Having deja vu about this topic, so stop me if I've told it before.
Yesterday evening our family went to a show at the Children's Theatre Company (did you know it's the only children's theater to win a Regional Theatre Tony Award? Yup, pretty awesome) and then, as is our custom, we went out for a late dinner at a restaurant. It was almost 9 p.m. when we found a place to park the car.
We try to pick places that tend to be empty on a late Thursday, since it's hard to walk in and get a table for six otherwise. You'd be surprised how much variation there is in that. A couple of weeks ago when Mark was out of town for a long business trip, I got a babysitter and went out (also on a Thursday night) to have dinner by myself, and tried a new pub in the next neighborhood -- the menu was fine, kid-friendly, and the beer was excellent, but the place was completely packed. It was a forty-five minute wait for a table. I didn't mind (I sat at the bar), but I crossed it off my "walk in with the whole family" mental list.
Lots of places, though, are empty at 9 p.m. on a Thursday. If you can't scout it out ahead of time, you can make a good stab at it by seeing who has a happy hour that starts around then. Personally, I think a mostly-empty pub at happy hour is a perfect place to walk in with four hungry kids and two thirsty grownups. You can actually get a pretty good deal on dinner that way, especially if some of your kids are thrilled to eat the nachos and wings that are on the happy hour menu.
It's still a little fun to see the host's eyebrows flinch when we walk in. I only have 4 children, and I always wonder about what the flinch looks like when it's more than that.
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In this particular iteration of toddlerhood, we've been extremely lucky. Our youngest, who's not quite three, has been a very peaceable restaurant baby from the beginning: he eats slowly and so stays occupied throughout a dinner, is content to sit in a chair or on a lap, doesn't throw things, and isn't very loud. (Not all of our toddlers have been like this. We had an 18-month stretch of never ever going anywhere at one point.) We go out fairly often -- we take a lot of road trips, for example, and then we have the theater-and-late-dinner tradition, and I like to celebrate our anniversary with dinner for the whole family at a Dress Up restaurant.
Along the way somewhere we developed The Game.
It goes like this:
If a server, or even better, another diner in the restaurant, comes over to our table and compliments us on our very well-behaved and polite family, we win The Game.
If nobody says anything to us, we don't win The Game.
That's it. We don't give the kids a prize for winning, or a punishment for failing to win. We just smile and tell the kids (if they didn't happen to hear) "Guess what? We won The Game." Or, if nothing happens, the nine-year-old will ask as we are leaving the restaurant, "Did we win The Game, Mom?" and I will say "Not this time," and the children will sigh and be slightly disappointed.
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Some time ago the oldest decided that it was important that there be a way of losing The Game, so it was decreed that if anyone ever makes a point of coming to the table to tell us what horrible children we have, or to ask us to be quiet because we are bothering other diners, then that will be an instance of Losing The Game. Hasn't happened yet, though.
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Last night we won The Game: the server came over and in an awestruck voice told us that we had very well-behaved children. (The clear subtext was "You struck fear in my heart when you came in with four children at nine p.m. on a weeknight, but it turned out that my fears were unfounded.") Everyone was pleased. It seems that The Game motivates everyone to be excruciatingly careful about pleases and thank yous, and also to be solicitous of the toddler so as to prevent his screeching with dismay.
We have runs of bad luck at restaurants from time to time. (We have particular trouble at Indian restaurants. For some reason, somebody always knocks over a mango lassi. Always. If we ban mango lassis, then they knock over water glasses instead.) I try not to be intimidated, though. I have to admit that a lot of the stress of going to restaurants with kids is relieved by a rule-of-thumb that I made long ago, when I had two small children, and used to be anxious about the spills and messes --
Smile and tip generously.
(The more I think about this, the more I think it's only right. Children create the same amount of work, or more, for a server than an adult diner does; but they eat less-expensive food and don't drink alcohol, so if you just tip the standard 15 percent, the servers and busboys who work your table are systematically underpaid.)
I don't know if twenty percent is really enough -- I've never run the numbers, I suppose I ought to -- but if everyone is pleasant and nothing gets spilled, we tip 20% as a minimum. I'll tip 25% if we make a big mess or if the server is especially helpful to us for some kid-related reason.
Because really, I want the server to be thinking when we come in: Hey, that one family with the four kids is in my section. I win!