Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.
There have been four babies born to my extended family in 2014 (one of them mine). I'm pretty sure that's the last of them, but you never know with this group. At the start of the year, right before the first round popped (twins, no less), I began suggesting to my in-laws that we might be nearing the end of our family dinners out. With our combined numbers now swollen to an entirely unreasonable 18, we're reaching a sort of critical mass that threatens to run roughshod over the Hague Convention. At the very least, I have suggested that we call ahead before descending en masse, at least allowing for management to fortify its lines of defense in advance of the horde.
A few weekends ago, we threw out the rules of engagement and ambushed Mellow Mushroom.
It wasn't a coordinated attack. My wife's sisters had decided the night before that there was no better way to spend a Sunday than hauling kids around a field, taking pictures in front of various gourds, and so we had all trekked out to Spring for some forced festivity. It is, after all, the reason for the season.
(A little side-note: GPS is a fickle, lying jerk, and is not to be trusted. Taking surface streets from Montrose to Stuebner-Airline sucks. Yes, I realize I bear the bulk of the blame here, at least until the machines rise.)
After a couple of hours of train rides and hay rides that were indistinguishable from one-another in all but the specifics of conveyance, all eyes turned to me to find a place to feed the grumbling masses. I hadn't anticipated this. "I don't really know any places out here," I offered meekly, not wanting to be the guy figuring out where to take this motley crew for the greatest chance of pleasing everyone and the smallest chance of having one or more of our party escorted out by management.
It was mostly true, but the gears in my brain started turning unbidden, and Mellow Mushroom filtered to the surface. I suppose I figured that it was going to happen one way or another, and I was better off taking my fate into my own hands. Besides, everyone likes pizza, and I like beer.
As we started giving our head-count to the host, I started doubting the wisdom of the plan. As the host and a manager started whispering to each-other, staring into the dining room with concern etching their faces, I began considering the strategic retreat. Then, they explained that they were trying to figure out where to seat us with the most expedience, since they were certain we didn't want a long wait, considering the adult: baby ratio of our group.
They were right. They explained our options, one of which consisted of sitting adjacent to a slight condensation drip. They offered to move an entire row of tables so as to better avoid the drip, or to seat us at scattered tables throughout the restaurant. I volunteered to take the drip seat (it wasn't bad at all), and our entire group was seated, on zero notice, inside of five minutes. While some diners might have balked at the option of sitting underneath a leaky A/C duct, the parents in our group were all of a mind that the fastest table was our best bet. I'm confident that the staff picked up on this, and likely wouldn't have offered such a seating arrangement without the prior understanding that we'd want the option. We did. We took it. It was a good call.
That attention to mood and manner carried through the rest of our service, our server Evan doing an admirable job of shepherding everyone through the ordering process, keeping things moving smoothly while at the same time managing to keep us from feeling rushed. Even when a patron at an adjoining table continued to demand attention while Evan was taking our orders. To keep the peace, Evan addressed the interloper, but not without a wink and a nod to us, a silent statement of thanks, apology, and the understanding that this grown man was behaving worse than a table full of toddlers.
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Of those pizzas, everyone agreed that the Holy Shiitake (it took the older kids a few beats to get the joke, followed by an eruption of scandalous giggles) was the best pie on the table. On a base of olive oil and garlic, the earthy, meaty chew of the mushrooms bloomed full and rich. I could have done with a bit less of the garlic aioli spiraled on top, but very much appreciated the punch from a scattering of fresh chives.
The kids munched happily on their simple half cheese - half pepperoni pie, thoughfully double-cut so as to spread the slices around more equitably. I enjoyed a glass of one of my favorite locals, Lone Pint's Yellow Rose, and somehow found myself engaged in a discussion with Evan about the relative merits and faults of Common Core math pedagogy, while pretty much everyone else in the place mourned the Texans' loss to the Cowboys. When the bartender let out a whoop of "Go Cowboys," the host assured the bar patrons that they didn't have to provide a tip. "We're not," they deadpanned, and the room erupted in a cheer of solidarity.
Back in the car, my wife asked if I'd return, and I had to think about it for a moment. I tend to favor a more austere approach to pizza than is on offer at Mellow Mushroom. It's well executed for what it is, but what it is just isn't my thing. Of course, the beer list is a draw and, if our experience was any indicator, the service was top-notch. Out of all the combined-family DEFCON experiences we've had over the years, this was as successful an operation as I can remember. And that with increased numbers and our tiny infantry tired from the day's activity.
Ultimately, I doubt I'll make the trip north for the pizza alone. Next time the entire coalition finds itself hungry and within striking distance, though, Mellow Mushroom will be the first target on my list. Sorry, Evan.