Of all the scenes from my early childhood that I am still able to remember, one of the oddest is having lunch with my mother in the UCP Cafe when I was six.
Ashton-Under-Lyne, on Manchester's fringes, had two cafes to speak of, Booths and the UCP. Booths was off-limits, as Mum had once found a hairline crack in a teacup there, and her Methodist abhorrence of unexpected microbial life had her gagging whenever the word "Booth" was subsequently mentioned. The UCP on the other hand, was perfectly respectable, even if its initials did stand for United Cattle Products.
Northern English in extremis, the UCP Cafe doubled as a butchers' shop, specialising in offal - tripe, cow heel, black pudding, pigs trotters, lamb's fry, tongue, brains, elder (pressed udder) and something called wessel, which looked like soggy industrial tubing.
That day, Mum had tripe and onions. I sat quietly and politely, eating a ham sandwich. Nothing memorable about that spread. Yet I recall it well, probably because it is the only recollection I have of eating out in public as a child, which gave it an indefinable air of sophistication. In mid 1960s Lancashire, you did your eating at home.
In 1990s Melbourne, on the other hand, my six-year-old has been known to throw a tantrum when told that we can't make it to Cicciolinas in Acland St. The one-year-old, meanwhile, sits quietly and politely on restaurant tables, stealing pickled ginger from my sukiyaki. Neither is ever going to have fond memories of a ham sandwich.
These days, of course, we've got plenty of reasons to want to take our children out to eat, that's if we even consciously think about it. Eating out is now so much part of our lives that we should do it with our children, especially now there are so many places that are places are child friendly. And as being a parent means being a hostage, you should also seize every opportunity to get out of the house and be social.
When I wrote on this last year, I really only had Holly, then 5, to worry about, as Minty's diet was very much limited to mother's milk. Since then, Jane and I have seen Minty move from milk to mush to solids. In the past few months, we've also seen her on the move; squirming about in our arms, wrestling away from us to wander from table to table; and chattering away quite loudly when the humour is upon her. Nor is Holly particularly good at sitting still for long stretches of time. Mind you, she at least comes back when you ask her. Minty's heading for the door.
If you're the sort to be absolutely mortified with children being children, then perhaps you're better advised to experience Melbourne's cuisine through take-away. I've heard tell of the French children who sit politely at the table, but I've never witnessed it, and certainly not with mine. They're not horrors, they don't throw food about (well Minty discreetly drops stuff), and they don't run around bothering other patrons, but they fidget and they wander off for moments. If that's too much to bear, stay at home. If you can't relax, it's not going to be the enjoyable experience that dining out should be.
My guidelines are simple.
I'm not going to take them to Langtons or Jacques Reymond. I don't need the grief. Holly on her own, perhaps, in a few years. Once she's saved up enough pocket money.
The restaurant really has to be happy with kids. A lot of restaurants say that children are welcome, and I appreciate that, but you can tell once inside that everyone has to be on their best behaviour. Which doesn't work. Don't go somewhere where you'll be embarrassed if they drop food on the floor.
With more than one child in tow, especially if one's a baby, order in stages so your partner can eat first. Someone's going to have to keep an eye on the kids, so structure it so that both of you get an uninterrupted meal.
If you're dining in the evening, get there early, and order meals that aren't going to take up most of your time there. The length of time kept waiting/bad behaviour nexus is scientifically proven.
Within that framework, be adventurous. Coming from the north of England where food was either bland or inedible, I've been amazed at what my eldest daughter will cheerfully eat. After seeing her go back for thirds of rollmops and artichoke hearts, I've been less inclined to stop her from choosing oddities. Even so, it pays to be prepared for back up: if they order something unusual; you can always ask the restaurant for a small serving, and be prepared to hand over some of your more mainstream order if they don't like theirs. And remember, if the six year old won't eat it, the one year old probably will.
Most importantly, don't try to prove a point. You know what your kids are like, and a restaurant isn't the best place to test out your disciplining skills. If you want to give them an improving experience, take them to the National Gallery.
See also Katherine Knox on the search for the best baby-chino.
© David Greason 1999