Can I Take My Baby to a Restaurant?

Dear Helena,
Our son is nearly one and we sometimes take him out to dinner, either sitting on my lap or in a highchair if they have one. He's a good eater and he eats whatever we eat, even spicy stuff like bulgogi. But he leaves a lot of his meal on the floor. We go to this Thai place in our neighborhood and he leaves rice everywhere. I can't really clear it up since I don't carry a dustpan and brush around with me. Is it rude of us to leave it for the restaurant to clean up? How much should we tip to compensate them? I feel like as long as he doesn't misbehave in other ways (scream, throw stuff), it shouldn't be a big deal for them to sweep the floor. Shouldn't they just be happy to have customers?
–Squishy Rice Underfoot

Dear Squishy Rice Underfoot,
Yes, some restaurants are happy for you to bring your baby. But at others, it's like taking your granny to a rave: There are no signs forbidding it, but you're violating an unwritten rule. The problem isn't the mess, which restaurants don't mind as much as you might think. "Some babies are better behaved than the average adult," says Nicole Franzen, a server at August in New York. The problem is more that babies tend to destroy the ambiance. She says, "Brunch or lunch is a bit easier, but at dinner people are having dates, so it's less appropriate." In other words, when a couple is having an intimate tryst, they don't want to watch your offspring flinging spaghetti at the wall.

So how do you know which restaurants are baby-friendly? Call ahead and ask, says Jenn Rock Enders. She spent several months of her son's first year on the road with her husband's band and was forced to eat out much of the time (she chronicled her adventures on her blog, TourTot). If the restaurant has highchairs, obviously it's more likely to welcome your cherub. Heather Flett, coauthor of The Rookie Mom's Handbook, says, "The best places are ones with an appropriate level of noise so your child is not the loudest."

Also, know that you're not powerless over the mess; you can take measures to control it. For example, you don't have to give your tot saucy foods that will inevitably turn into a finger-painting project. And rice is bound to spill everywhere. "Hand them one bit of toast at a time," suggests Flett. If your nine-month-old is picky, it's OK to bring a jar of baby food or his favorite yogurt from home. Restaurants don't mind, says Franzen, since if your child is very young, it's not as if he's going to order his own dish anyway.

As for cleaning up, Flett recommends setting down some paper towels around the highchair, so you can easily collect the shrapnel. But this looks messy, and I don't recommend it. It's a nice gesture if you pick up the larger pieces of food, says Enders, like that rejected chicken leg, perhaps using a napkin. But you need not do any more. The server or busser can do it much more efficiently than you can. As Franzen says, "We're the ones with the broom." It doesn't help the restaurant's atmosphere when a harried parent crawls under the table collecting mashed french fries.

Most parents don't bother even trying, says Franzen. "I've been in the industry for 10 years, and I've never seen a parent be really obsessed with cleaning up. They assume we'll take care of it." That's fine, but you should tip more (the same way you would if you spilled wine all over the floor). "Twenty to 25 percent would be generous," Franzen says. Personally, I think 20 is adequate, provided your kid didn't dump an entire bottle of ketchup on the floor.

I will soon be dealing with this etiquette issue myself, since I'm off to have a baby. My column will therefore run alternate weeks through February. During that time, I'll do my best to avoid baby-related faux pas like nursing him in a four-star restaurant or balancing him on the bar next to my martini.

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