There are all sorts of milestones that children pass through as they grow up: first steps, first lost tooth, first day of school, first trip to the principal's office. For the family as a whole, one of the most stressful and dreaded events is not one that comes on any calendar or with much of a warning. It is the first time you all visit a casual fine dining restaurant together.
Of course, your children have been going out to eat for years. If not for their birthday then certainly one of their friends had a party that involved stale pizza, game tokens and six foot tall singing animatronic animals. This is not the same thing. Neither is going someplace where their food comes in a box with a toy, and you have the option of never leaving your car to order, purchase and eat the food. Yes, these are all restaurants, and some of these even market themselves as family restaurants, but their focus is strictly on the child and their limited attention span. After ten minutes, you are either expected to leave or play another game of skee ball.
Once you have decided that your kids are ready, age-wise and maturity-wise - and frankly, you and your spouse are the only two who can determine that - the next step is deciding what type of restaurant you want to take everyone to. It is important that one of the considerations be what kind of restaurant the adults want to be at. Part of the experience is teaching your kids what behavior is acceptable and how the night is supposed to be enjoyed. This means the casual fine dining restaurants you should be considering include elements that are important to you. Do they feature local fresh produce? Do they have a full bar or extensive wine program? Do they have special menu items and feature a culinary program that is not the same as every place else?
Many people think one of the best choices is going to be one of the national chain restaurants. Menus are predictable, prices are affordable, locations are convenient, but even if they do not have a "kid centric" concept, the atmosphere in these restaurants tends to be too casual. All it takes is an unruly child at another table or a large party in the corner and your own children will become distracted, and the night will not live up to its potential.
Instead, your best choice, in most cases, will be a privately owned casual fine dining restaurant. There will not be a linen table cloth, but neither will there be craft paper and crayons. The idea of that first family dinner is to set the tone for when you want to go back out as a family again, to celebrate graduating junior high, turning sixteen, earning their driver's license and leaving for college.
Jack Terry is a freelance writer who has been covering the food and beverage industry for more than 20 years. http://www.osorioslatinfusion.com