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.
Somehow, we became The Pancake Aunt and Uncle. I blame my wife, mostly.
It started innocently enough. We'd been pressed into emergency service to watch our soon-to-be four-year-old nephew one morning after dropping ours off at school. We hadn't eaten. He had. He's a picky eater at the best of times, and my wife really just wanted to get some breakfast. She baited him with pancakes. He took the bait. Since then, it seems that pancakes somehow find their way onto the itinerary every time we watch him. He doesn't seem to mind.
On our last outing, we wound up at Buffalo Grille. I don't tend to be big on pancakes, with a few notable exceptions, but decided I'd join him this time. I generally find that Buffalo Grille delivers a pretty consistent pancake, even if their hash browns are sorry examples of the genre.
I'm not really sure what came over me, but at the last second I decided to order mine as whole wheat, a practice I generally avoid. The thought of the added nuttiness and texture seemed like a good idea that day, as did filling my mug with toasted cinnamon coffee. Regrets, all around.
I knew I'd made a mistake on the coffee as I raised my mug to my lips. Instead of the scent of cinnamon, I was met with the scent of "cinnamon flavor." I'd been hoping for something like café de olla, but it was "café de Yankee Candle." My wife couldn't take the grimaces for long, suggesting that I dump my mug in the potted plants next to us on the patio ("they could use the nitrogen, anyway") and get some regular coffee. I did. Our nephew found this hilarious. I assume he will begin dumping milk and apple juice into every potted plant in the city. The patio itself was probably the best decision we made that morning.
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I've long said that patios are a godsend for the DEFCON Diner. They offer a more relaxed space, often with more room between tables. The lack of interior walls means your kids' terrible understanding of the term "inside voice" won't reverberate quite as cacophonously, and a little bit of table-wandering meets with fewer icy glares than in a dining room.
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Buffalo Grille's patio, a gravel and shipping-palette affair adjacent to the main space, was pretty much abandoned when we went out there. For the first 20 minutes or so the kid was free to roam about, naming and conversing with the grackles lining the perimeter, waiting for a clear shot. He named them all John. At one point, an order for "John" rang out over the loudspeaker, and the kid nearly hyperventilated laughing about a grackle ordering breakfast.
Our breakfasts arrived as a contingent of teenagers swarmed the patio, giving the kid something else to laugh about. He was eavesdropping intently, occasionally asking us VERY loud questions about the stories they were swapping. "UNCLE NICK, WHO'S JACKIE? IS SHE A BIRD? IS SHE GOING TO ORDER BREAKFAST, TOO?" The teenagers giggled awkwardly, my wife apologized. We tried to distract him with syrup.
The syrup worked its magic for our nephew, but it wasn't enough to mask the under-done whole-wheat pancakes in front of me. Their dense, battery texture was off-putting enough that I only wanted to nibble around the edges. A few bites of strawberry pilfered from my wife's plate of French toast helped a bit, adding some brightness to the stodgy cakes. Even my bacon -- usually an expectably fine example here -- disappointed. Instead of riding that fine edge between chewy and crisp that makes thick-cut bacon a thing of joy, this was mostly carbonized fat, and sat dejected and uneaten on its little plate.
The kid didn't seem overly concerned about my breakfast as he waved goodbye to Grackle-John. Ultimately, I wasn't either. After all, a meal is as much about the company as it is the food. One wife, one laughing nephew and 15 Johns make up for one stack of mediocre pancakes.