Remember the Harryhausen’s scene from the Pixar flick Monsters, Inc.? A variety of furry, fanged, tentacled beasts are enjoying a civilized evening at a fancy restaurant, the kind where you have to pull strings to get a reservation. And the sudden appearance of a wide-eyed, pig-tailed human toddler—believed to be toxic—sends them all shrieking into the streets, summoning hazmat teams and inciting mass panic.
A five-eyed blob tells a news camera, “I tried to run from it, but it picked me up with its mind powers and shook me like a dog!”
An eerily similar scene recently played out in a super swank Chicago restaurant, sending foodies shrieking into the blogosphere for days on end.
It seems a party of four dared to bring an infant into Alinea, a sort of culinary art gallery, where the morsels of sculpted monkfish and squab resemble flowers more than food. Once named the best restaurant in the U.S., Alinea sells tickets in advance to its nightly tasting-menu-palooza at about $250 per person sans tax, tip, or wine — and believe me, when your dishes include fiddlehead fern, something called “mastic,” and, I kid you not, helium — you’re going to need a lot of wine.
So this baby sat quietly on a diner’s lap (surprise: no high chairs at Alinea) for an hour or two, but toward the end of the extravagant menu-thon, it began to cry. Other diners were disturbed, the staff unnerved, and the chef perturbed. In fact, Chef Grant Achatz took to Twitter with a plea that was as genuinely aggrieved as it was abominably punctuated: “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..”
Well, mommy blogs, food forums, and even Good Morning, America tore into this trending topic like … like no one at Alinea has ever, ever torn into a full rack of baby back ribs. Outrage flew. Indignation seethed. And “monsters” abounded: First there were the self-involved parents who brought a spontaneous wailer to a restaurant so chi-chi that the chef paints your dessert straight onto your table—and then failed to whisk the howler outside or at least plug its “waaah”-hole with a whiskey-soaked binkie. And then there were the separatists, convinced that if they don’t personally have children, they should never have to breathe the same air as the sticky little critters — and whose delicate appetites are upended by the mere reminder that they share the world with tiny, snot-gurgling humans who lack impulse control.
I’ll tell you what I think (you knew I would): Dining with kids is no treat. There’s too much noise, too many squirtable condiments, and a disconcerting amount of crumb-flinging — both inadvertent and occasionally, damn them, deliberate. And Achatz’s point was apt: Fine restaurants aren’t like airplanes, where parents have no choice but to haul their kids along and plop their squealing, squirmy, stinky-bottomed bods beside you. They’re more akin to concerts or plays, where everyone has a right to expect a refined experience. (For what it’s worth, I’m also the killjoy in Room 723 at the Marriott who calls the front desk to narc on the too-boisterous revelers in Room 823; I paid for 40 winks, by god, and I don’t give a single wink what they paid for.)
So by all means, yes — Alinea should impose a brat ban; if you put any less care into your booking policy than you put into your woolly pig with fennel and squid (for reals), then frankly, your “experience” restaurant is kind of a sham.
But let’s all keep something in mind: Even rules and price points can’t guarantee you the annoyance-free evening of your dreams. You could still wind up dining beside a hacking cougher. Or an explosive laugher. Or Richard Sherman.
And if you think a mouthful of helium is tasteless …
Come celebrate Starshine Roshell’s new book, Broad Assumptions, at 6 p.m. February 20 at Avelina Wine Co.