Jane Bradley: Fine dining is ruined by young children

Should Michelin-starred restaurants allow toddlers to treat the place like a branch of TGI Friday, asks Jane Bradley
Should Michelin-starred restaurants allow toddlers to treat the place like a branch of TGI Friday, asks Jane Bradley
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Anyone paying handsomely for a meal in a top restaurant expects the privilege of enjoying a kid-free zone, says Jane Bradley

A colleague recently threw a wobbler when she was told she was not allowed to take her two-year-old daughter to eat at a Michelin starred restaurant for dinner.

She wanted to eat there, she had no babysitter, so why should she not take her child along, she argued. Also, she said, she actually likes spending time with her daughter. When she is not at work, she does not want to farm her out to a sitter, she wants to see her.

Eventually, the restaurant relented and apparently the little one’s presence at the luxury dinner table “charmed” both staff and diners.

While my colleague’s daughter is undeniably lovely, I have to admit, I’m not sure I’d have been so charmed, had I forked out £100-plus a head to eat there that night.

I might have looked charmed: gritted my teeth and forced my mouth upwards as I was required by social etiquette to smile delightedly every time the toddler fixed her unrelenting gaze upon me as I hoovered up my £20 scallop starter. I might even have felt compelled to compliment the parents on what a wonderful little picure their daughter was turning out to be as we passed their table on the way out. But I wouldn’t really have meant it.

And the idea of doing the same fills me with horror - my colleague is obviously far braver than me. However well behaved the child, worrying that a meltdown could ruin what is for most people a very occasional, huge treat of an evening, would undoubtedly ruin my own night out.

My own daughter counts eating out as one of her favourite things to do. But while we might take her to places which are not always typically considered kids’s eateries - although not Michelin starred establishments - we would only do so for an early evening feed, leaving well before the wanting-to-linger-over-a-romantic-meal crowd arrives at 7pm and earlier if she is just, as young children sometimes are, not in the mood.

An establishment this week named Scotland’s pub of the year by real ale “bible”, the Camra Good Beer Guide, is part of an increasingly dying breed of hostelry that does not accept children. The Bridge Inn in Peebles is a traditional pub, one with a mosaic floor dating back to the year dot. It prides itself on being a real, old fashioned pub, complete with original Twyford Adamant urinals in the men’s loos, according to the rave Camra review.

Yet with the Scottish Licensed Trade Association telling me that around 90 per cent of pubs now have a licence which accepts visitors under 18 - at least until a certain time of night - it is unusual. Pubs have had to adapt to the changing times. The smoking ban, coupled with the fact that people are drinking more at home and less in a licensed premises means they have had to become places where families can enjoy a meal together rather than hardcore boozers or risk closure. With 28,000 pubs lost to the UK since the mid 1970s, according to Camra, they have to adapt to survive.

The Peebles pub scored highly for its welcome, the guide said - along with a string of other criteria: atmosphere, decor, service, value, customer mix and quality real ale. But if it does not accept children, is it really that welcoming?

Manager Nikki Cassidy points out that there are “loads” of other places in Peebles where families can go - while her pub does not serve food and is therefore a fairly uninteresting place for youngsters to hang out.

Social etiquette expert Roddy Martine agrees, saying that the “almost the whole world is a creche” and telling me he thinks that like minded adults should have a place they can drink alcohol without youngsters cramping their style.

I can see their points, but in Europe, the idea of a pub, bar, cafe or restaurant that does not accept children is unthinkable. Planning a family trip to Romania this year, I asked local friends for recommendations of places to eat with my daughter. They were confused.

“What do you mean places to eat with her?” one friend asked. “I can tell you some good places to eat, but it won’t make any difference whether you take her or not.”

Of course, the downside to all of this is that while most places will accommodate kids on the continent, fewer restaurants are actively child friendly in mainland Europe than they are here. Not so much of a problem for us now, but on a holiday in France when my daughter was a baby, we ended up eating in the same place for three lunches in a row because we found it to be the only cafe in town with a high chair.

This, of course, applied to middle of the road cafes and restaurants. I’m not sure what would happen if you tried to take a small child to a Michelin starred establishment in even child friendly France or Italy.

For a Michelin star should, by definition, mean you are guaranteed a high-end, exclusive - and therefore kid-free - evening. Other restaurants are more of a grey area, but one where parents should exercise common sense.

Of course it depends hugely on the kids. But while I’m sure my colleague’s daughter was a little angel, allowing her access to posh nosh paves the way for other, perhaps not so well behaved youngsters, to also be permitted. Should Michelin starred restaurants allow toddlers to run around between the tables and scribble all over the white linen as if they are at a branch of TGI Friday’s? Should the waiting staff be required to provide colouring pencils and wordsearches to occupy the little darlings while their parents chomp on their £40 venison and hand harvested seaweed entrees?

I don’t think so. If you’re paying top dollar for an exclusive experience, surely the under tens can be left at home.