Sunday 19 November 2017

The knives are out: rules for dining with little darlings...

Is eating out a family affair or should tantrums be confined to kitchen?

At the mercy of parents: Viewmount House head chef Gary O'Hanlon with his daughter Cora. Photo: James Flynn/APX
At the mercy of parents: Viewmount House head chef Gary O'Hanlon with his daughter Cora. Photo: James Flynn/APX
Igniting debate: Sallyanne and Derry Clarke. Photo: Ronan Lang
Deirdre Reynolds

Deirdre Reynolds

As a chef and father, Gary O'Hanlon is on both sides of the 'children in restaurants' debate reignited this week.

Ahead of a fully booked dinner sitting at Viewmount House in Longford tonight, on the one hand, VM Restaurant's head chef says the fine dining establishment is "not a playground".

On the other, family man Gary insists kids are welcome at the luxury Georgian guesthouse, and indeed loves nothing more than treating his own 22-month-old daughter, Cora, on rare days off.

"We get lots of families in the restaurant, especially on Sundays," he tells. "Ninety-nine per cent of the time, the kids are fantastic.

"If a child has been screaming for 10 minutes though, and the parents do nothing, I'd be lying if I said it doesn't annoy me.

"When people come to Viewmount, they've usually been thinking about it for a while," adds the TV chef. "A lot of that noise is what people have paid to get away from for the night.

"As a chef or restaurateur, you're in a really, really sticky situation. The rest of the dining room look to you as if it's your fault the child is being unruly, but there's no way can say to someone, 'You've got to take your child outside' - at least not without a backlash."

Earlier this week, L'Écrivain proprietor Sallyanne Clarke landed in hot water after hitting out at the parents of misbehaving children in restaurants.

The restaurateur - who runs the Michelin-starred Dublin eatery with her chef husband Derry - argued: "If you are sitting in Mass on a Sunday morning and your child misbehaves, you get up and you bring them outside. You should do the same in a restaurant and it's not just for the child, it's for everybody else. We had a party in here and there was a baby crying and we offered to take the baby so that the mother could enjoy her meal," she continued on Newstalk. "But this mother would not let the child out of her sight and she didn't just spoil her own night."

Speaking to Review, Restaurants Association of Ireland chief executive Adrian Cummins claimed the hostess was right to dish the dirt on inconsiderate diners.

"Back in the day, kids didn't go into [certain] restaurants," he said. "Now it seems to be carte blanche across the board. A restaurant is a working environment just like a factory floor - the health and safety of staff and patrons is primary. God forbid, a waiter is coming out of the kitchen with a tray of hot soup, and a child walks in front of that waiter and gets scalded.

"Parents need to see it from the restaurant's point of view because who does the fault come back on if there is an accident and their child is scarred for life?

"A lot of restaurants in Ireland are trying to be all things to all people," he added. "Sometimes they have to have a bit of authority on this.

"If a business owner chooses to operate a 'no children' policy, that's their right, and I have no problem with that. But you have to be very upfront with people when they come in the door."

Back in January, Ballsbridge diner Belluccis hit headlines after mum Caireann Smyth and her 15-month-old baby, Ava, were turned away at lunchtime.

"I had my daughter in the buggy and the owner came up to us and said, 'I'm sorry but we don't allow children in at this time', but that we were welcome to come back in the afternoon," the mother-of-one reported. "It was quite embarrassing for me, being told to leave in front of a busy restaurant. We ended up going to the Four Seasons instead."

Defending the decision, owner Robbie Fox responded: "Nobody can afford to be refusing people from their business, but the problem we have here is that at lunchtime between 12 and 2, it's very, very corporate.

"The last thing they want is to have a child in the restaurant."

As the row trundled this week however, founder Laura Haugh said Irish children and their mums and dads shouldn't be forced to scoff burgers and fries on family days out.

"If you go to Spain or Italy, children are very much included with the family in restaurants," she argued. "Only in Ireland do you see a clear distinction between what is classified as a 'family restaurant' and what isn't. If businesses were more accepting of families then it would become less taboo to bring children to mainstream restaurants, and not just American chains that clearly market themselves as being family-friendly, but don't necessarily have the best food on offer for kids - or adults, for that matter.

"Eating out is a really good way to teach children how to act in different situations," continued the mum-of-two. "And the earlier you bring them, the better behaved they will be. We've been bringing our children James (6) and Lucy (4) out for dinner from the time they were in the car seat. As a family, we particularly love going to ethnic restaurants like Victoria Asia Cuisine in Monkstown because we always feel very welcome there.

"James and Lucy love giving their own order to the waiter - but they know they'll only get dessert if they're well-behaved."

Going for an early bird and bringing your own toys are just two more ways to avoid tempers reaching boiling point when dining out with little people, clinical psychologist David Coleman advised: "If you have the means to bring your child to a restaurant from a young age, then by all means do it.

"As a parent though, it's your job to make sure your child is entertained during the meal - and not just by a [computer] screen.

"When choosing a restaurant, you have to think about your child's needs - will there be a children's menu and high chairs? - and not just where you want to go.

"Otherwise, you should organise a babysitter so you can enjoy yourself thoroughly, instead of trying to do both. When your child gets distressed in a restaurant, what's happening is their adrenalin levels are rising," he explained.

"There often comes a point when nothing you say or do will calm them down. In that situation, you're better off taking them outside for a walk until they calm down. If they don't, you might have to accept that's the end of the meal for your child - and you."

Back at Viewmount House, meanwhile, Gary O'Hanlon is hoping the only tantrums tonight are in the kitchen: "You simply can't say, 'Kids aren't welcome' - obviously they're welcome.

"As a member of staff, however, you're very much at the mercy of the parents at any given time.

"If I'm in L'Écrivain or Chapter One with Cora and she acts up, either myself or my wife, Annette, will take her out," he adds. "There's absolutely no way I'm letting my baby be the one to ruin everybody else's meal. You can only hope that other parents would do the same."

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