Stepping into the Oval Room, just down the street from the White House, you immediately know it is a serious restaurant. The staff is polished, the atmosphere hushed, the tablecloths crisp and white. The clientele of this power-dining mainstay includes high-profile politicos and business leaders. Executive chef John Melfi’s menu is refined and sophisticated: Cara cara oranges pep tuna sashimi, foie gras is speckled with cacao nib granola, and smoked avocado puree and strawberry jam accompany the venison.
Basically, it’s the kind of place you would never take a small child. And yet here we were, armed with diaper bags, distractions galore — and our 2-year-old sons. What were we thinking?
We know there are rules (written and not) about children in certain dining rooms. Diners have strong feelings about young eaters, and the thought of being judged — publicly and privately — was daunting. In 2014, after a couple brought a crying 8-month-old to Chicago’s prestigious Alinea, chef Grant Achatz sparked an Internet hatestorm when he considered banning children from the restaurant.
But as food writers with young children (coincidentally, boys the same age), we knew as soon as they were born that we would want to expose them to a different level of dining early in their lives. Frankly, we believe children should be able to dine almost anywhere — well, perhaps anywhere except once-in-a-lifetime places such as Minibar or the Inn at Little Washington — as long as they behave appropriately, don’t diminish anyone else’s dining experience and don’t impede the restaurant’s operations.
We started taking the boys to restaurants when they were as young as 6 weeks. Back then, it was easy. They would arrive in a car seat or stroller and sleep through most of the meal. When they grew into toddlers, though — more mobile and more vocal — restaurants with fine china, hipster crowds and extensive wine lists faded from both our families’ dining agendas.
Did they have to? We didn’t want to wait for puberty before returning to some of our favorite places to eat. So we decided there was no way to know until we tried — and booked test meals at three restaurants with different personalities. We set up ground rules to be fair to the boys, the restaurants, our fellow diners and ourselves: Early time slots on weeknights. No set menus. And reservations only (no Little Serow — yet).
That’s how we found ourselves at the Oval Room at 6 p.m. one Wednesday in late April. To her credit, the hostess didn’t even blink when we walked in holding a pair of toddlers. The same couldn’t be said of the older couple having drinks by the bar, who glared as we walked by.
At first, the hostess guided us to a corner table. As we were about to sit, she had a different idea. “Would the booth by the window be better for you?”
She either has children of her own or has been down this road before. Yes, please! That allowed us both to sit next to the boys, while offering them the distraction of all that was going on outside. For us, it was the best seat in the house. The server was equally helpful, speedily bringing out a bread basket for the boys to munch on and filling their sippy cups with freshly squeezed orange juice. We spread out a plethora of tiny toys on the table, which led to some push-me, pull-you battles over who was going to play with what and some too-spirited Matchbox car racing on the wide windowsill — “Shhh! No vrooming or crashing!” — before they discovered a spider’s web stretched across the upper corner of the window, on the outdoor side of the glass. That quieted them momentarily.
By the time the first course arrived, the table was already a disarray of crumbs, plastic dinosaurs and books, but there had been no meltdowns. Jessica’s son, Mason, was a big fan of the linguini with vegetable “Bolognese” hiding under a snowy cap of finely grated Pecorino, but Nevin’s son, Zephyr, demurred despite the fact that nearly every night at home he requests “pasta with cheese.” Both were generally uninterested in their fish courses; apparently horseradish crème fraîche and shaved artichokes aren’t crowd pleasers with the pint-size set. We were a little disappointed that they didn’t try to expand their horizons but happy to see the boys becoming fast friends.
Around this time, chef Melfi spotted us — we were no longer incognitos. He came over to say hello and to see if the boys would prefer buttered noodles instead. We declined, hoping they would enjoy some more adult fare. For a moment, the flash-fried kale with preserved lemon vinaigrette looked like a winner. Zephyr devoured several pieces, and Mason followed suit — only to spit back out a mass of gooey green leaves into the bowl they’d arrived in. That put the kibosh on that.
“This place is not designed for very young kids,” general manager Muhammad Nadeem later told us. “If someone calls and asks if we are child-friendly, we recommend one of our other properties, like Ardeo + Bardeo or Nopa. They have fries, burgers and small plates, which are better for kids.”
To their credit, the staffers did all they could, given the fact that it wasn’t a pro-kid environment (the restrooms, for instance, have no changing tables and little space to perform the task otherwise). Despite that, at the 40-minute mark, the little natives started getting restless. No toy, game, threat or promise would get them to sit still. So we turned to the last resort: videos on our phones. That provided a period of relative calm until the dessert course, when the boys reanimated to inhale bowls of pastry chef Rory Kraus’s house-made ice creams and just-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies.
Then, suddenly, dinner was over.
“Mommy, I go outside,” Mason said, pushing Jess toward the end of our sunny banquette. Zephyr banged one of his cars against the windowsill as Nevin tried to stop his tiny hands. It was time to go — or face dire consequences. Check, please!
Overall, the kids did surprisingly well, neither one of us had a breakdown, no one complained to the staff about our table and the restaurant was accommodating. Was this all just a stroke of luck, or was fine dining with toddlers actually possible?
