Hide your kids, bring your wife

Should Sacramento restaurants ban the little ones?

Illustration by Mark Stivers

My least-favorite dinner companion sounds like a lush.

He yells. Falls over. Throws his glass on the floor.

Sounds like an ex-roommate or frat buddy? Guess again—it’s a kid strapped to a booster chair. But since his parents skimped on a babysitter, should other diners pay the price? Should there be a rule about this kind of behavior?

Actually, now there is.

Earlier this summer, a Pennsylvania restaurant finally had enough. It took the extraordinary step of banning its most difficult group of customers: children under the age of 6.

The move immediately sparked outrage across the country from some parenting groups and blogs. But the decision also prompted cheers from others.

Before shutting down last month, local website Sacramento Moms Like Me polled its readers on whether they would support local restaurants that banned young kids. A whopping 82 percent said they would.

It’s one thing, however, to agree with a ban online. Is such a policy likely ever at a Sacramento eatery?

According to several Midtown restaurant owners, probably not. They listed a few reasons why kid-free eateries won’t appear anytime soon, pointing to Sacramento’s laid-back dining scene and the cost of alienating parents.

Of course, other adults might applaud; date night would never be spoiled again by screaming toddlers throwing fistfuls of Cheerios.

So what would happen if Sactown took kids off the menu?

“I think the only way you could get away with that is if you’re in an area of tourism or in [big cities],” said Randall Selland, owner of Ella Dining Room and Bar in downtown. “But, especially in Sacramento, I don’t think that would be a very good business decision.”

Other local restaurateurs agreed. Patrick Mulvaney, a New York native and owner of Mulvaney’s Building & Loan restaurant on 19th Street, said the idea of restricting children smacks of East Coast elitism that wouldn’t sit well with Sacramento diners.

“We have our own culture,” said Mulvaney. “We do things differently out here, and there’s no reason for us to change because someone [on the East Coast] says that’s how other people do it.”

Illustration by Mark Stivers

In other words: when it comes to food, Sacramento isn’t stuck-up. We like fusion and California cuisine and affordable sushi rolls. Dress code? No sport coat here. Mulvaney could be right—maybe the West Coast vibe just doesn’t jive with banning kids.

But some Northern California restaurants do have kid-free policies. In Napa’s wine country, for instance, the Restaurant at Meadowood forbids children younger than age 8. And the French Laundry, also located in the Napa Valley, doesn’t provide booster seats or offer a kids’ menu.

Then again, a meal for two at these places can cost around $600. Nathaniel Dorn, general manager at Meadowood, said his restaurant’s policy is basically protecting people who paid for a certain ambience.

“By setting an age limit, that is the one element that you’re pulling out so you don’t have to deal with that,” said Dorn.

Both Napa restaurants earned three stars in the 2012 Michelin guide, the highest rating possible. That’s a different kind of atmosphere than most diners expect to find in Sacramento—but even in the capital’s top gourmet restaurants, anti-kid policies are nonexistent.

Most customers without children think an outright ban is unnecessary. Nancy Bui-Thompson, 32, is a married professional who eats out in Midtown several times a week. She doesn’t have kids, but thinks banning young ones wouldn’t change her dining experience.

“I would say in the 10 years I’ve lived in Sacramento and eaten out at places like Paragary’s and Biba [Restaurant], I’ve never had a bad altercation with a child,” said Bui-Thompson. “It just doesn’t happen.”

Randy Paragary, the de facto godfather of the local restaurant scene, claims parents in Sacramento just seem better adjusted to eating out. “Maybe Sacramento parents are doing a better job with their children, because I don’t see it as a problem. It’s certainly not chronic.”

But what about Sacramento’s moms, who voted overwhelmingly in the Moms Like Me online poll to support kid-free restaurants?

Samara Palko, co-founder of Sacramento Parents group and mother of three young children, wouldn’t support kid-free restaurants. Instead, she thinks parents should know better than to drag young kids to a pricey eatery.

“Parents can’t just blame it all on the restaurant, because people are paying for a service,” said Palko, who lives in Midtown. “There has to be a fine line.”

But Christy Taylor, mother of twin 6-year-old girls, sees why some parents might be tempted by restaurants that hold the kids.

“I don’t want to have a bunch of kids screaming and yelling while I’m having a nice evening at a steakhouse,” said Taylor, president of Sacramento Mothers of Multiples. “My children know that unless it’s a ‘kids eat free’ night or I have a coupon, we probably won’t go out to dinner.”

Apparently, this city’s parents know how to self-regulate. Sactown, gets a pass—no ban required for the city’s kids. Or parents.