching toddler than to grown-ups’ tipsy conversation.

Maite Montenegro, maître d’ at Daniel in New York, says she’d blame the intervention on the other customers. “I’d tell them somebody has complained their kid is a little bit loud.” But, in my view, that’s unnecessary: The family may spend the rest of the meal wondering which of their fellow diners ratted them out.

It’s more helpful, says Hope Timberlake, a public relations consultant in Mill Valley, California, and mother of two children aged three and six, if the restaurant management has a concrete suggestion, “like offering crayons or a more private table or even asking you to step outside.”

A restaurant can also take measures to make sure only well-behaved future gourmands show up. At Daniel, says Montenegro, if a diner mentions bringing kids at the time of the reservation, he or she will be warned that “dinner lasts three hours.”

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.