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Eat and Run
 
BY ADAM PLATT
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JESSICA CRAIG-MARTIN


Dining with children at a five-star restaurant takes nerve, an iron stomach, and the ability to use your noodle.

Linus, Willa, Jane, and Adrian (left to right) learn spaghetti sucking and other essential skills.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the evening before my great experiment, several of the parents called with words of comfort and advice. They spoke in hushed, concerned, slightly amazed tones, like I was contemplating going skydiving for the first time, say, or scaling Mount Everest, or pondering some other unimaginable, slightly rash, slightly loony act. “Alex should be okay,” said Alex’s mom, “but if the other kids get antsy and start moving around, I can’t guarantee anything.” Linus’s mother wanted me to know that if Linus began to misbehave (she thought there was a good possibility that Linus would begin to misbehave), I should threaten to take away the little plastic dinosaur he carries with him at all times. Willa’s mom, Vicki, tactfully suggested that I seat the boys and girls separately. Then there was my own wife, who also happened to be Jane’s mom, chiming in, a little less tactfully, with her own advice.

“Be sure to get the food coming fast,” she said. “If you don’t, there’ll be anarchy.” She wondered whether I could explain the menu to all the children in stern, fatherly tones. “Run things like you’re at a military camp,” she suggested. “If you don’t get the kids to focus, you’ll be doomed.”

Probably she was right, but who really knew? I was venturing into new, uncharted, and possibly treacherous territory. A cosmopolitan, obsessively gourmet city like New York is filled with child-friendly restaurants, of course. Inspect your Zagat guide, and you will find restaurants that shower children with buckets of crayons and stacks of coloring books, restaurants with elaborately inventive menus (Serendipity), restaurants themed around children’s toys (American Girl Cafe), even restaurants where you can deposit your 2-year-old in a playpen, then sit down for a meal (Sambuca).

But it was my rash, slightly loony idea to organize a children’s dinner at one of the city’s exceptionally posh establishments, one of those places you wouldn’t normally associate with children of any age. If you showed up for an early dinner with a gaggle of raucous though well-dressed nursery-school children, would the maître d’ welcome you with open arms, or would he bodily block the door?

When I posed the question to Eric Ripert, the chef and co-owner of the great midtown seafood restaurant Le Bernardin, he offered a diplomatic reply: “You don’t see Michael Eisner coming to a power lunch with his children, if you know what I mean.” But when children did appear, the staff did their best to accommodate them. They prepared bowls of buttered pasta, and Ripert himself often conducted tours of the kitchen. Danny Meyer, proprietor of the Union Square Cafe and a father of four, was even more effusive. At another of his restaurants, Eleven Madison Park, he’d offered classes for children on table manners and etiquette (which fork to use, proper posture, who gets served first, etc.) that were so well subscribed, the restaurant had to set up a waiting list.

Willa and Jane.

“We accommodate children better than people know,” said Meyer. “The Union Square Cafe is eighteen years old this year. We like to get them young, so we have customers who had their diapers changed in the restaurant and are now coming back for their first bottle of wine.” But when I mentioned I was planning to take not one but a gaggle of 4-year-olds out for a fine haute cuisine meal, Meyer sounded bemused, then downright horrified: “I hope you’re not coming to any of my restaurants,” he said.

The venue I chose for my little party was Le Cirque, arguably the most lavish New York restaurant of all, which will, sadly, be closing at the end of this year. The owner is a courtly Tuscan gentleman named Sirio Maccioni, who, when I called up to book a table, professed to love and welcome children of any age. “Children are the future,” said Mr. Maccioni in his flowery voice. “Bring ten if you like, bring twenty—we will take care of them all.” I settled on five, all of them from my daughter’s nursery-school class. Along with Jane and her friend Willa, we invited three boys, who were expected to create as much challenging chaos as possible. There was Linus with his dinosaur; the quiet, exceptionally well-behaved Alex; and Adrian, who arrived for his dinner at Le Cirque in a tiny jacket and tie and clutching in his hand a black plastic replica of Spider-Man.

“Chaos was forestalled by the arrival of pommes soufflées, folded in white napkins.”

At precisely 5:30 p.m. (no self-respecting restaurateur would contemplate giving us a table any later), I gathered the children in the foyer of the restaurant, while their parents and babysitters sneaked off to calm themselves with cocktails at the bar. Mr. Maccioni was conveniently out of town, leaving his maître d’, Mario Wainer, to orchestrate the occasion. Mario was dressed for the evening in his tuxedo, and as the children began squealing and scampering around, he smiled gamely and motioned us toward our table, which was in the corner of one of the restaurant’s two great dining rooms, with tall chairs covered in aqua-colored linen and a high-backed, curving banquette made of crushed blue velvet.

Rows of empty tables were set in a protective ring around our little party, and at the far end of the room, I could see groups of adult diners looking our way with mounting suspicion. I tried, as one mother had suggested, to alternate boys and girls, but the boys gravitated to the chairs while the girls sat primly on the banquette. The boys ordered lemonade and the girls ordered Shirley Temples. The drinks came quickly, and Linus asked for two straws, one for him and one for his dinosaur. I’d been told that short, stumpy glasses are best for kids (they don’t spill so easily), but these glasses were tall, and when I made the mistake of distributing menus, Adrian knocked his lemonade all over the table. Despite the mess, we managed to order spaghetti, and then, as we waited for our food, Linus held an empty wineglass to each ear and began emitting high-pitched squeaking sounds.

ŅI can do lots of animal noises,” Linus cheerfully announced.

“I can do them, too,” said Adrian.

“Woof, woof,” said Alex.

“Let’s all be animals,” cried the girls, in their sweet, giddy voices.

Chaos was forestalled by the arrival of two stacks of pommes soufflées, folded in white napkins. I described these delicious little items (they’re lightly fried potatoes filled with air) as “French- fry balloons,” and soon the kids were calling them “balloonies” and stuffing them into their mouths at a frightening clip. Linus devoured 10 balloonies (or maybe 30), and my daughter, who weighs barely 25 pounds, had 8. As the children stuffed the balloonies into their craws, a sympathetic waiter sidled up and asked if I’d like something stiff to drink. “No, thank you,” I heard myself say, “but could you please bring us some more balloonies.”

But the balloonies didn’t arrive soon enough, and neither did the pasta, and as soon as the children sensed a lull in the proceedings (when dining out with kids, I later calculated, a lull is about 45 seconds), they began clamoring for their parents. The boys bolted from the table first, running off through the crowd, zigzagging around the waiters’ knees. The girls looked at me, and I looked at them, my face contorted in a faux scowl of disapproval. But our little standoff quickly ended when my daughter whispered, “I’m sorry, Daddy, I just want to go tell Mommy that I love her.”

So off she went, and by the time I’d rounded them all up, the pasta was on the table. Everyone liked the pasta, so much so that a couple of the kids (Linus and Willa) began eating with two forks. A wise parent told me that it was better to let children play with their food than with each other, and with this in mind, I organized a spaghetti-sucking contest (won by Willa). But the spaghetti-sucking contest led to a round of communal animal calls, which led to more glowering from the grown-ups at the distant tables, and so, as our main course was cleared away (“But, Daddy,” said Jane, “there’s still lots of spaghetti on the floor”), I brought out the crayons and paper.

Crayons and paper are the Kryptonite of the children’s restaurant world, invaluable tools that render even the most obnoxiously empowered 5-year-old momentarily passive and mute. In our case, the relative calm lasted for about four minutes, which was too bad, since it took ten minutes for the desserts to arrive. In the delicate interim, the waiters distributed little chef’s hats, which some of the kids wore and some didn’t (Linus put his on top of his dinosaur). Then, when the desserts arrived, a few of the kids didn’t know what to make of them. Alex stared blankly at a multilayered napoleon dusted with powdered sugar, and Adrian continued to draw quietly, clutching a handful of crayons in his tiny fist (“I’m making scrambled eggs,” he said). Willa received a little stove made all of chocolate, which she and my daughter took apart, then ate, piece by piece, in their precise, feminine way. Linus appropriated Alex’s napoleon (in the process of which Alex spilled his lemonade), and soon great clouds of powdered sugar covered Linus’s jacket and face.

My notes on the rest of the meal are messy and imprecise, as if they were jotted in the middle of a windstorm. At one point, bowls of ice cream arrived, and after a period of intense, lip- smacking silence, the table was buffeted by a great, collective sugar rush. According to my notes, Linus pointed to me and said, “Mr. Platt, there’s a big lizard on your head.” Shortly afterward, dinner ended. Danny Meyer said his biggest worry when serving young children in his restaurants is to keep the parents from losing their heads, and so it was at Le Cirque. The table looked like a bomb had hit it, but the waiters buzzed around with merry smiles on their faces, picking through the layers of debris. As the children rushed to and fro, the parents emerged from the bar to survey the wreckage.

“How was it?” my wife wanted to know.

“It was fun,” I said, which was more or less the truth.

Then Mario appeared, looking unruffled in his tuxedo, grinning his friendly, professional grin.

“What a lovely party,” he said, giving a little bow.

“You must be kidding, Mario.”

“Oh, this was fine. It was very amusing to watch. ”

Then he handed me a Le Cirque bag. Inside were the crayons, neatly packed, and boxes of leftover cookies and chocolates.

“A little something for the children,” said Mario. “Please come again.”

Adam Platt is a restaurant critic for New York Magazine.

 
     
 
From the Fall 2004 edition of the New York Family Guide
   
   
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