My friend Lille loves to eat out—perhaps more than anything else in the world. “Out to eat!” she squeals at the mere mention of a night on the town, and the excitement takes over her whole body, causing her person to resemble a gleeful doll who’s caught her finger in a socket.
She dresses up for the occasions—her favorite ensemble consists of white tights and red shoes with a corduroy dress from Paris to match. Lille’s eagerness doesn’t necessarily preclude manners, but she does have a unique way around the table. She enjoys cheese, especially melted cheese, which she likes to eat with her hands. She doesn’t consume hot dogs; she sucks on them, soaks them in ketchup, then sucks again. Halfway into our last meal together, she stood up in her seat, walked along a bench to the corner of the Perkins dining room (her choice, not mine), turned back toward our table, looked straight at us, wrinkled her mouth, and pooped in her pants.
People who eat out with Lille, who’s almost 3, have come to expect her special brand of dinner theater. She’s far enough along in her journey to ladyhood that she shuns the conventional trappings of kiddom—highchairs, bibs, parent-imposed containment. Waiters may speak only to the adults sitting around her, but Lille rules the table. When she wants to leave—I mean really wants to leave—we leave with her. She dominates conversation. She revels in dissecting her french fries and her grilled cheese. She has her cake and eats only the frosting. Lille poops where she pleases and treats her beverage as though it were a bird bath, and we—her dining partners, her servers, her audience at large—do not stand in her way, because she is the only customer who matters.
And that’s not all she is. Unlike earlier generations of toddlers—the ones whose parents would prepare to satisfy their lobster Thermidor jones by first ordering a sitter—Lille is something of a tastemaker. “Kids are some of our most important customers,” insists Claude Andersen, the corporate operations manager at the locally based Clyde’s Restaurant Group. “We need to take care of them, because that’s why the parents are willing to come….People go where their kids want to go.”
Diners’ priorities used to be different. Clyde’s opened its flagship in ’63 (there are now six area locations), and Andersen’s worked for the restaurant for 26 years. Back in the ’70s, he says, “the attitude used to be that we’ll never have ice cream and we’ll never have kiddie chairs, because if we ever have them, it just begets kids, and we don’t want that.” But now that the restaurant’s on its third generation of customers, a sort of meta-synergy has developed. “You never know,” explains Andersen. “As kids grow up, they go to high school, and then to prom, and, pretty soon, they’re adults, and they are our customers. There’s a future in it for us, too.”
In the eyes of a kid, the Clyde’s restaurants probably don’t represent the ultimate dining experience; those hosannas are undoubtedly saved for virtual-restaurant theme parks such as the Rainforest Cafe, which can offer kids a tropical storm with their fries. Clyde’s appeal is that it lets kids have their crayon- and toy-filled “busy bags” while their parents enjoy fresh seafood and serious wine. Plus, no one has to endure the roars of mechanical animals in the process.
John Guattery, the corporate executive chef for Clyde’s, who helped design a lot of the restaurants’ kids’ menus, says that the staff is told a hard-and-fast rule when dealing with the Lilles of the world. “What we do is, we get the kids their food right away, so that the kids are entertained. That way, the parents can relax a little bit.” Andersen adds that the key to reading a table with kids is to look at who’s holding their leash. “Kids are certainly a little bit messier” than grown-ups, he says, “but I don’t think that they’re any different than the adults they come with.”
Sometimes, kid and parent are nearly indistinguishable. The Inn at Little Washington, with its premium-priced, two-and-a-half-hour, seven-course meals, doesn’t cater to preschoolers, but general manager Scott Little figures he sees at least a kid or two a week. The MO at the world-renowned inn is to all but bow before anyone who walks in. “Some of our guests might like to begin their evening with a flute of Krystal,” Little explains. “A youngster might prefer an Etch A Sketch. We happen to carry both. If a guest should get up at 3 o’clock in the morning and their 9-year-old is craving frank and beans, I would imagine we’ll pull that together within 20 minutes or so.”
Fawning service can add up to high comedy when you factor prepubescents into the equation. Little recalls an “incredibly demanding, very notable celebrity” who brought her 9-year-old son with her to the inn. She demanded her own butler during her overnight stay. The butler, Little recounts, gave the parent and child “about three hours’ worth of undivided attention. Then the young man decided he wanted a bath.” The mother had the butler draw it, which the butler did. “He drew a big, bubbly, bubbly bath for the young man,” Little continues, “and then the mother said, ‘Now I’d like a rubber duck for him, please.’ The butler responded, ‘With or without a squeak?’”
It isn’t always necessary for one party to bend to the tastes of the other when a child wants to play grown-up. There are plenty of chefs with childlike tendencies, just as there are youngsters with sophisticated palates. Michel Richard of Michel Richard Citronelle, for instance, has a penchant for crisp textures and plate-top architecture that’s utterly playful, and the celebrity chef was recently hired to design a children’s menu for a chain of upscale resorts. Furthermore, Little says that the Inn at Little Washington has an 11-year-old regular who enjoys foie gras and looks forward to white truffle season.
Yet, as a rule, restaurateurs need to understand that most kids understand dining out to be synonymous with playtime. At Clyde’s, the most popular kids’ item by far is the dish containing pieces of breaded fried chicken that are formed to look like dinosaurs. “I have seen children marching their chickens across the table,” Guattery says with a laugh. “I always get a kick out of that.”
The “chicken crunch” at Planet Hollywood is definitely missing something. Could it be milk? An unfortunate twist on a time-honored home cook’s recipe involving Corn Flakes, Hollywood’s astonishingly unironic Cap’n Crunch-coated fowl is culinary punishment, pure and simple. Take my word for it: The cereal was not designed to be an ingredient, and the people behind this edible marketing campaign posing as a restaurant have set out to prove as much. The scary part isn’t that, as my waitress insists, “Kids love it”—it’s that their parents do, too.
Planet Hollywood, 1101 Pennsylvania Ave NW, (202) 783-7827.
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