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February 11, 2014

Industry Standard: Insider info for those who dine out

Oh, baby

Is it OK to bring an infant to a high-end fine dining restaurant? My short answer is no, but I have a column word-count allowance to blow, so allow me to elaborate.

A couple of weeks ago, some new-ish parents brought their 8-month-old along when dining at Alinea, Chef Grant Achatz’s temple to molecular gastronomy near Chicago. Alinea is considering among the top 5 destination dining spots in the United States. There is no a la carte menu at Alinea, only the tasting menu, a multi-course (and by multi I mean something between 18 and 22 courses) tour de force of dishes, by turns quirky, decadent and mind-blowing. The baby cried. Not a brief whimpering, but reportedly a wail-fest that could easily be heard in the kitchen — and if you’ve worked in a restaurant kitchen, you know how loud it would have to be for you to hear it over the exhaust hoods and convection ovens.

Now, many of the courses at Alinea are served along with verbal instructions for “how to eat” them. Your server might ask you to inhale some pinewood smoke from a tiny copper pot before popping that lozenge of cactus gelee onto your tongue. Ahem. I definitely made that up, but you get the idea. Whatever your feelings toward this stripe of cuisine, it definitely has a customer base — one, in fact, so enthusiastic and well-populated that dining at Alinea requires planning weeks in advance.

But Alinea doesn’t take reservations. Instead, they sell tickets in advance to a “seating.” Tickets for the tasting menu without alcohol pairings, taxes or gratuity runs between $210 and $265 per person. If you want some nice wines and you’d like to tip your server, dinner for two can easily approach the $800-$1,000 range. Basically, it’s like buying a ticket to a Stones concert, or to “Carmen” at the Met. You pays yer money, you takes yer chances. If something happens so that you can’t go to her show, Beyoncé is not worried about selling your seat to someone else. Beyoncé is perfectly happy for you to sell or give your seat to someone else (transferable), or even for it to go empty, because, you see, she already has your money.

In this scenario, Alinea is Beyoncé, and that’s the restaurant’s policy in a nutshell. No refunds and no changing the date. What Alinea doesn’t have, at least so far, is a policy excluding children/infants/toddlers from the premises. They also don’t have a policy that says you have to wear shoes to dine there. It’s not posted anywhere! But don’t feel free to come to your seating barefoot. And leave that baby at home.

Chef Achatz tweeted this during the dinner with the crying baby: “Tbl brings 8mo.Old. It cries. Diners mad. Tell ppl no kids? Subject diners 2crying? Ppl take infants 2 plays? Concerts? Hate saying no,but..” Some people took offense, but I didn’t see it as a slam on the parents. It seemed more like a sort of a poll of his Twitter followers. What is his best course of action here? He’s a father himself. He firmly believes kids should learn the life skill of dining in public. This wasn’t even the first baby who’s ever been with parents dining at Alinea before! It’s just the first one that disturbed the entire dining room for an extended period.

By almost every account, the parents were victims of a baby-sitter cancellation. That is a terrible shame, but perhaps with such an expensive non-refundable evening in the offing, they could have formed a backup plan. At the very least, with as little as a couple of hours’ notice, they could have sold their tickets to an Alinea fan on Alinea’s Facebook page.

And by most accounts, the parents didn’t even ask for any accommodation. The policy is “no refunds or exchanges,” but if they’d called and said, “Hey, can you switch us to another night? Otherwise, we’re bringing this baby with us,” they might have gotten a little help from the staff (Achatz said as much in an interview). The restaurant, for instance, made special arrangements to accommodate those ticket holders who couldn’t venture out during the recent Polar Vortex shenanigans.

Whatever the situation, please keep your special snowflake out of that fancy restaurant dining room until he or she can be persuaded to sit quietly and tuck into that sphere of venison caviar (venison caviar — what deer eggs would taste like if deer had roe like fish!) without whimpering.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou.