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Should Crying Babies Be Forbidden at Restaurants?

July 30, 2014

Image: The policy on Old Fisherman’s Grotto’s website)

“No Strollers. No High Chairs. No Booster Chairs.”

Is the message on this sign outside Old Fisherman’s Grotto, a Monterey, California restaurant, clear enough for you? In case you’re confused, it’s nice and specific: “Children crying or making loud noises are a distraction to other diners, and as such are not allowed in the dining room.”

Cue the controversy.

Since the local news covered the policy on Tuesday, it’s made headlines, prompted debate on social media, and produced a slew of new (mostly negative) reviews on Yelp. Most take aim at owner Chris Sake, with comments including “Good luck catering only to couples and groups of childless hipsters,” “Don’t go here unless you want to support Mr. Scrooge,” and “The sign is really low-class. Shame on you people.” (Calls and emails to Sake and Old Fisherman’s Grotto were not returned.)

A few were positive: “KUDOS to this place!! Finally a place where we can eat in peace,” and “More restaurants need to follow their lead on the children policy.”

But Stefani Allison of Stockton, California told us via email that she and her family felt far from welcome when they dined there:

"I feel we were treated much differently because we had kids. They seriously ignored us. The other people around us had been asked if they wanted the wine list, appetizers, [and] some even were asked if they [had a] free appetizer coupon.” Allison noted that although other tables received polite, attentive service, “our waiter barely ever came by, never refilled waters. Nothing… because we had a 3-year-old and a 9-year-old (who are very good kids because we travel with them a lot), we were treated badly."

Restaurant managers deciding they’d like a kid-free climate is nothing new, of course, and stirs up debate every time one turns away another Bugaboo-pushing parent. In recent years, ever-gentrifying Brooklyn, New York has become a sort of ground zero for what’s been dubbed the “Stroller Turf Wars” – childfree residents complaining about wanting to enjoy a beer without a shrieking toddler in sight versus local parents who feel they have just as much right to be there with a baby in tow. “When every restaurant and coffee bar doubles as a playroom, is there such a thing as adult space anymore?” Amy Sohn first asked in a 2006 New York magazine piece. In 2012, The New York Times covered the debate that raged when a new beer garden in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Park announced it would welcome strollers—just as more and more neighborhood watering holes were banning them.

So is the policy good or bad for business? It can be hard to tell.

Many upscale restaurants don’t allow kids, and such policies are rarely questioned: Manhattan’s fabled Le Bernardin has a strict no-children-under-12 policy. But it also serves up a $198 chef’s tasting menu that takes several hours to get through—not exactly a spot a family with two toddlers in tow would want to spend an evening even if kids were allowed, and could stay quiet throughout the meal.

The debate really heats up, however, when casual eateries declare a tyke-free zone. Monroeville, Pennsylvania’s McDain’s Restaurant and Golf Center made national news after it announced in 2011 that it would no longer admit kids younger than six. “I’m doing this on behalf of all the kind, refined people who have emailed me who have had meals ruined,” owner Michael Vuick told the Wall Street Journal at the time. “I’ve decided someone in our society had to dig their heels in on this issue.” The restaurant has since closed, although an employee who answered the phone at the affiliated golf range this week told us that the closure was due to Vuick’s health problems.

Bill Blackburn, co-owner of The Sushi Bar in Alexandria, Va., says he never expected all the media coverage when his restaurant announced when it opened a year ago that it would not allow entry to anyone under 18. The policy, he says, was created to distinguish the restaurant, with its bar and lounge, from his two other restaurants, both kid-friendly spots in the family-oriented neighborhood of Del Ray. “There are a lot of restaurants here and we wanted to do something different that was kind of an ‘adult swim,’” he told us. “It’s not much of an issue. Business is great…If we did lose anyone who, let’s say, boycotted the place, we gained many more who thought it was a great idea.”

To be sure, filling seats with adults with bigger appetites and a penchant for pricey alcohol might be more lucrative than filling them with children ordering $5 quesadillas and washing them down with $1 glasses of milk. And even if a restaurant with a no-kids policy does lose out on a family looking for a place to eat, there’s usually enough business to go around …  even in Brooklyn.

“Parents may choose not to go to a place that has a strict children’s policy, and that might be exactly what the restaurant wants,” says Susan Fox, PhD, an NYU professor, mother of two, and founder of the 5,000-family-strong neighborhood group Park Slope Parents. “There are plenty of places to go that are kid-friendly where you know the children can kind of let loose. What’s OK at McDonald’s Playland is not OK behavior at a 3-star restaurant.”

The professor, who specializes in interpersonal communication, continued that “most parents understand that, but there are some who have a hard time making that distinction.”