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TODAY

Saturday, February 23

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Airbags

One of my self-preservation techniques is my morning ritual of drinking a double shot latte while reading the Tribune. Lately there has been a spate of letters to the editor and to advice columnist Amy Dickenson concerning overindulged children, and more to the point, overindulged children at restaurants. The letters have been mind boggling, from the parent who loudly praises her own offspring for their good behavior while berating the children at the next table over, or the woman who advocates training children as dogs are trained. Amy's replies manage to be sympathetic to the behavior of real children, empathetic to those who are just trying to have a quiet dinner, and smartly put the know-it-alls in their places. All of this talk of how children are "supposed" to behave has me thinking about my own attitudes about children dining out.

Every parent has their threshold for behavior, and often the threshold changes depending upon where you are. What gets by at the dinner table at home might not be acceptable when eating out. The same goes for kids. The exotic atmosphere of the restaurant may produce unbelievable behavior in kids who are normally fairly low-key dinner companions at home. Dinner out usually involves a lot of waiting around, unfamiliar food and an audience. The confined space of the dining table, the knowledge that one false move on your wound-up preschooler's part could cause restaurant Armageddon tends put everyone on edge. Also, lurking nearby may be an eye-rolling, huffing, puffing child-hater. The kind of person who believes children don't belong in public, and would prefer that their day-to-day lives not be sullied by the presence of children. Apparently these people sprang to life as fully-formed jackasses, and didn't go the usual route from infancy to adulthood. It's not that I don't want children to bother these people; it's that I don't want those people to bother children.

To be fair, there are a lot of overindulgent parents in the world, and a lot of kids who don't perhaps have the whole concept of indoor behavior/outdoor behavior clearly worked out, and this combination can be irritating to those who do not spend much time with the youth of today. A child who has been cooped up inside all day may need an opportunity to blow off some steam before going into a restaurant, but a lot of time there isn't time. Sometimes the need for a bowl of soup, a cup of coffee and a bagel supersedes everything else. A kid is a force of nature, and just because he or she has been told to sit down and eat like a little gentleman or lady doesn't mean he or she isn't going to want to take a few laps around the restaurant first. Of course it's bad if the kid rams into a waiter carrying a tray of food. It's bad if the kid hurts someone or himself. It's bad if mommy has an aneurysm. But a kid being a kid is not bad. Kids talking, singing, crying, whining, and perhaps even yelling, can be annoying as hell and definitely should be paid attention to by the parent, but it's not a crime to be a kid in public.

The keys to successful dining out for me are:

A. A Positive Mental Attitude
B. Restaurant Rules Refresher
C. The Bag of Tricks
D. Location, or, going someplace where children are not seen as a plague upon the earth, but rather necessary and beloved members of humanity

A. Positive Mental Attitude. If you appear to be serene, happy and calm, even if you are only pretending, you're going to drag everyone else up there with you. I'm no expert on how to achieve this state, because usually what gets us out into the heart of the night is my decidedly negative mental attitude about food preparation.

More often than not, if we are eating out it's because we're out already, and it's dinner time. Going home and cooking something edible while everyone freaks out is pretty far down on my to-do list. Again, it is best not to take your crabby family into a restaurant if you yourself are on the verge of a tantrum. Believe me, no public humiliation is quite as sharp as the parent/child restaurant meltdown. There is no such thing as a quick exit from a restaurant unless you are planning to break the law, and the worse the situation at your table is, the longer it will take to get that food bagged up to go, get your check and pay. Time will come to a standstill. You will be the worst parent on earth. You and your children will be reviled by all other patrons, and, worst of all, you may not eat out again for ages. For this reason, consider going someplace that serves booze.

B. Restaurant Rules. We do a quick review of the rules before entering most establishments. The restaurant rules are short, sweet and obvious: Don't run around. Try to sit in your seat (this is very close to impossible for some children, not that I would know). No screaming.

