Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Avoiding a Dinner Disaster with your Out of Town Parent

Dear Boo,

The other night, the Boyfriend and I decided to take a stroll over to Tortilla Flats for some Mexican food. It was one of those summer evenings that goes from fierce thunderstorm to bright sun to gorgeous pinky and orange sunset in the course of 15 minutes. We sat down outside under a little tent, brushing the small puddle of rainwater off our metal folding chairs (note: next time, sit indoors in a booth) and digging in to some chips and salsa. A few minutes into our meal, a young couple sat down at a 4-top next to us. Some time later, in bustled their third party, an older man, who walked in holding a soggy subway map, exclaiming loudly that he had FINALLY found them, and laughing good naturedly at the state of his sopping shirt and broken umbrella. It didn't take the tucked in polo shirt or cell phone clipped to his belt to identify this creature: clearly, he was the Out of Town Dad. He squeezed his daughter hello, shook her boy's hand, and loudly sat down, practically in our laps, to begin his story of the journey he took to get to the restaurant. "I thought I could take the subway right here from Grand Central! But I had to walk and then ask someone and then I took a bus and then I had to buy an umbrella because it started a downpour and then I walked four blocks in the opposite direction." Over the course of the next hour, the daughter cringed quietly, as only an embarrassed daughter can, the boyfriend tried his best to make conversation, the OOTD asked the waitress an exorbitant number of questions about the burrito he was considering ordering, and everyone was generally uncomfortable.

As soon as we were out of earshot, the Boyfriend was like, "What was the DEAL with those people?" As we began the bitchy practice of judging people based on the highly unscientific hour-long observation we'd conducted, a more pertinent question emerged: WHY on earth did they choose THAT restaurant for a dinner with an out of town parent?

As The Boyfriend wisely observed, there's a ton of information out there for parents choosing kid-friendly food establishments, but what about PARENT-friendly spots? Well....

It's clear that this young couple made a number of wrong turns in planning this evening. Let's review, shall we?

As we gleaned from our champion eavesdropping, the OOTD was staying at a hotel near Grand Central. In picking a restaurant in the far-west village, they could not have chosen something more inconvenient to get to, short of Staten Island. I mean, come ON! What a schlep. There is no direct train line to get there, it's CROSS-TOWN, there's a LOT of walking involved, and let's face it, even for those of us who live here, the winding west village non-numbered streets can get a little confusing.

Pick a restaurant NEAR the hotel of said OOTP (out of town parent), you nitwits. If you really can't find anything there that makes you happy, at least pick something off the closest subway line to the hotel. Or better yet, MEET your OOTP at his/her hotel and escort them to the restaurant. If you can't manage any of these things, make sure to INSIST they take a cab. And for the love of all things holy, if it is thunderstorming, do NOT make them walk.

MISTAKE #2: KNOW BEFORE YOU GO (a short play)
OOTD: So what's good here?
TENSE DAUGHTER: I don't know. I've never been. But I'm sure it's all good.
OVEREAGER BOYFRIEND: I've been here. But it was years ago, so I don't remember much about the food. The portions are big....
OOTD: Oh. Okay. Well, maybe I'll just ask the waitress a billion questions about the menu, then.

Minimize the potential for disaster by picking a restaurant you're familiar with. There are just too many variables that could trip you up if you take a chance on a place you know nothing about, from confusion over the location, to lack of appealing menu options for OOTP, to prices you didn't anticipate, to clientele that make your OOTP feel totally out of place, to impatient waitresses not used to dealing with OOTPs. This place had at least 4 out of 5, in this case.

It seems obvious, but make sure you LIKE this restaurant and type of food. The Daughter asked if there was dairy in the fajitas and requested no bell peppers and a "sparkling water". If these are your requirements, maybe you want to reconsider choosing Mexican. If you're not happy, you'll be that much more sensitive to any small embarrassing gesture your OOTP makes, and you'll deprive your OOTP of feeling like they took you out for a nice evening.

Go somewhere you know and like. DUH. And pick something neutral. Maybe this isn't the best time to introduce your parents to ethiopian food. The GI system of the OOTP moves in mysterious ways. Unless of course, your parents are cool, adventurous foodies who would expect nothing less. Either way, make an educated choice.

If the volume of your father's voice in public places makes you shrink in your seat, or if your mother's incessant questioning of the waitress to explain what aerated foie is makes you want to climb the walls, don't pick a place where these buttons will be ripe for the pushing (ie, wd-50). The Daughter was clearly so embarrassed by how much room her father took up and how loudly he was talking about the health of their dog back home, that I couldn't help but wonder WHY oh WHY they had picked such a tiny restaurant where her father's tortilla chip crumbs could easily sail across to the next table.


Pick a restaurant where you can spread out. Out of towners aren't as used to being crammed into small places as we NYers are. Make sure you have room to stretch and a bit of privacy in case your OOTPs start telling stories about the night you were conceived.

I'll leave you with a short list of restaurants I'd consider OOTP-friendly...

Blue Water Grill

Five Points
Rosa Mexicana
Hill Country
The Harrison
John's of Bleecker
Blue Smoke
West Bank
Uncle Nick's
Grand Sichuan
Shun Lee (or shun lee cafe)
The Mermaid Inn
P.J. Clarkes (Lincoln Center location)
Pig Heaven

Things to avoid: dress codes, places that don't take reservations (waiting 30 mintes with hungry OOTPs is a bad thing), high noise levels (or super quiet spots), cash-only policies, very low lighting, and tapas.

Any good suggestions I'm missing?

I'd like to think we're great at picking parent-friendly restaurants for our family dinners, though we have hit a couple of duds. Let the story of the OOTD at Tortilla Flats on a stormy night be a cautionary tale for all of us. I can only hope the poor guy downed his margarita and hopped in a cab back to the hotel for some quality pay-per-view. And that next time they go with something in midtown.


The Mouse


Anonymous said...

that dude was hoping for chevy's.

annie said...

important entry. good. and important. i'm all for The Mermaid Inn. no dessert menu. everyone gets pudding and you're out. also anything in this family: five points, hundred acres or cookshop. built for the ootp. for a pricier option: park avenue cafe. which is now park avenue ____ (fill in the season) .... since they started that, my rents weren't having it. too complicated. but others might enjoy. food always good. and easy to find. http://www.parkavenyc.com/ ....

Erin said...

These are good tips for OOTPs in any foodie city. Hmm. Must pass this along to Lowcountry readers and eaters. You're just going to have to do a guidebook one day, gals.

The Mouse said...

Yes! I'm sorry these suggestions are so NY-focused, but hopefully the concepts still apply. And yes, if you know anyone in publishing, we'd be glad to eat our way across the country :)

The Boo said...

I just snarfed my coffee reading this in the airport. My Maine post is going to be novella-sized if I don't get cracking. Meanwhile, you funny.(redeye grill also good, no?)

The Mouse said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I took my family to Old San Juan. good time and good food.

I'm latin btw. So maybe not good for the white man.

-- the bf

Trouble Jones said...

Delightful and most useful! Mouse, you should also do an advice column on relationships.

The Boo said...

Yeah Mouse. :-)