Our second test was at Tico, chef-owner Michael Schlow’s hot Latin concept on 14th Street NW. The young crowd and booming music create a buzzy atmosphere perfect for Tinder dates and casual hangouts for millennials. Not the kind of place that says, “Your kids are our target audience.”
But the noise provides good cover. We were seated unnoticed by our fellow guests and we remained under the radar — even when Mason took a walk around the table a few times.
Although we were the only adults with kids at dinner that evening, high chairs are a much more common sight on the weekends during brunch, said director of operations Steve Uhr.
Usually, little ones are a welcome addition. “Most are well behaved, so we don’t really get complaints,” he said. “The aftermath is sometimes a little messy, but it’s seldom that kids are screaming or crying. I think people these days are much more conscientious about other people when they are out in public.”
It turns out that the restaurant’s small plates are ideal for young eaters. They arrive quickly and offer plenty of variety without a ton of commitment. Both boys gravitated toward the fried Manchego — who doesn’t love fried cheese? — lamb meatballs with ricotta salata and crispy calamari. Our server offered to prepare the signature macaroni and cheese without Serrano ham and peppers, but we requested it fully loaded. It didn’t slow down Zephyr, who shows early signs of becoming a chili-head, but it proved “too hot” for Mason.
The ladies’ room presented a diaper challenge. Jess made do changing Mason on a high, narrow wooden cabinet next to the door, but Nevin was completely out of luck in the men’s room. Uhr confirmed that most women used the antique piece as a makeshift changing table; there are no plans to add dedicated changing stations to either restroom.
Back at the table, the boys had clearly grown more comfortable with each other. By the end of the meal, they happily passed a piece of a giant chocolate chip cookie back and forth.
In fact, the boys seemed cooler and calmer throughout the meal than they had been at the Oval Room. Frankly, we were markedly more relaxed ourselves and even had some time to enjoy conversing as adults, rather than simply tend to our sons.
Having a balanced table — two parents, two children — was turning out to be a boon. The youngsters distracted and amused each other, when they might otherwise have become bored and fussy. When one or both did get irritable, it was easy to separate them and have some parent-child time to calm them down. A larger part of this success was due to the fact that Mason and Zephyr were clearly kindling a friendship. If they hadn’t jelled, who knows what might have happened?
The final test was 2941 in Falls Church, where a European chic menu from executive chef Bertrand Chemel is complemented by a formal, high-ceilinged dining room accented with trippy paintings and glass sculptures. You quickly forget that this suburban redoubt is in an office building as the gratis valet whisks your car away and your toddler begins to squeal over the ponds full of koi flanking the walkway to the front door.
We were offered high-chair and booster-seat options, then led to a roomy booth. Somewhat surprisingly, the neighboring large table had two youngsters. Our kids were quickly distracted from staring at their potential playmates by the vibrant art hanging over our seats, while we perused the menu. For entrees, we selected two half-size pastas for the children, along with seafood and duck for ourselves. Starters were the now-go-to calamari and bread, both of which appeared quickly.
We weren’t offered any “kidified” menu options, but general manager Alicia Williams — herself a mother of four — confirmed that the kitchen will prepare simple dishes for petite palates and creates three-course tasting menus especially for young diners during holidays. She said the restaurant often hosts families with young children, especially for special events, such as bar and bat mitzvahs and doljanchi (a Korean first-birthday celebration).
Which is why we were surprised to find no place to easily change a diaper in either bathroom. While men’s and women’s rooms featured a large handicapped stall with a separate sink, diapers had to be changed on the floor. (Williams said they are working on getting changing tables installed and often bring chairs into the bathrooms to create makeshift changing areas.)
We weren’t too fazed. As parents, we had learned to let go of the little things and enjoy the evening — right to the finish. Desserts at 2941 are a highlight, and pastry chef Caitlin Dysart creates temptations that appeal both to children and to anyone who remembers being one. Fried rice pudding, warm with caramel and pineapple, was a welcome approach to a traditional dish. There were plenty of elements in the peanut butter baked Alaska to pull apart with tiny — and adult-size — hands, from banana chunks to a chocolate biscuit. By the end of it, none of us were using cutlery.
Through the last bite, our sons were mellower and more manageable than ever. Clearly, they were more comfortable with each other, and the upscale dining setting wasn’t all that imposing anymore. As with so many things, it looked like practice was making perfect.
As we left, the boys hugged and waved to each other. Perhaps the best part of this whole experience was that Mason and Zephyr had become friends. For us parents, it was proof that sophisticated restaurants don’t have to be off-limits for families — as long as you follow some logical guidelines and know how to roll with the punches. We’re already fantasizing about a joint third-birthday party, and perhaps by then we’ll be ready for one of those once-in-a-lifetime places after all.
Do they have fried cheese at the French Laundry?
Martell is the author of several books, including the children’s cookbook “It’s So Good: 100 Real Food Recipes for Kids.” On Twitter: @nevinmartell. Strelitz is a freelance food, wine and spirits writer, and is expecting her second tiny diner in August. On Twitter: @jstrelitz. They will join the Free Range chat on food at noon Wednesday at live.washingtonpost.com.