DEFCON Dining: Eating Crow at Olive Garden

Just when I'd been getting all up on my high horse, my kids decided to remind me that they are, after all, kids. If you've been following along, you've probably figured out that it's my general position that children are perfectly capable of comporting themselves with dignity while dining. There are a lot of caveats of nurture over nature wrapped up in that, but it's been my experience that, through proper training and leading by example, most people can help their kids develop a level of dining etiquette appropriate for damn near any situation.

Of course, that itself involves a host of separate caveats, involving tiredness and hunger levels, choice of dining companions, and availability of food your kids will eat (your mileage may vary). Such are the very notions built into the concept of DEFCON Dining. I still hold this to be true, but a recent meal reminded me of why so many people have such a visceral reaction to the presence of children at dining establishments. If you haven't guessed by now, we had a DEFCON 1 dining event. It wasn't pretty.

The ugly ball got rolling early one Saturday morning, with the whole extended family driving out to Prairie View. One of our nieces was graduating from a JROTC program at the A&M campus, and we were all going out to show our support for the budding soldier. It was hot and, especially for the kids, it was boring. An hour or so of driving, followed by an hour or so watching drills on the parade field, sweltering on shadeless metal bleachers, followed by an additional hour of awards ceremony, and the kids were beyond restless.

When one of my in laws suggested we all go out for lunch to celebrate, I should have politely bowed out, and taken my kids home to eat sandwiches and work off some energy in the backyard. Instead, I went with the family flow, and soon found myself ushering my brood into a nearby Olive Garden.

Say what you want about Olive Garden, it turned out to be a relatively decent choice, all things considered. I think they knew what was going to happen before I did, because they segregated our large party in a partially secluded alcove, surrounded by walls on three sides. It wasn't enough.

I will say that the servers played a part in the ensuing chaos, as they were insanely slow to bring food, despite the restaurant being relatively empty. As much as I talk a good game about my kids' behavior, I'm acutely aware that we're constantly racing the clock. I don't typically take my kids to multiple course, tasting menu format, four-hour-long meals. I know their patience, and their comportment, won't last the meal. For the waitstaff to tempt fate, by unnecessarily prolonging the wait time for something as simple as a salad and some breadsticks, seemed like a serious lapse in judgement.

The outing was doomed regardless of breadstick-wait times, of course. I feel bad saying this, but I largely blame my niece and nephew. My kids tried valiantly to behave, but the allure of peer-pressure (and the nearby construction of napkin-menu forts) proved too strong. I was the lone voice, crying out in the wilderness for order, and I went unheard. When I came back from the bathroom to witness my youngest leaping from a chair, I hung my head in shame.

I should have gathered my children, settled the bill, and walked out, sparing the other diners there simply to enjoy unlimited soup and breadsticks. I didn't do it. Chalk it up to my own kind of peer pressure, reluctant to be the one to flag down the waiter and leave the rest of the family there to wallow in their children's unseemliness. Had it just been me and mine, there's no question in my mind that I would have cleared out at the first sign of impending doom. As it is, I regret my indecision, although I doubt it would have made much difference. The other kids would have remained, swinging their napkins like bull-whips and fighting over "the good seat."

This isn't an admission of defeat, it's a cautionary tale. As I'm fond of saying whenever I find myself advocating a "do as I say, not as I do" philosophy: just because I'm a hypocrite doesn't mean not right. Children and civilized meals are not forever doomed to scenarios mimicking the total fail illustrated above. Hopefully, the next episode of DEFCON Dining will get me back on track to proving that point.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall