Mama Madison: Rate the restaurants

Why can't family-friendliness be indicated with a system?

Shortly after the birth of my oldest, a dear friend whom I hadn't seen since I was in maternity clothes (truth be told, I was still in maternity clothes) suggested we go out for lunch -- just she, baby and me. She didn't suggest McDonald's, or a place with a kid's menu (not that it mattered, he didn't have teeth yet, anyway), but instead convinced me I needed to venture out to a downtown hotspot "- the kind of place where deals were discussed and the women all had manicures. And I, desperate for adult interaction and a meal that wasn't consumed while simultaneously changing a diaper, agreed. Sure, my baby fussed most of the day when he and I were home alone. But perhaps the din of a crowded restaurant was all he needed to relax peacefully in his car seat while I enjoyed a couple of tuna rolls and girl talk.

I quickly learned a nice restaurant was not an infant spa. Instead of quietly dozing as I had foolishly hoped he would, my newborn cried the whole time. Not just a whimper, but full-on newborn shrieks that could only be appeased by my attempting, relatively unsuccessfully, to breast-feed in my booth. Things got a bit better when I took over my lunch date's seat; nursing is much easier in an armchair. But needless to say it wasn't the dining experience I was looking for. Or the experience my friend was looking for.

And perhaps most importantly, it wasn't the experience the rest of the lunchtime crowd at the restaurant was looking for either.

Now, I am normally an advocate of child inclusiveness. I am cool with kids screaming on airplanes, in religious services, and even in the library (more about this next week). But I have to say, I think there are certain kinds of restaurants where babies, and even youngish kids, even relatively well-behaved youngish kids, are a distraction. Many adults are in that fine or fine-ish dining establishment to have a quiet, contemplative food experience. And watching a six-year-old pick at her salmon isn't one of them.

Now, I'm not saying that parents should never take their kids out to eat. There is a time, and more importantly a place, for everything. But wouldn't it be nice if sit-down dining establishments had guidelines for kid appropriateness? You know, like a movie rating system for restaurants. Nostrano or Harvest could be an R. No one under 17 admitted unless they, not their parents, could explain the difference between braising, sautéing and searing. Then the PGs might be places like Graze or Lombardino's. Light enough in attitude to handle kids, assuming they stay in their seats, are willing to try new foods and don't need to color on tablecloths to complete their culinary experience.

The Gs are almost too numerous to name in the area, with Ella's Deli the undisputed queen. But I'd like to give a special call out to Sofra Bistro in Middleton, a place that once handled my party of 18, including six sticky-fingered pre-schoolers, with far more grace than the situation required. As far as X-rated goes, I'm thankfully at a bit at a loss. Unless, of course, you want to count Hooters.

So while I don't really want to go down as the Tipper Gore of the restaurant industry, what I'd really love to see is parents exercising good discretion when deciding where they might take their kids. And with Restaurant Week starting this weekend in Madison, it's a certainly a good time to try someplace new. But I'd advise thinking Bluephies -- the kid's menu rocks despite its "Vodkatorium" status -- as opposed to Steenbock's On Orchard . Not because I think the foie gras the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery-based restaurant is offering will be anything less than delicious. But because I'd rather not be sitting across from your seven-year-old when you try explaining to her she's eating fatted duck liver.

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