My husband and I are 40-year-old parents with a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old. We regularly go out to dinner with our children, sometimes (although not typically) to "fancy" restaurants ("Unhappy Meals," August 2011, p. 20). We chose to do this for a number of reasons. As you mentioned, it is a nice time for our family to spend some time together in a special place. Also, it is an opportunity for our children to try new foods one of our recent excursions was to a Lebanese restaurant--and learn how to behave politely and respectfully in a more formal environment.
However, that being said, we never bring electronics with us, we rarely arrive at a restaurant after 6:30 p.m., and we make it clear to our children that we expect them to sit in their seats, have quiet conversation, and behave respectfully to us, the restaurant staff, and other diners. We usually have a few books, markers, or small toys tucked away in my purse for times when the meal is taking a long time to arrive or we have miscalculated how fidgety our children are.
I wish I could say they have never been unruly, but when they are, they are disciplined and often removed from the dining area. However, they will never learn how to behave in this setting if they are not exposed to it. They know that if they behave like hooligans, we will not bring them back, and they love to go out to eat with us. We sometimes even have strangers comment on how well behaved they are, so we presume they must be learning something.
Rather than banning children, perhaps a better solution would be for restaurants to embark on an educational effort to help parents teach their children to behave properly in a restaurant. Our city has a "Kids Restaurant Week" when nice restaurants open their doors to families for a reduced price (a dollar per year of age of the child), serving "fancy" food in the serving sizes and presentations that are appealing to children. What a nice way for kids to experience a special outing while still learning how to behave respectfully in a room full of adults.
Lee Savio Beers, M.D.