Pass the Frog Legs
published in the Chicago Sun-Times
When my daughter was a toddler, she was as fond of Cheerios, macaroni and hot dogs as the next kid. But her favorite thing to find on her high chair tray? Olive tapenade—she didn’t really care what it was served with, if anything, except a spoon.
Then in kindergarten, each child in Mia’s class was invited to bring his or her favorite fruit to school to share. Her hairy kiwi stood alone amid the bananas and grapes, a horrifying and repulsive creature to most 5-year-olds. Not my foodie kid.
So while it shocks the wait staff when my fifth grader now orders a plate of squid and devours it with gusto, finishing her meal with a decaf coffee, I’ve been reaping the benefits of her diverse palate for years. I almost never have to eat at a restaurant with an indoor playground.
I’ve nurtured this propensity because I believe dining out is a shot at adventure. A chance to try something you’ve never eaten before, something Mom will never in a million years cook at home.
And Chicago is our paradise, its eclectic eateries boundless opportunities to try something new. The only hitch: How will the staff and fellow diners react when your dinner date hasn’t hit puberty?
At the Raw Bar in Wrigleyville, it’s with a broad smile. The staff there hold the door, take our coats, ask how we are. Come, come, they tell us, as they lead us to the piano lounge, where cozy couples hold hands between courses. We even spent last Valentine’s Day there, the only non-adult couple in the room. Mia declared their frog legs and octopus to be the best ever.
Owners Toni and Julliano Motamen, parents themselves, are happy to invite kids into their upscale establishment. “We know how it is to deal with children,” Toni Motamen says. Their giant fish and lobster tanks are more than décor—they keep kids occupied while their order is being prepared.
The Raw Bar features some edgy fare, but young diners always find something they like, Motamen says, whether it be the burger, one of the noodle dishes or the Persian chicken, served as finger food. “They are pretty comfortable with the items on the menu,” he says. Still, “we give (servers) complete authority to make any alteration.”
Our welcomes are not always so hearty. When we ventured to the now-defunct date mecca Meritage in Bucktown, the staff seemed coolly impassive, as if we were a little odd for coming there. But the room was empty at the time, so they weren’t too worried about a kid ruining their vibe.
Mia was my date too at the romantic Geja’s in Lincoln Park. The hostess gave off some serious what-are-you-doing-here-with-a-kid vibes even though my daughter met the age limit (children must be at least 10 to dine there). But the waiters went overboard to be sure Princess Mia had everything she wanted for her fondue.
At most restaurants, few bat an eye. Our server at Crust recommended the wonderful flammkuchen despite its kid-risky bechamel sauce and caraway seeds. When we go for lahmacun at Turquoise, our service is always crisp and excellent. Kaze, the Russian Tea Room and Chinatown’s Happy Chef treated Mia like everyone else.
And then there was the man at Lincoln Square’s Cafe Descartes, who was so tickled that she likes decaf coffee that he gave her samples of every single flavor of gelato. Yes, all of them. We didn’t burst his bubble by mentioning that we just polished off some Cold Stone Creamery—the gelato was far more interesting anyway.
We usually embark on our adventures early on a Sunday evening. Turns out that’s an ideal time to try dining out with kids, says Melissa Graham, a mom, a chef and president of Purple Asparagus, a nonprofit encouraging good eating for families (www.purpleasparagus.com).
In fact, a new program the organization hopes to launch this spring will feature a series of prix fixe meals at a yet-to-be-decided list of restaurants from 5 to 7 p.m. Sundays, offering smaller portions of grownup food for families to try. Project Dine Out “gives parents a way to go to a restaurant that doesn’t have a kids’ menu and still have a good meal,” Graham says.
Graham’s son, Thor, is now 4. He’s been enjoying Japanese and organics with his mom and his dad, Michael, for years. Graham suggests “taking something that might be unfamiliar and putting it in context with something they like.” Thor loves steak, so he was quite willing to try lamb when she presented it as “lamb steak.”
If a restaurant’s entire menu is fairly complex, Graham suggests asking the kitchen to serve some of the ingredients separately. Request sauces on the side, for instance.
And parents should never forget the classic adage: You have to try it, but you don’t have to eat it. Don’t force the issue. Picky eating is often more a matter of asserting independence, Graham says. Your child will not starve.
Project Dine Out will be a test of whether restaurants are willing to cater to patrons in the preschool set. In the meantime, Mia and I will continue to surf the appetizer menu or split an exotic entrée. I’ll make her comb her hair, hang up her monkey T-shirt and wear something presentable.
Weekly dinner has become our thing, a time when we’re forced to talk to each other like people rather than family.
And because I’m not going to be chopping squid or mixing anchovies and pitting olives anytime soon, it’s an opportunity for me and my daughter to explore a world of food, from chicken feet in Chinatown to paczki from a Polish bakery.
If they’re OK with kids, maybe they’ll even have a phone book she can sit on.
Recipe For Success
“Pleasant dining is social. It’s not just eating,” says Edith King Vosefski, director of the Etiquette School of Northern Illinois (www.etiquette4u.com).
She teaches children (and adults) the basics—no running, dress nicely, how to hold a fork—then finishes her instruction with a formal meal at the DuPage Club in Oakbrook Terrace, finger bowls and all. Upon completion, students are ready for an interview at Harvard … or at least a meal with linens.
Vosefski also arms her students with topics for dinner party chit-chat. She offers pets as an example; kids and grownups alike love to talk about their dogs and cats. “They really get the point of that,” Vosefski says of her young pupils.
To parents, she offers this: “They need to know that their children are self-disciplined enough to follow their direction” before venturing out. That being said, Vosefski’s etiquette lessons are far from stuffy. She tells of one young boy who couldn’t stop jumping on her furniture. Vosefski suggested he would have more fun bouncing in her back yard until he had all the wiggles out. He did … and managed to sit through every class quietly thereafter.
“My philosophy is, manners should be fun,” Vosefski says. Especially when you know in which direction to throw … er, pass the rolls.