Children have poisoned the restaurant experience

Buggy-blocked walkways, shrieking and strewn toys have destroyed adult dining

Hyper offspring roam freely, brushing past tables, close to the swinging kitchen doors and under the feet of plate-carrying staff.

Hyper offspring roam freely, brushing past tables, close to the swinging kitchen doors and under the feet of plate-carrying staff.

 

I’m having a pub lunch but may as well have stayed at home. Banished to a stuffy, airless conservatory, tagged on to the side of the premises, the space is dull and deserted save for the trickle of punters sloping past en route to the toilets.

As the pub’s designated “quiet area” this soulless annexe is unfortunately par for the course for those craving respite from the noise of sprawling family groups and antics of unsupervised children that increasingly defines the casual dining experience.

Distant shrieks remind me of the din I’m avoiding but it’s a refuge at the expense of any sort of ambiance or comfortable seating. Furthermore, it begs the question how has it got to the point where we need quiet areas in pubs and restaurants to hear ourselves think and when exactly did background noise transition so robustly to the foreground?

I’ll make an educated guess that the roots of this lie in the early noughties with the ubiquity of the coffee chains that gradually morphed into makeshift creches. All buggy-blocked walkways and shrieking gangs on toy-strewn sofas, it was the start of the feet-up, “anything goes” shtick that has seeped deeper into our dining culture ever since. The result is that whereas intrusive waiters once monopolised the nuisance factor, we now have over-stimulated diners determined to transform any venue into a home-from-home playpad with scant regard for anyone caught up in their orbit.

Hyper offspring

Children’s computer games blasting out? Don’t mind if we do. Parental rebukes across the room that subject everyone else to unwilling spectators? Sit back and enjoy this illuminating glimpse into our domestic life. Then there’s the physical encroachment as hyper offspring roam ever more freely, brushing past tables, perilously close to the swinging kitchen doors and under the feet of plate-carrying staff. Though few can rival the exploits of the two scooter-riding young brothers allowed to use Carluccio’s restaurant floor as a racetrack and the assorted tables as crash pads.

Children’s computer games blasting out? Don’t mind if we do

This month, in a rare bid to curb such excesses, one UK landlord has made headlines calling for improved parental supervision of children at his pub in Bristol. Having taken umbrage with their screaming and shouting and refusal to sit down during meals, James Townsend of the Hen and Chicken has banned “free roaming, running, scootering or climbing”. This not-unreasonable request attracted a smattering of support before the predictable tsunami of indignation from disgruntled parents branding the move unrealistic, unfair and ridiculous and threatening to boycott the premises.

“Would you expect an adult to stay sitting down in a restaurant the whole time?” opined one critic with questionable logic.

In the early noughties, coffee chains gradually morphed into makeshift creches.
In the early noughties, coffee chains gradually morphed into makeshift creches.

Fuelled by healthy dose of sense of self-entitlement, this lack of perspective is a prevailing theme of the epidemic. It’s no better exemplified than by those who, having held court throughout proceedings, insist on leaving their tables like an apocalyptic fallout, a carnage of Petits Filous, crayons and crudities scattered far and wide across the floor and seating able to mar even the heartiest appetite.

“Oh nooooo . . . look at all our mess,” the guilty party will say with mock embarrassment as some poor sap on minimal wage gets to work with a mop and a smile that doesn’t quite reach the eyes.

Sense of occasion

Unfortunately, too many venues do grin and bear it, especially those high-street chain stalwarts that have made it their business to champion the children must be heard and heard and “anything goes” informality. Perhaps the time has come to follow the lead of Mr Townsend. With less of an eye on the anticipated big tip of a sprawling family group and more thought to the quality of the experience for all paying customers, we’d have a little more progress.

At the same time, I’d welcome a return to the sense of occasion when dining out. It’s clear that a meal is no longer regarded as the treat or experience it once was but merely a side order to other stimulation be it phones, gadgets or the next activity on the schedule with food left untouched and children completely disengaged with their environment.

And doesn’t all this home-from-home excessive informality somewhat negate the point of going out in the first place? As the late New York businessman Warner Le Roy commented: “A restaurant is a fantasy – a kind of living fantasy in which diners are the most important members of the cast.”

Perhaps so, but some would be well to be reminded that their family are part of an ensemble rather than the star turn and it’s time they got back in the chorus line.

Caroline Bullock is a journalist and columnist

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