Rules. Aren't they made to be broken? When I think of dinner at Wishbone, which has been a favorite restaurant for our family since the olden days when it was in a tiny space on Grand Avenue, the image is of my then 4-year-old son (probably wearing a purple velvet leotard) running as fast as he could around the restaurant where we were gathered with a group of friends attempting to celebrate some milestone. Around and around he went. I'd catch him and he'd squirm away and off he would go. The horrified looks from the other patrons, including those we were with, and the outraged staff continue to reverberate to this day. It's possible that we haven't returned, though the siren call of shrimp and grits may have lured us back a time or two.

C. The Bag of Tricks. Pretty self explanatory and something most parents are already well acquainted with. It includes Lego blocks, Matchbox cars, a few books, always markers and paper and snacks. A friend of mine had a little cloth bag filled with little gnomes. These were the restaurant gnomes that only came out at restaurants. I thought that was a brilliant idea and made my own little bag of restaurant dogs and managed to make the magic happen once or twice before all of the dogs escaped and became "somewhere in the car dogs." But it was a good idea and probably would work well for someone who is a bit careful and organized with her belongings.

When we don't have anything with us but our wits, we play math games with the sugar packets. Each color is given a value (pink sweetener = 5, sugar in the raw = 7, etc.) Each kid is dealt out a math problem suited to their abilities: counting for the youngest, addition and subtraction for the middle one and multiplication for the oldest. Sounds dull, right? Wrong! The sugar packet game is more eagerly anticipated than the restaurant dogs ever were.

D. Location. It is exceptionally helpful to go to restaurants that are family-friendly and owned by people who are aware that children exist and are allowed to be out in public, and in fact, welcomed in their restaurants. In my experience I have had better luck in restaurants where there are a few generations of family members on the job. A grandma in the house is an extra bonus. Grandmas know that kids need to eat ASAP and can't necessarily wait through the tedious process of menu reading, water pouring, specials listing and so forth. A plate of meatballs at the West Side Italian place or a bowl of cucumbers at your neighborhood Thai restaurant go a long way with a hungry kid and stressed-out parents. Don't be afraid to hand over the baby either. I've had several youngsters taken on the kitchen tour by the grandma, and I'm all for it. Five minutes to chill out and drink some tea without having to read "Where's Spot" puts me in a really great mood.

Like most parents, I do not care to put myself or my kids in situations where we are going to be made to feel unwelcome or uncomfortable. It's important for my kids to be aware that they aren't the only humans on earth, and that if they wish to be taken out for delicious food then they can't act like complete maniacs. They are, however, allowed to act like children. They are allowed to move around in their seats. They are allowed to laugh and tell ridiculous jokes. They are allowed to turn and look at all the people around them. They are allowed to not eat things. They might spill something, and they probably will complain about how hungry they are, and how long it's taking, and they might eat so much bread and olive oil that they will not want to eat their ravioli, but will find room for gelato. They might get a gum ball on the way out.

~*~

Everyone with kids has a set of favorite restaurants. With this in mind, I put a query out to the experts I know, and am pleased to offer some good suggestions to add to the roster:

"We love Kitsch'n in Roscoe Village. They have a bigger selection of kids' items than most places, and the kids meals are served in vintage lunch boxes. The whole place is decorated with thrifty finds for the '70s and they serve an amazing Tang martini. The grown up food is awesome as well."
–Tina

"Flat Top Grill — kids eat free on Mondays, and I think 5 and under are always free. It's a stir fry bar, which is lots of fun. They have a lion dance around [on] Chinese New Year.

"Also kids eat free on Wednesdays at the Celtic Knot, which has music and story times on other days. Also fun for afternoon tea on the weekends.

"Pizzas [are] 2 for 1 at the Candlelite on Tuesdays!

"For the best games of I Spy: Prairie Joe's on Central Street [in Evanston], which has an excellent menu [that is] part diner, part Mexican nouveau. Lucky Platter is also a kitsch fest with a nice innovative comfort food menu, and Gulliver's on Howard Street has a fabulous antique collection and good pizza.

