Once upon a time there were two people who really liked to eat out. They were good cooks themselves and had adventurous, yet non-fussy palates that would enjoy everything from 10 pm dinners at Les Halles in New York City to Vietnamese street food in the back alleys of Richmond, Virginia. They enjoyed everything from sushi and tater tots at restaurants that claimed to be world experts on both. They stood in line for two hours to be served brunch by drag queens. They had dinner in extravagant Italian restaurants accompanied by estate Pinot Noir, and lunched on picnics of ‘nibbly trays’ packed with rustic breads, soft artisan cheeses, fresh vegetables and smoky dry sausages. They poo-poo’d chain restaurants and anything else serving ordinary, predictable food.
Then one day these people had a child.
Needless to say, these days the restaurant atmosphere has changed somewhat for us. Rather than a 10:00pm reservation, 5:30 is now more our speed. We share the server’s attention with other small child-containing families and nursing home contenders rather than trendy couples. We no longer choose restaurants based on magazine reviews, underground recommendations, or wine lists, but simply by whether or not they have a toddler-friendly menu, high chairs and the numero uno: They have to be FAST. As all parents know, the days of lazily sipping a glass of wine while waiting for an hour on that night’s amazingly complicated special are long gone. Sure, there are times when you absolutely need that experience and can justify shelling out double the price of the dinner for a sitter. But for the more common dining experience, the child is ever-present. You wait too long for a meal and you’re confronted with a small person covered in chocolate milk and french fries, climbing behind the booth and throwing silverware at the senior citizens, and that’s even before you receive your mushroom crostini appetizer. So, in order to avoid that scenario, but as reasonably nutritionally responsible parents with our daughter in tow, we found ourselves on this lovely Sunday afternoon at Ruby Tuesday’s, a restaurant I have not entered since I was in college and only then because it was all I could afford. But they have a good salad bar… and they’re fast!
As all former restaurant employees are prone to do, this afternoon I started reminiscing about my college days (read: waiting tables). I am not a total stranger to the dining arrangement time shift I was experiencing at this particular moment. It’s pretty much common knowledge in the restaurant business: lunch crowd departs around two, dinner crowd arrives by 7. In between you have the dreaded “lull” when a strange mix of the very old and the very young start to waddle through the doors. Neither of these groups have a very good reputation in the tipping arena, and were often met with a sigh and a groan from the unfortunate wait person who had pulled today’s ‘early shift.’
Today’s male early-bird sported a foam-front trucker’s cap and shiny satin jacket, and accompanied his wife, she of the overly large glasses and floral handbag. They proceeded to order milk to drink and then loudly complained about the price of the offered hamburgers and chicken fingers. The same dishes were half the price ten years ago! Harumph! Harumph! Whether or not these members of the first group actually enjoy sharing restaurants with members of the second group (families with small children, such as ours), is a question that yet remains unanswered.
In my experience, families with small children were even less revered by the wait staff than the “harumph-ers” because they were messy, cheap, and always in a rush. I am taking this moment to say, out loud, in front of the world, that I, and my husband, are messy, cheap, and in a rush. The cause of all this messiness and cheapness is our beautiful, wonderful daughter Lily. That said, Lily is actually pretty good in restaurants compared to some kids. Because she is made to eat yucky green stuff at home, we are obliged to bribe her good restaurant behavior with evils like french fries, chocolate milk, and ice cream. She doesn’t eat much, so it’s not usually worth it to order the $5.99 kid’s special, so we generally let her pick off our plates. The Ruby Tuesday’s salad bar at least provides some pasta salad and peas to make my guilt level go down a bit, so hats off to them. But no amount of grease, sugar, and crayon-colored place mat puzzles can placate a toddler for too long. Eventually Lily signals that our time at the table is OH-VER and we suck down our drinks, pile our dishes, and feverishly sign the check. It is important to me to add a bit extra to the tip, as the poor server has to pick up pasta salad and peas that have been miraculously flung directly under all four table legs. I do feel that in many of those instances waiting tables in college I was left with a shabby tip from the people who asked the most out of me. The drunk people who come in at 9 or 10 and ordered six rounds of margaritas and 17 appetizers were easy in comparison, and paid for it. Old Arthur and Mavis would probably press a quarter into my palm with shaking hands while saying; “Here’s something for you, dear.” So now, at least we can help out a little by being decent tippers to those poor kids stuck working the afternoon shift. It’s the least we can do, considering how many times they have to hear that their chicken fingers are just too darn expensive, then watch as they get flung across the room.