If you are the sort of person who fancies herself or himself to be appreciative of fine dining, then a pilgrimage destination that either already is on your bucket list, or if it isn’t then it ought to be, is Chicago’s Alinea. Alinea is the only restaurant in the United States of America outside of New York or the San Francisco Bay area to earn the top three-star rating in the Michelin Guide.
You don’t make a reservation at Alinea — you buy a ticket, two to three months before your dinner date. I could not get tickets for my wife and I, much less anyone else, when we came out to Chicago for Leaguefest 2013 last summer.† Remember this: that fact’s going to come in to play a couple paragraphs down from here.
Alinea’s chef and owner Grant Achatz, an alumnus of Thomas Keller‘s world-famous French Laundry, has carved out a place in the U.S. culinary pantheon as the leading exponent of molecular gastonomy: a collection of scientific knowledge about how food changes when cooked; innovatve techniques and tools like my beloved sous vide water oven, liquid nitrogen, anti-griddles, and transglutaminase; and presentation of foods in unexpected textures and whimsical-to-artistic platings. For example, the picture at the top of this post is not sushi. It’s how Grant Achatz serves an appetizer of watermelon which I presume is savory rather than sweet.‡
Enough with the food porn — here’s the story. A Chicago couple got their tickets for dinner for two at Alinea at about $275 a seat for this weekend immediately past. They undertook to wait the many, many weeks necessary to redeem them and partake of the dinner. And at the last minute, the sitter cancelled and they could find no one to watch their eight-month-old baby. So they took their baby to Alinea, where it did the sorts of things that eight-month-olds do, to wit, cry loudly a lot, to the irritation of many of the other patrons and much of the staff.
In their defense, let’s assume that the sitter cancelling was a truly last-minute thing and no alternative was available — so it was really a choice of bringing the kid along, or abandoning more than five hundred dollars’ worth of months-in-advance dinner tickets. So I can see the argument that the couple made the least bad choice available. But I’m coming down on the side of judging that they crossed a line into social inappropriateness by bringing a very small child to a place like Alinea.
Certainly Chef Achatz was not appreciative, although the couple was served. He took to Twitter to vent his frustration. Mr. Achatz got the predictable affirmations of support, followed by substantial blowback. And there is a consideration of a “no children” policy for this temple of American cuisine. He hasn’t done it yet, and now we get to debate whether such a thing is appropriate. (Query if Achatz’s tweet was socially appropriate.)
See, there are also lots of people who bring their small babies with them everywhere, not because they can’t afford or plan ahead for a sitter, but because they simply see nothing wrong with taking babies with them to the sorts of places that they are going. For instance, only of my oldest friends several years ago attempted to bring his son, then an infant of about the same age as the child at Alinea in today’s story, to a harvest party at a local winery, and was genuinely surprised and a little bit offended to be turned away and told to return after he’d dropped the kid off at home for someone else to watch. It’s not that he was a rude fellow who deliberately sought to bring his child to an inappropriate event: it simply never occurred to him that a baby would not be welcome. Somehow the cue that this was an adults-only sort of event didn’t get communicated to him.
And I can almost see how he might have imagined that kids would be welcome. A kid probably would be welcomed at a similar event in Europe with the expectation that a parent would control the child during the event. Thing is, this isn’t Europe.
Unlike my friend, who made an understandable mistake, other people really do the sorts of things that Chef Achatz describes — bringing kids to movies, plays, concerts, and other places where it ought to be very obvious that the people in attendance need to remain silent and still for a relatively lengthy period of time. Kids just plain can’t do this. Very well-behaved kids, older than toddlers can behave appropriately in adult-oriented settings; infants obviously cannot possibly do it.
(Then there’s the converse question of what sorts of public entertainments are appropriate for kids to attend. I still remember seeing Braveheart in the theaters and several parents sitting nearby, some of whom where oblivious to their children screaming in very clear distress at the depictions of gruesome, graphic violence on the screen.)
Now, it’s easy for me to complain and gripe and be irritated. I’ve no children of my own; I’ve not had to confront the frustration of having a child and still wanting to do grown-up things. Nor have I experienced being very much in love with my own children, and having the neurochemical haze that sort of love and protective instinct produces cloud my judgment about whether or not bringing that child to a particular event or venue is a good idea. I do notice that at least some — not all — parents of young children seem to have much more elastic ideas about what kinds of venues and events are appropriate for their children, expanding as their children come in to the world, and subsequently slowly dilating as their children age and acquire self-control. (I do not pretend that my own judgment about this subject has been inelastic over time, either.)
And it’s also very obviously the case that there are appropriate sorts of places to bring a very young child. Parents of infants don’t have to be sentenced to house arrest and lots of places make it clear that young children of their patrons are welcomed by way of having high chairs, children’s menus, and kid’s activity supplies like toys and crayons on hand. Many places go so far as to market themselves to children.
So there’s a line somewhere out there, between kid-appropriate places and not-kid-appropriate places. Exactly where that line falls, somewhere between Chuck-E-Cheese on the one hand and Alinea on the other, is a matter upon which reasonable people can disagree in good faith. Which means, I’m interested in:
a) what signals all of you presumptively reasonable people think indicate when the line of “your-kids-are-welcome” to “please-get-a-sitter-first” has been crossed,
b) what sorts of rules are appropriate for adult-oriented venues (like Alinea) to adopt — bearing in mind that different children have differing abilities to control their behavior (your children, I stipulate, are at the very high terminus of that spectrum),
c) how those cues can be appropriately but adequately communicated, or if they particularly need to be, and
d) what the appropriate thing to do is when, notwithstanding the above, these norms are not observed — does the reason why the norms are not observed matter?
† I didn’t fret about this very much, if indeed at all. It’s hard to find a single neighborhood in Chicago in which one could swing a dead cat around by its tail without hitting the façade of a good place to eat. Now, as we discovered, after midnight in the Loop, you might wind up at Elephant & Castle instead because that’s the best thing going that’s still open where you can get a you-sit-down-and-they-eventually-bring-it-to-you level of service, but in our case that was kind of our own damn fault.
‡ If you’re interested in further exploration of super high-end cooking techniques, I suggest beginning your independent research project by finding out how Chef Keller prepares a dish he calls “fried chicken.” You have already correctly guessed already that there’s a little bit more involved than dropping some dead chicken parts that have been coated in egg wash and bread crumbs into a deep fryer.
Burt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.