Jeremy Eaton

That Age Barrier Redux

A few weeks ago, when I wrote about the 21-and-over policy at Gatsby's, I asked you to spare me your vitriolic opinions on kids and fine dining. Of course you haven't. The responses have been pouring in, and in a way I'm grateful; reading the riotous insults is far more entertaining than searching for yet another word that means "tasty" (flavorful, savory, et cetera).

But I have to admit, I'm getting a little irked by the assumptions some of you are making. Like "John," for instance, who writes that he "rather like[s] children" but that he "hate[s] to eat out around rowdy young people." Indeed he notes, "I find it more distasteful than a room of smokers, and my father died of lung cancer." That's a fine analogy, but it's unlikely anyone's ever passed away because he was sitting next to a rambunctious "young person" in a restaurant. If you feel that strongly, however, you might want to visit Ottawa, where there's currently an ordinance that allows restaurateurs to choose whether their establishments will permit smokers or minors. Most eateries, it should be noted, are choosing smokers.

And I agree with diners like Lynn Anderson that "there are times when you need to discuss business, seal a deal, [or] impress someone, and baby toys flying across the room or sudden ear-piercing squeals just spoil the moment. As for teenagers, although some of them are quite well-mannered and adultlike in behavior, just as many are loud, rude, and obnoxious and still think food fights are loads of fun" (though I have yet to witness a teen flicking anything other than illicit ashes in a restaurant). Still Gatsby's and other restaurants who lay down these kinds of rules are pre-supposing that (a) every person under the age of 21 is incapable of controlling himself and (b) today's parents are so incompetent that we can't determine which arenas are appropriate for our kids. Had Gatsby's manager permitted me even to cross the threshold, I would have resolved for myself that the environment was far too smoky for my kids' lungs (let alone mine), and that the lack of a highchair would have made dining with a nine-month-old impossible. But instead we were pigeonholed from the get-go. I might add that an adult with access to alcohol certainly can become just as "loud, rude, and obnoxious" as a person whose only legal stimulants are caffeine and sugar.

Then there are the personal attacks. Like the writer who thinks I am "probably one of those parents who has to take her entire family, say, to the grocery store only to let the children run amuck. Or probably the type of mom who lets her kids run off in a shopping mall only to bother the information desk with “hunting down' her children because she can't keep an eye on them herself." Well, cluck, cluck, I've actually only misplaced my chicks that one time when I was off laying eggs in another part of the hen house. But I'll give you the choice: Would you rather I spend my baby-sitting dollars on the times when I have to go food-shopping, or when I'm sitting down in a restaurant next to you?

Naturally, as Ms. Anderson says, I am "taking up space in the paper for [my] own gripes." In her opinion I "sound like so many upper-middle-class parents ... who think their darlings should be tolerated and indulged by everyone else." Frankly I like dining with my kids about as much as I would enjoy taking a cold shower during an Alaskan winter. Unfortunately for other parents as well as myself, it's sometimes unavoidable. I also can't imagine how I'm supposed to "address the real problem with [my] kids at a restaurant ... by teaching them to behave and act appropriately in public," as Mr. Ford suggests, if I do as he vehemently insists and "stick to the Chuck E. Cheeses and Burger Kings of the world." And finally, a minor point, no pun intended: While I'm relieved to discover I've apparently escaped my bourgeois beginnings, I think you should know that journalists make only slightly less than teachers -- and teachers get summers off.

Still the issue really isn't about whether children are problematic in restaurants (they can be, if they're not sedated) or whether I'm a good parent (I can be, when I am sedated). It's about whether a policy like the one Gatsby's is enforcing is constitutional. Let's lay the facts on the dining-room table. By prohibiting those under age 21 from entering the restaurant, Gatsby's is being discriminatory against a certain portion of the population. And I'm not talking about children, strictly speaking. I'm saying you're eighteen years old, you're registered to vote, you're eligible to serve in the army, for chrissakes you can even watch women slide naked up and down poles while you smoke nicotine, a drug more addictive than heroin -- but you can't have a burger at Gatsby's. People, that's called disenfranchisement.

Ray Infante disagrees, saying that "shifting Gatsby's rule so that it becomes overt discrimination and includes blacks, Jews, et cetera, in the same conversation is rambling. There are a couple things kids do that the other groups mentioned here do not. Some kids scream, cry, and throw food." He suggests I try Denny's. I hate to tell you, but analogous or not, those are the kinds of remarks people make about racial groups: Some Jews are cheap. Some blacks don't tip well. Some Cubans talk funny. And funny enough, out of all the family-friendly chains out there, Denny's probably has been sued the most by those very groups for refusal of service.

But I'm more astonished by Henry Chau's comment that "restaurants have the right to select the type of customer they want for their establishment (including no one under age 21). To equate the no-children policy with discrimination against Jews or blacks is ... way out of line and an insult to these groups." I must reiterate. Gatsby's edict is not just a no-children policy, because it includes that segment of potential consumers that has achieved adult status in every way but one: the right to drink alcohol. (And even eighteen-year-olds can consume alcoholic beverages if they are in the armed services.)

Imply, insinuate, even insult us, but no restaurant ever should have the right to arbitrarily choose customers on the basis of race, religion, and, yes, age.

Fortunately the outcry against my column hasn't been restricted to adult diners, and support hasn't been limited to frustrated parents. The age group in our community that should truly be concerned has begun to weigh in as well, like eighteen-year-old Edwin Stirman, who was stopped at the door of B.E.D. in Miami Beach. Although B.E.D. is a nightclub (and on South Beach, nightclubs are restricted to 21 and over), it also claims to be a restaurant. Furthermore Mr. Stirman was not with a group of "rowdy young people" but with his mother and sister. Interestingly enough, as he puts it: "My sister, a year-and-a-half younger, was already halfway though the door, and I was the one faced with the potential of this guy, with a neck bigger than head, ruining our evening. I was nervous and annoyed.... I had not known I would need identification to eat dinner with my family."

Of course there's a side issue here: Why would the underage girl get in and not the guy? But I don't want to lose focus, so I'll let Mr. Stirman's words speak, as they should, for those who are being denied entrance to so-called upscale restaurants based on their ages: "Had it been my friends I was with, I could understand being turned down entrance. If I am getting discriminated [against] while in the care of my parents, then I think the law is getting insulting."


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