Babies, Alinea, cigarettes

A couple had a reservation at Alinea and their sitter cancelled at the last second and rather than absorb the $500 loss they decided to show up there with their 8-month-old baby.  It didn’t work out, the baby cried, other customers were annoyed, chef Grant Achatz tweeted to his follows to ask how he should have handled it:

Then lots of people went ape about it, as is customary.

Emotions about this stuff run very high, for some reason.  As for me, I wouldn’t bring a baby to Alinea.  Then again, I also wouldn’t think someone who did so was some kind of war criminal.

But what this makes me think about is smoking in restaurants.  Yes, younger readers, people used to do this!  (And in France, even though it’s illegal, they still do, right?  Help me out, French readers.)  If a baby’s crying in a classy place, I’d find it annoying, but I would never say it ruined my experience.  So I’m kind of rejecting the claim that a top-tier dinner is the same thing as a classical music performance or a play from this point of view.  Though see here for further thoughts on the relationship between high-end Chicago dining and the legitimate theatre.

On the other hand, if somebody were smoking at a nearby table?  That person is literally mixing a bad-smelling substance into the food I paid $500 for. It’s hard for me not to see that act as inherently more disruptive and dinner-ruining than a wailing baby.

Which is just to say that all these arguments about what rules should be “obvious to any thinking person” are kind of nuts.  The rules don’t have justification — they are social norms, which are self-justifying.  You shouldn’t bring a baby to Alinea because people, in this country, in this year have come to feel that their $500 buys them the right not to hear a baby.  In some places and times, it didn’t buy you the right not to have cigarette smoke in your food.  No one, back then, would have complained that the smokers in the room were ruining their special night — right?  But now we would.  Cigarettes haven’t changed, food hasn’t changed, noses haven’t changed:  only the rules we make up for ourselves have changed.

In the comments, feel free to rant about how much you hate smokers, how much you hate breeders, how much you hate non-smokers, how much you hate non-breeders, or what rights you consider yourself to have purchased when you go out for a very expensive meal.

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10 thoughts on “Babies, Alinea, cigarettes

  1. A crying baby doesn’t affect my health, only potentially my mood.

    That is all.

  2. Zajj says:

    I heard a story recently about the many reasons airplane food designers have a tough gig, one of which being that the noise during the flight actually dulls our other senses, including smell and taste. And while crying babies come nowhere near the decibel level of jet engines, some of us have a biological makeup which occasionally causes all baby-like sounds to be *wildly amplified* over all other sensory input. So though I’m gonna go with smoking on this one, I don’t think it’s entirely ridiculous to claim that wailing children can detract from the dining experience (for non-cultural reasons). I do, however, think that $500 for a meal is ridiculous, unless at least $400 of that is going straight toward fighting world hunger or some-such. And I like fine food.

  3. Richard Séguin says:

    Babies in a restaurant can be an unfortunate distraction, but not a total disaster unless they vomit on the floor. I would rather have a well behaved bored dog sitting under someone’s table waiting for something to drop, as can happen in Europe. (I’ve heard German and French people complain about the horrible restrictions on dogs here.) The absence of cigarettes is a good thing. No one should be smoking indoors anyway. But a related annoyance is the person sitting at the next table who is doused in perfume or cologne. It can completely overpower the scent that you should be smelling from your food (a large component of taste), and in some cases trigger someone’s asthma.

  4. Richard Séguin says:

    (Continued) An advantage to having a dog at a nearby table is that the dog would probably clean up the baby vomit at another nearby table faster than the wait staff would. And, their cuteness may distract the couple at yet another nearby table from chatting away simultaneously on their respective cell phones while they are waiting for their food.

  5. NDE says:

    Except that there are way more people with dog allergies than people with baby allergies… and what do you do once the dog stops being “well-behaved”?

    (Yes, the stress of having your $500 dinner degraded by somebody else’s bawling baby could have adverse health consequences too; I don’t know how the effects of a single such episode compares with those of a few hours of second-hand cigarette smoke.)

  6. none says:

    I absolutely hate when babies smoke at the table!

  7. Laurent Berger says:

    The smoking ban is actually respected in French restaurants. I’ve never been to a restaurant where somebody smoked. If you want to smoke during your meal, you go outside. This has an unexpected side effect: people claiming they want to smoke and then leaving for good without paying their bill.

  8. Things I hate include restaurants which charge ludicrous fees up front and don’t allow cancellations. Of course people will do whatever they can to avoid those sorts of losses. I’d consider wheeling my dying grandmother’s hospital bed into the place if it was going to cost me $500 otherwise. (What’s that? The bleeping heart monitor’s bothering you? So sorry…)

  9. I went to a two star Michelin restaurant with Johan in the late 1990’s and there were absolutely no kids or babies but there was a friggin dog under every table. I didn’t notice until a new couple came in with a dog and all the other dogs came out to smell its butt. So I can’t really say it was all that disruptive except episodically.

  10. RG says:

    Maybe they could solve the baby problem the way that theaters do: every person must have a ticket. You can’t bring a non-eating adult to the table or split one meal between two people.

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