Anyone who has had even a fleeting experience of eating out with children on the Continent will know that they do it differently over there. Across the Channel and beyond, toddler chaos in a public place is not a necessarily bad thing. In fact, it's almost encouraged.No, actually, it’s not.
Toddlers eating with parents – yes. Badly behaved toddlers – no. That’s a mainly British thing.
Over here in the UK we conform to a more buttoned-up stereotype and take an altogether dimmer collective view of eating out with our children in tow. In short, we shouldn't; and if we really must, then we should at least do so lumped together, en masse, in the kind of restaurant that caters solely for our type, and in the kind of atmosphere that has more in common with a cattle pen than something low-lit and nicely Frenchified.That’s because, so often, children are allowed – even encouraged – to behave like livestock by their indulgent parents…
How bourgeois, eh, Nick? Why should anyone object to that while they are trying to have a quiet meal?
It's not just children we object to in restaurants, but anyone who draws overt attention to themselves. I once interviewed Amy Winehouse in a Pizza Express.
The moment she stood up, swore, grabbed at her chest and hollered, "I've got my boobs back!", a great many customers complained.
And maybe, just maybe, that’s the crucial difference…
Lola Borg, features editor of Mother & Baby magazine, concurs. A decade ago she, with her children, spent a year living in France.
"All very different, as you can imagine," she says. "In France, and I'm sure in Italy and Spain as well, there seems to be a much more collective attitude towards parenting: everybody gets involved, and the waiters speak directly to the children as well, they involve them. And they will also, if necessary, tell them off. They wouldn't be able to get away with that here."
Before starting a family ourselves, my wife and I would eat out regularly; most of what we earned we frittered away on overpriced Mediterranean fancies and ornate Japanese exotica.I’m getting a picture of the Duerden family. It isn't a pretty one...
… our daughter was already something of a free spirit, and didn't take kindly to the constraints of a high chair. Within minutes, she would have breast-stroked her way across a table littered with plates, while dessert would invariably end up all over the floor like some kind of dirty protest. As she exhausted our patience, our very presence exhausted the patience of everyone around us. We took note. For the next couple of years, we ate in.Well, quite. Far better to do that than to attempt to impart some manners into your hideous spawn, eh, Nick?
Like all sensible parents, we'd conferred beforehand with friends about the safest places to visit, those establishments that welcomed our kind. The mostly unwritten rules of family dining seem to be these: choose a place of hustle and bustle, its natural noise level so loud that one more wailing child is unlikely to bother anyone. Booths are good, as inevitable spillage remains effectively self-contained. Speedy service is also an absolute essential, as the child prepared to patiently wait half an hour for a plate of chips hasn't been born yet.No, Nick, they never are born. They are made.
And that’s your job.
"Our staff are specially trained to deal with children," says Giraffe director Juliette Joffe. "They are patient, and understanding, and accommodating." I tell her that the last time we visited a waiter complained about my two-year-old (though, frankly, she had it coming).You shouldn’t have to. Why does this utter pillock feel no shame about the fact that his children are badly-behaved, rude, arrogant little hellions?
"Yes, well," Joffe says, "children who run around too much can pose a very genuine hazard and so of course we will point this out if necessary."
And perhaps he was just restraining himself from bringing that hand down on your precious little princesses’ bottom.
We ordered pork belly and duck and, for the children, spag bol the way Nonna used to make it.
But the food took a while to come, and the children were hypnotised by the gaudy mirrorballs that hung from the ceiling, and the sparkly patterns they threw onto the marble floor beneath. Consequently, they spent most of their time running around in pursuit of light-fantastic snowflakes.
Afterwards, when our waiter arrived to clear away the messy remains, he noted that the spaghetti had hardly been touched. "Did you not like your pasta?" he asked my four-year-old.
My daughter, shy around strangers, directed her typically four-year-old response to me.
"They do it better at the crèche," she announced.
Before I could apologise, the waiter held up an ameliorative hand. He understood. Perhaps he has children himself.