Stepping into the Oval Room, just down the street from the White House, you immediately know it is a serious restaurant.
The staff is polished, the atmosphere hushed, the tablecloths crisp and white. The clientele of this power-dining mainstay includes high-profile politicos and business leaders. Executive chef John Melfi’s menu is refined and sophisticated.
Basically, it’s the kind of place you would never take a small child. And yet here we were, armed with diaper bags, distractions galore — and our 2-year-old sons. What were we thinking?
We know there are rules (written and not) about children in certain dining rooms. Diners have strong feelings about young eaters, and the thought of being judged — publicly and privately — was daunting.
But as food writers with young children (coincidentally, boys the same age), we believe children should be able to dine almost anywhere — well, perhaps anywhere except once-in-a-lifetime places — as long as they behave appropriately, don’t diminish anyone else’s dining experience and don’t impede the restaurant’s operations.
We started taking the boys to restaurants when they were as young as 6 weeks. Back then, it was easy. When they grew into toddlers, though — more mobile and more vocal — restaurants with fine china, hipster crowds and extensive wine lists faded from both our families’ dining agendas.
Did they have to? We didn’t want to wait for puberty before returning to some of our favorite places to eat. So we decided there was no way to know until we tried — and booked test meals at three restaurants with different personalities.
We set up ground rules to be fair to the boys, the restaurants, our fellow diners and ourselves: Early time slots on weeknights. No set menus. And reservations only.
That’s how we found ourselves at the Oval Room at 6 p.m. one Wednesday in late April. To her credit, the hostess didn’t even blink when we walked in holding a pair of toddlers. The same couldn’t be said of the older couple having drinks by the bar, who glared as we walked by.
At first, the hostess guided us to a corner table. As we were about to sit, she had a different idea. “Would the booth by the window be better for you?”
Yes, please! That allowed us both to sit next to the boys, while offering them the distraction of all that was going on outside.
The server was equally helpful, speedily bringing out a bread basket for the boys to munch on and filling their sippy cups with freshly squeezed orange juice.
We spread out a plethora of tiny toys on the table, which led to some push-me, pull-you battles over who was going to play with what and some too-spirited Matchbox car racing on the wide windowsill – “Shhh! No vrooming or crashing!” — before they discovered a spider’s web stretched across the upper corner of the window, on the outdoor side of the glass. That quieted them momentarily.
By the time the first course arrived, the table was already a disarray of crumbs, plastic dinosaurs and books, but there had been no meltdowns. Jessica’s son, Mason, was a big fan of the linguine with vegetable “Bolognese” hiding under a snowy cap of finely grated Pecorino, but Nevin’s son, Zephyr, demurred despite the fact that nearly every night at home he requests “pasta with cheese.”
Both were generally uninterested in their fish courses. We were a little disappointed that they didn’t try to expand their horizons.
For a moment, the flash-fried kale with preserved lemon vinaigrette looked like a winner. Zephyr devoured several pieces, and Mason followed suit — only to spit back out a mass of gooey green leaves into the bowl they’d arrived in.
“This place is not designed for very young kids,” general manager Muhammad Nadeem later told us. “If someone calls and asks if we are child-friendly, we recommend one of our other properties, like Ardeo (plus) Bardeo or Nopa.
“They have fries, burgers and small plates, which are better for kids.”
At the 40-minute mark, the little natives started getting restless. No toy, game, threat or promise would get them to sit still. So we turned to the last resort: videos on our phones. That provided a period of relative calm until the dessert course, when the boys reanimated to inhale bowls of pastry chef Rory Kraus’ house-made ice creams and just-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies.
Then, suddenly, dinner was over.
“Mommy, I go outside,” Mason said, pushing Jess toward the end of our sunny banquette. Zephyr banged one of his cars against the windowsill as Nevin tried to stop his tiny hands. It was time to go — or face dire consequences. Check, please!
Our second test was at Tico, chef-owner Michael Schlow’s hot Latin concept. The young crowd and booming music create a buzzy atmosphere perfect for Tinder dates and casual hangouts for millennials.
Not the kind of place that says, “Your kids are our target audience.”
But the noise provides good cover. We were seated unnoticed by our fellow guests and we remained under the radar — even when Mason took a walk around the table a few times.