"The Fire House Grill has a game room upstairs with pool, foosball, etc. Dixie Kitchen is a great Mardi Gras destination with specials and beads and plastic alligators and yummy food. Pita Inn in Skokie [is] cheap and delicious as is Ha Shalom on Devon — so good!"
— Rachel

"I like Penny's Noodles on Diversey at Sheffield. They are helpful to the kids, giving them chop sticks that they can use, and the menu is healthy and fun. I also like Pompeii, which is at Sheffield and Wellington. The service is quick and the food is great. The kids can see the dishes before they order them."
–Katie

"We love Erik's Deli in Oak Park on Oak Park Avenue because you can get any kind of sandwich made to order there. They have ice cream in summer and a large regular menu. You just order at the counter and sit down (no waiting for table service). They have free chips to munch on while you wait, and they have a larger kids menu with mac and cheese, spaghetti, French toast, etc. on it. Also, kids eat free on Monday nights with the purchase of an adult meal (one kid free with each adult meal)."
–Christine

"Lupita's Mexican Restaurant on Main in Evanston. They always haul out the white paper (vs. red carpet) to put under the high chair and adore our sometimes loud and messy children. They have a kids menu and good beans and rice and really excellent moles and fish tacos and other specialties, for example.

"Handlebar on North just east of Western. This is usually loud enough that loud children don't matter. Great vegetarian/fish cuisine and great beer. It is the bicycling advocacy restaurant/bar and a great casual atmosphere. Not your typical kid restaurant, but we see kids there all the time. My favorite thing there is the black bean tostadas.

"Kim's Korean Restaurant in Mundelein on Route 60. This is our big secret. But it is not secret among the Korean families in the region. Almost every family there has kids, and sometimes the owners will bring a special mild soup for children if they have time to make it. Once you order, they haul out loads of tiny appetizer-like dishes. We love to get the mackerel, Bi Bim Bop in a hot stone bowl, miso soup and lots of other delicious things. Kim unfortunately no longer owns the restaurant but it is still really good.

"Hema's Indian Restaurant on Fullerton just north of Clark. This is the outpost of Hema's original restaurant just off Devon (which her daughter still runs). Hema is a round, wonderful grandmother who surveys the restaurant from behind the back counter. Her food is wonderful (if somewhat spicy for younger children). It is always friendly service and a fun atmosphere with sparkly Indian quilts hanging everywhere.

"Argo Tea Café on Pearson and Rush. I take my son in there for "tea," and he gets a special kid's soy milk. They are always friendly and accepting. Again, not a typical kid place but we go there a lot.

"Saint Alps Cafe in Chinatown. This is a new spot — a Hong Kong name that just came to Chicago. The yummiest most interesting teas EVER, (like sesame black tea), plus a menu full of little dishes that you can make a meal of, like chicken skewers or tofu to dip in sauce. I died and went to heaven the first time I tasted their tea. Seriously. Cheery orange walls and bright atmosphere with really friendly wait staff."
–Linda

"We go to Wishbone pretty frequently, and there are always infants and toddlers, especially earlier in the evening. They have a separate kids menu, but I forget what's on it other than the Fruit Monkey (all fruit, no monkeys) which we usually get for our daughter. Some months last year, they had live Irish music (Sheela Na Gig) on Thursdays, and the musicians bounced (slightly ominous-looking) puppets on their knees. I don't know if they're coming back this year but it was fun."
–Jennifer

"El Presidente on Ashland is a fun place to take kids. The food is cheap and plentiful, the Horchata is delicious, there are gorgeous colorful paintings on the walls, and always music from the juke box playing. When you pay there is a selection of penny candy to choose from, like yummy Swedish fish. Plus there are always kids there, always. Even at 1am!"
–Allison

"The Buzz Café in Oak Park is owned and operated by a family with three kids. There is a cozy area with tons of books for kids to look at, and tons of art on the walls for entertainment. The Buzz offers Family Dinner Night every night, where you can get a yummy meal with all of the sides. The Buzz serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus coffee and espresso. They have a nice kids menu as well."
–Wini

Hong Huah is our favorite Chinese restaurant, at Fullerton and Austin. It's a little bit like eating in someone's living room, only with more mirrors, and fancy drinks. This place has a Grandma and she speaks the language of love. They give me tea while I'm waiting for carry out, ply us with gifts for the Chinese New Year, and the food is great. If you are opposed to your children being showered with Dum Dums and having your baby carted around in the arms of a very happy lady, steer clear.

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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