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Crying baby puts controversy on restaurant’s menu

Published: Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014 7:00 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014 1:00 p.m. CDT

CHICAGO — You’re out to dinner at an acclaimed restaurant. It cost $470 to reserve a table for two several months ago, and you’re reveling in such elaborate menu items as “Woolly Pig,” “otoro,” and “squab” when you hear it: A baby crying.

What should or should not happen next remains a fiery debate on Twitter, Facebook and parenting blogs three days after Alinea owner Grant Achatz shared the real-time example and his own uncertainty on the issue with this provocative Tweet:

Tbl brings 8mo.Old. It cries. Diners mad. Tell ppl no kids? Subject diners 2crying? Ppl take infants 2 plays? Concerts? Hate saying no, but.

Achatz did not ask the parents to leave, noting that the baby’s presence was prompted by a last-minute baby sitter cancellation. But since the Tweet, the situation has prompted discussions on “Today,” “Good Morning America,” and a popular new Twitter handle, @alineababy.

Award-winning chefs and parenting experts have called for both new restaurant policies and more understanding. And parents and non-parents across the country are searching for reasonable guidelines on what is acceptable — or not — when it comes to bringing children to fine dining establishments, theaters and other public spaces.

“On one hand, if I want to go out to a nice meal, I’d get a baby-sitter. But on the other hand, a night out isn’t easy to come by when you have young children … and the couple was left with few options,” said Meghan Poulsom, of Highland Park, Ill., the mother of two pre-schoolers.

Alinea, the 64-seat restaurant with a coveted three-Michelin-star rating and repeated rankings as one of the best in the world, carefully outlines its guidelines on its website. Drinks and gratuity are not included in the $210–$265 pre-paid tasting menu. Arrive 15 minutes before your ticket time. Tickets are non-refundable, but transferable to friends, neighbors or anyone who can take your place.

But Alinea lists no special rules about children. In an email Tuesday, co-owner Nick Kokonas said the restaurant has no plans to change its policy.

“We welcome children of all ages who can enjoy the meal — there probably isn’t an age limit,” he said. “And we’ve had babies that have slept right through the dinner happily. However, like all guests, we ask that a level of decorum is followed that at a minimum does not infringe on the ability of other patrons to enjoy their meal at Alinea.”

And the public appears widely divided on what that level of decorum may be.

“That style of restaurant and that price point is something I wouldn’t ever feel comfortable bringing a baby to,” said Cathy Subber, owner of Naperville Moms Network and a mother of two. “If you’re having this fantastically romantic, wonderful dinner, it would seem that there’d be an expectation that there wouldn’t be kids there.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Bre Alberico, of Yorkville, Ill., said she doesn’t take her 3-year-old son to expensive restaurants, but observed many kids during a recent dinner at RPM Italian, a trendy new downtown restaurant owned by celebs Guiliana and Bill Rancic.

“We weren’t annoyed, but we were surprised,” said the stay-at-home mother.

If a sitter hadn’t shown up for parents with tickets to some other Chicago cultural institutions, they may have been out of luck.

The Lyric Opera does not allow babies. The Goodman Theater notes in its program book under the heading “In Consideration of Other Patrons”: “Babes in arms are not permitted.”

Don’t think about bringing your infant to the new “Phantom of the Opera” production at the Cadillac Palace either, as Broadway in Chicago states: “As a courtesy to our patrons, it is the policy of the theatre not to admit children under the age of 5.”

And the Chicago Symphony Orchestra does not permit children under 2 at concerts. Except for special programs for young children and families, CSO concerts are also not recommended for children under the age of eight.

A child who is disruptive “will be asked to leave the hall and watch on a monitor,” said Celeste Wroblewski, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s vice president for public relations.

In some ways, the strict no-children policies follow a shift in the way family relationships have evolved in recent years, suggested Steven Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood.”

“We live in a pretty age-segregated world, which is different from the past,” he said, noting that kids spend time mostly with other kids, while adults and the elderly also tend to be with their peers. “So we are very sensitive to intrusions, such as on airplanes.”

Lindsay Pinchuk, a Chicago mother of two and founder and CEO of Bump Club and Beyond, said she usually encourages moms to be adventurous and unapologetic about allowing children to experience the many opportunities available.

The social event company for parents goes as far as to address dining out in its monthly New Mom’s Brunch, where expert panelists offer tips. These include going early, taking advantage of known kid-friendly spots or choosing venues that are already noisy.

“There are so many options there, I sometimes think that parents don’t seek them out,” Pinchuk said.

Still, in recent conversations with parents over the Alinea controversy, the response has been overwhelmingly against bringing baby, she said.

“If I am going to go out to any kind of fine-dining experience, I don’t want to go with my children,” Pinchuk said. “I want to relax, have a break and enjoy myself.”

Subber, of the Naperville Mom’s Network, said if a parent takes the chance of bringing a baby to a nice restaurant, knowing when to call it quits should be part of the arrangement.

“At some point, you just say to yourself that it’s going to be OK, even if you may have to have everything wrapped up to go and leave,” Subber said.

For restaurant owners, where pleasing the public is big business, the rules are not as clear cut.

At Chicago restaurants Naha and Brindille, chef Carrie Nahabedian calls the issue of kids at a restaurant a touchy subject. Management encourages diners with infants to come at an earlier hour, when it’s easier to accommodate a stroller, Nahabedian said.

“Problems develop when guests arrive at the middle of a very heavy dinner service and then complain about the noise for their children,” she added. “We have had a few times where we offered mothers the private dining room for them to entertain their kids, nurse or just quiet time.”

For every 300 guests that pack Scoozi restaurant in Chicago’s River North neighborhood on Sundays — when children dine for free — general manager Luis Garcia has come to expect one table of guests that complains about screaming kids.

Garcia, himself a father of two, is never quite sure if he’s giving the right response.

“I tell them, I wish I can help you. I’ll try to move you to another table, but I cannot ask them to leave,” said Garcia. “We try to accommodate everybody.”

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