The restaurant on California's central coast had the feel of a boardinghouse's communal dining room in the Old West. You could picture train brakemen and farm laborers, sleeves rolled up, their elbows on the table, swigging beer and digging into a hot meal at the end of a long day under the high, tin-stamped ceiling.
Reviews had called the restaurant kid-friendly. The weekend after Thanksgiving, boisterous groups clustered at every table. Typically, when we dine out with our twins, we eat early, around 5:30 p.m., and are prepared with books, toys and videos to entertain them, always ready to bolt with a takeout box. But it was the start of the holidays, when routines are upended. After taking pictures with Santa and strolling around to look at Christmas lights, we'd arrived at the height of the dinner rush, along with our dear friends who live on the East Coast and their two sons. We had less than a day together.
At the time, our boys were all under 4 years old. The server was jolly and welcoming, handing us a kids menu and a little toy. If we ordered for the children first and set them up with an iPad after, dinner could go smoothly - we hoped. For most of the meal, the boys complied, with the occasional yelp of excitement that added to the restaurant's din. We shushed them, sheepishly glancing around the dining room, but no one seemed to notice or care. When the boys turned restless, we took them outside for a walk.
Tick tock, tick tock. The time dragged out between courses, but at last we finished eating. When I stood up, getting ready to flag down our server for the check, an older, deeply-tanned woman approached. She was smiling.
I thought she was going to say, "I have grandchildren your kids' age" or "Isn't this the best age?"
She leaned in and said, "Your children are charming to no one but you."
She started to flounce out. Her back was turned to me, but I knew she must be smirking, pleased by her clever insult. She wanted me to be shamed and stunned. I tried to formulate a quip about how our kids would help pay for her Social Security someday. Instead, I said: "I hope someone takes care of you when you're old."
She stiffened and whirled around. "B -, I have a great relationship with my children," she snarled. "And they never behaved like this!"
She stormed out of the restaurant. Evidently, I'd hit a nerve.
Our horrified server rushed over. "I came from a family of five children. I love children."
Of course I felt guilty. I wish I'd known - wish I'd realized - she was annoyed. We could have changed tables or gotten the check and left. Maybe our group should have stayed at the hotel and ordered pizza.
When I was a child, my family rarely went out to eat, and when we did, it was for inexpensive Chinese food or a splurge on the early bird special at a steakhouse chain. Now, dining out is common; last year, Americans spent more money at restaurants than on groceries. People have vigorously debated whether children belong at restaurants - at what age and what type of venue, and if their presence ruins the ambiance. Parents argue that by going to restaurants, children can develop their social skills and learn how to act properly in such settings. And some dining establishments ban children during certain hours or from certain parts of the restaurant.
Where you stand on the issue reflects what's at stake for you, and can depend on the kid, the restaurant, the parents, the other diners, the evening. Each side remains entrenched because we don't know each other's stories. It's easy to turn your enemies into caricatures, and hate them.
I couldn't stop thinking about the woman. In my memory, I might be downplaying the kids' bratty behavior. In hers, they may have seemed like hellions. In my telling, I am the triumphant bearer of the perfect comeback, defending my friends and family. In hers, she courageously beat back a public nuisance.
I wondered what she'd tell her children.
Did she dine here alone, hoping for a quiet meal that our group had ruined? Maybe she'd met friends here and when she told them what she was planning to say, they tried to dissuade her. Or had they egged her on? Was she always so forthright, or had wine loosened her poisonous tongue? Why didn't she complain to restaurant management? Or did she enjoy snidely sidling up to me? She might have had a bad day, or a bad week, and our children were more than she could bear.
What if I'd considered her life before I spoke? What if she'd considered mine?
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Hua is a former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and the author of "Deceit and Other Possibilities." Her freelance work has appeared in the New York Times, New Yorker online, Salon, San Francisco magazine, The Washington Post, the Atlantic and Newsweek, among other publications.
Special to The Washington Post · Vanessa Hua