Although we were the only adults with kids at dinner that evening, highchairs are a much more common sight on the weekends during brunch, director of operations Steve Uhr said.
It turns out that the restaurant’s small plates are ideal for young eaters. They arrive quickly and offer plenty of variety without a ton of commitment.
Both boys gravitated toward the fried manchego — who doesn’t love fried cheese? — lamb meatballs with ricotta salata and crispy calamari. Our server offered to prepare the signature macaroni and cheese without serrano ham and peppers, but we requested it fully loaded. It didn’t slow down Zephyr, who shows early signs of becoming a chile-head, but it proved “too hot” for Mason.
The ladies’ room presented a diaper challenge. Jess made do changing Mason on a high, narrow wooden cabinet next to the door, but Nevin was completely out of luck in the men’s room..
The boys seemed cooler and calmer throughout the meal than they had been at the Oval Room. Frankly, we were markedly more relaxed ourselves and even had some time to enjoy conversing as adults.
Having a balanced table — two parents, two children — was turning out to be a boon. The youngsters distracted and amused each other, when they might otherwise have become bored and fussy. When one or both did get irritable, it was easy to separate them and have some parent-child time to calm them down.
The final test was 2941 in Falls Church, Va., where a European chic menu from executive chef Bertrand Chemel is complemented by a formal, high-ceilinged dining room accented with trippy paintings and glass sculptures.
We were offered highchair and booster-seat options, then led to a roomy booth. For entrees, we selected two half-size pastas for the children, along with seafood and duck for ourselves. Starters were the now-go-to calamari and bread, both of which appeared quickly.
We weren’t offered any “kidified” menu options, but general manager Alicia Williams — herself a mother of four — confirmed that the kitchen will prepare simple dishes for petite palates and creates three-course tasting menus especially for young diners during holidays.
Which is why we were surprised to find no place to easily change a diaper in either bathroom. While men’s and women’s rooms featured a large handicapped stall with a separate sink, diapers had to be changed on the floor.
We weren’t too fazed. As parents, we had learned to let go of the little things and enjoy the evening — right to the finish. There were plenty of elements in the peanut butter baked Alaska to pull apart with tiny — and adult-size — hands, from banana chunks to a chocolate biscuit. By the end of it, none of us were using cutlery.
Through the last bite, our sons were mellower and more manageable than ever. Clearly, they were more comfortable with each other, and the upscale dining setting wasn’t all that imposing anymore. As with so many things, it looked like practice was making perfect.
For us parents, it was proof that sophisticated restaurants don’t have to be off-limits for families — as long as you follow some logical guidelines and know how to roll with the punches. We’re already fantasizing about a joint third-birthday party, and perhaps by then we’ll be ready for one of those once-in-a-lifetime places after all.
How to keep little diners from creating big problems
▪ Pack to distract. Fill diaper bags with favorite books, toys and games. Keep your phone charged for a quick video fix to prevent a meltdown.
▪ Gear up. Don’t expect restaurants to have baby-friendly equipment on hand, so also pack a sippy cup, plate, flatware, washcloth or wipes, the all-important catchall bib and a portable changing mat.
▪ Start small. Begin by teaching manners and mealtime expectations at home. Then try dining at family-friendly restaurants before graduating to more formal settings.
▪ Pick partners wisely. A successful dinner with other families often hinges on whether the children get along. Little BFFs can make meals fun, while kids who don’t see eye to eye can override even the most dedicated parents.
▪ Fast food. Ask the staff to bring out the children’s dishes as soon they are ready — instead of pacing them to coincide with the adults’ course — as tiny diners don’t like to wait.
▪ Be prepared to bail. If your child is annoying other diners, be ready to pull the ripcord. Ask for your meal to be boxed up, tip generously (good advice even if your child does behave, to compensate for the extra attention your table requires) and leave swiftly.
▪ Consider bringing cash to avoid waiting for a credit card to be processed. Alternately, give your server your credit card at the beginning of the meal to speed up the bill-paying process.
▪ Practice makes perfect. Watching your little one cause a major mess in public may be humbling, but it happens. Figure out what went wrong and try again.
— The Washington Post