I was sitting with my folks, my husband, and my daughter the other night at Caffe Sambuca on Lincoln Road, awaiting my sister and her family from New York. When they arrived, quite naturally there was a little hullabaloo involving the exchange of hugs and kisses. But everyone settled down relatively quickly, including my three-year-old niece Samantha, who scuttled around the table to sit next to her mother. Apparently she was a little too speedy.
"Oh my God," an elderly woman said from the table behind me, in the raspy voice of a three-pack-a-day trucker. "Is she going to be running around all night?" She wasn't speaking to me, but she meant to be overheard.
Usually I ignore such comments. I can be mature when I really try. Still, her tone was so nasty I felt obliged to play the smart-ass. "She might," I tossed over my shoulder.
"Oh my God, does she run around like that at home?"
Did this woman have no knowledge of children (or sarcasm)? "Of course. She's a little kid. Little kids run around," I explained.
"Do we have to sit here and be annoyed by this?" she asked her two friends, who immediately began voicing similar objections. "Do we have to be irritated?"
"No," I said. "You can move."
So they did, while loudly hurling insults at us and harassing the staff to such a degree that one waitress bitched them out in Italian. Good for her, I thought.
If the ladies had waited another half-hour, they might have been justified in moving their seats. That's when my fourteen-month-old nephew Jordan, who'd been in an airplane all afternoon, decided he was tired of sitting, and my eighteen-month-old daughter joined the fray. But it's also when my sister and I took them out of the restaurant for a walk, a courtesy I always extend to other diners whenever possible, to allow them the appropriate peace and quiet.
I do understand that toddlers can be a disturbing nuisance, and I take steps to ensure that my baby and any other child dining with me is properly managed. But I hate to be prejudged because my child is out to dinner with me on South Beach, where she and I are not tourists but residents. Yes, she might be noisy. Or she might not. Can't we at least wait and see?
Like it or not, the demographics of South Beach are changing. Those of us who haven't moved away have grown up, become responsible day-jobbers, discovered the challenges of child-rearing. Some of the friends I went clubbing with I now meet for playgroup. But I'm still constantly surprised by the reactions to children in restaurants, both bad and good.
For example, some other customers at Caffe Sambuca were obnoxious as well; one woman kept muttering that we were keeping the kids up too late (it was 6:30). In contrast the servers were lovely. We'd called ahead to warn the staff we were bringing in three children under the age of four, and they were perfectly amenable. In truth it probably would have been smart to put us in the backroom or seat us outside, where the kids could howl at the moon and still be drowned out by the traffic on Alton Road. Instead we were ushered into the main dining area.
They quickly brought pasta for the brats, which kept them occupied for a good twenty minutes, and lots of wine for the adults, which fortified us for the endless games of Ring Around the Rosie. And when we mentioned to our waiter that the caesar salad -- a good garlicky version -- was an overly generous portion, he said, "That's because I told the kitchen you are my family."
Crystal Café on Arthur Godfrey Road is another fine-dining establishment where kids are considered an extension of restaurateur Klime Kovaceski's family. On one occasion the hostess pulled out a toy for my daughter to keep her occupied, and Kovaceski himself came out of the kitchen to see what special dishes she might like. Too bad she was only eating strained baby food at the time; she would have appreciated his buttery mashed potatoes.
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Big Pink on Collins Avenue also has the right idea. The restaurant began several years ago as an upscale comfort-food place and has evolved into a family-smart, fairly indestructible diner. Plenty of club kids still take advantage of a late-night burger and fries, but these days I see lots of real children coloring with complimentary crayons and ordering off the kids' menu. I've also had terrific experiences at Balans on Lincoln Road, where the waiters love to take my daughter to the kitchen and show her around.
Yet while Caffe Sambuca and Crystal Café have chosen to accept us, and Big Pink and Balans have made an effort to embrace us, plenty of restaurants, such as the Front Porch on Ocean Drive, proudly proclaim: We have no highchairs. Proprietors haven't quite realized that the message -- babies discouraged -- is no longer intimidating. The parents who live here have gotten wise to the ways of South Beach. Now most of us can whip out portable booster seats faster than a disposable diaper and sit that toddler right down.
So why not wake up to the fact that the wee ones don't leave when the snowbirds and turkey vultures do? They're growing up here, and with or without them (when their folks get lucky enough to find good babysitters), their parents are paying customers. I'm not expecting high-profile eateries like China Grill to add booster seats to their décor, though chef-proprietor Jonathan Eismann of Pacific Time encourages me to bring Zoe along anyway. Nor would I want to dine with Zoe at, say, Tantra, which would be completely inappropriate for her and unpleasant for me, because when she's with me I eat my meals while walking her around -- and around and around -- the restaurant.
Most of all, though, I wish other customers weren't quite so hostile. I refuse to feel embarrassed because someone calls me Mama a little too loudly during the pasta course, or squeals with delight at the sight of chocolate cake. This is my daughter's South Beach as much as it is anyone's -- maybe even more so, 'cause she was born on SoBe soil, and I have her birth certificate to prove it. Ready for her or not, these are her neighborhood eateries, and she's a frequent diner. Deal with it.