The final straw was a little girl using an iPad with the volume on high, a device her parents refused to turn down despite repeated requests from the staff at Caruso’s, an upscale Italian restaurant in Mooresville, N.C.
Yoshi Nunez, the restaurant’s manager, had encountered unruly kids in his restaurant before; but this time, he said, the parents were misbehaving, too.
“Finally, we had to ask them to leave,” Nunez told The Washington Post. “They were upset, but they didn’t seem to care about what the other guests thought. We tried to be nice about the situation, but we’re here to take care of customers and we can’t tell a parent how to control their kids.
“That was the incident that triggered the entire thing.”
“The entire thing,” as Nunez puts it, is the restaurant’s strict ban on children under the age of 5. It went into effect in January, drawing passionate applause from some diners online and angry condemnation from others.
The ban — conceived by the restaurant’s owner, Pasquale Caruso — has led to a dramatic increase in reservations, said Nunez, who said Caruso’s has seen a spike in diners, from about 50 per day to around 80.
“Banning children has always been a topic in the industry and every owner says, ‘I wish I could do it,’” he said. “Our owner has the full support of the staff. We work here to make a living, too, and we support our owner 100 percent.”
It’s hard to say whether child bans are officially a restaurant industry trend, but they’re no longer particularly unusual. Caruso’s — which describes itself as “traditional, classy, intimate” on its website — is the latest in a series of eateries to ban children or introduce measures to control them.
In recent years, restaurants in Korea, Italy, Australia, Texas, Pennsylvania and California have either banned young children outright or introduced measures to control their behavior, according to Eater.
As The Post’s Amy Joyce wrote in 2013, the trend has even hit Del Ray, “the Alexandria neighborhood sometimes known for stroller traffic jams along Mount Vernon Avenue.”
The Northern Virginia neighborhood, she wrote, “is experiencing a different kind of mommy war” with the arrival of a Japanese restaurant “for people 18 and older. Only. No kids. No strollers. Just adults enjoying sushi and sake in a lounge-type setting.”
“We thought parents just needed a place to give it a break, like an adult clubhouse,” Sushi Bar owner Mike Anderson told her.
In Houston, Cuchara, an intimate Mexican restaurant full of delicate artwork, began handing out cards with behavioral instructions to customers with children in 2015, according to CBS affiliate KHOU. The etiquette training was introduced after a child scratched the restaurant walls with a quarter, causing $1,500 in damage.
“How do we stop that kind of thing?” Cuchara’s owner, Ana Beaven, told the station. “We’re busy serving and cleaning and moving around and we cannot babysit a child.”
Do the etiquette cards annoy parents?
“It doesn’t offend anyone, it’s a set of rules,” Beaven added.
The debate surrounding the bans invokes larger questions about sociology, class and parenting trends, with some researchers saying they are the natural result of a culture of overtaxed parents desperate to spend as much time as possible with their children, even if that one-on-one time occurs over a fine bottle of wine at the expense of other diners around them.
Liam Flynn, owner of Australia’s Flynn’s Restaurant, which instituted a ban on children under age 7, has a simpler explanation that speaks to how casual dining has become for many families.
“A lot of parents think they’re paying for the space and service and taking a break, and therefore taking a break from parenting as well,” he told Eater. “There’s a lot of people that feel they are not accountable for their own or their child’s actions.”
The North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association declined to comment on restaurants that ban children.
Sarah Dolan, director of media relations for the National Restaurant Association, said her group has “seen no evidence that this is a trend.”
“Every restaurant is different, and it’s up to each operator to make decisions that are best for their business and their guests,” Dolan said. “There are more than 1 million restaurants in the United States and the majority of them welcome families with children.”
Each time a restaurant bans children, controversy ensues.
The case of Caruso’s is no different.
Whitney Labozzetta, a mother of six, told ABC affiliate WSOC that she left the restaurant after she was made to feel uncomfortable about having a baby with her.
“We actually got up and left because the waitresses were very rude,” she said. “When my daughter, who is 1, cried, they gave us the nasty look.”
On the restaurant’s Facebook page, some parents criticized the child ban using sarcasm.
“Also a family of five requires a lot more attention from the wait staff (since they’re ordering so much … even though we tip extremely well because we know we are a bit of a challenge) and you as an owner can’t possibly want too many big parties, big checks and big tips coming in,” one woman wrote. “What a nightmare.”
“I would never come to your establishment!” another parent wrote. “My 8 year old has been in better restaurants then yours and is always a pleasure!
“How you are legally allowed to discriminate amazes me!” she added. “Next you will be kicking out all the elderly because they take to long to eat. Slippery slope!”
But the push-back from parents online was overwhelmed by an outpouring of support for the restaurant’s ban, which was endorsed with language reserved for civil rights struggles.
“Thank you for taking a stand,” multiple people wrote.
Others said they applauded the restaurant’s “courage” and called the policy “brilliant.”
People from across the country promised to visit the restaurant, which is about 30 miles north of Charlotte, and one particularly animated fan suggested Caruso’s policy should be turned into state law.
A message on Caruso’s website says the establishment requires “proper attire” and has “no children’s menu available.” Nunez said customers find out children aren’t allowed when they call to make a reservation or, increasingly, via word of mouth.
The restaurant’s owner told the Mooresville Tribune that he has nothing against children and noted that he’s a father of two himself. He said he is trying to create an atmosphere that keeps his restaurant “elegant” for couples and friends who want to have a relaxed evening out.
The ban wasn’t based on a single incident, Caruso said, but came about after he started “to lose money and customers, because I had very young children coming in, throwing food, running around and screaming.”
“I had several customers complain, get up and leave because children were bothering them, and the parents were doing nothing,” he told the Tribune. “It started to feel like it wasn’t Caruso’s anymore, that it was a local pizzeria instead.”