You probably haven't been worrying much lately about the seating policies of McDain's restaurant in Monroeville, Pa. You probably don't even know that McDain's exists. Or Monroeville, for that matter. But when the casual-dining eatery announced earlier this month that kids under 6 wouldn't be served, every media outlet in the U.S. spread the news, including this one. It's not that anybody cares about McDain's or its stuffed flounder ($18.95) or beer-battered chicken ($12.95). It's that the question of whether small children should be allowed in restaurants cuts through one of the biggest unspoken divides in American life: the one between parents and nonparents.
I am in the latter category. When I'm in a restaurant, and the piercing wail of an infant first registers on my brain stem, I tend to wince. My lips form an involuntary rictus; I lose all concentration and exist in a state of total sensory deprivation, like the guy in Johnny Got His Gun. For parents, the situation is totally different. Their life is one of constant labor and drudgery, of attenuated nerves that Go the F**k to Sleep speaks so eloquently of and to. Parents want to go to restaurants like everybody else. After all, restaurants are public places. And many parents insist the misbehaving-kid issue is overblown. Rebekah Denn, a James Beard Awardwinning restaurant critic in Seattle and mother of three, told me, "In my hundreds of meals out around Seattle, I hardly ever saw kids screaming, kicking, running around unsupervised, or any of the other dinner-ruining crimes that the chat-board complainers seem to think are legion."
Few restaurant folk I spoke to agree with her. In fact, almost all of the chefs and servers I talked to even the ones who have small kids themselves told me they hate having kids in restaurants. The reasons are obvious. "We all used to dread seeing parents bring kids in," one longtime server at a celebrated San Franciscorestaurant told me. "You knew they were going to make a huge mess, that the table and floor was going to be a disaster area, that the ticket [check] would be lower, meaning less of a tip, and that the parents were going to be constantly on us for food right away."
Restaurant owners feel the same way. Christian Pappanicholas, of New York City's Resto, is a parent of young kids, and says, "I think parents need to use some strong discretion about when and where they take their kids. Especially if the kids are prone to misbehave and if you say your kids are angels, that they never get up and run around, never throw French fries, never talk loud, never spill Cheerios, you're lying."
The Cheerios are, indeed, telling. Many parents, trying to head off the devastation their unruly offspring wreak on dining rooms, bring along a whole arsenal of weapons, including crayons, snacks, toys, sippy cups and the like, most of which are promptly thrown down, spilled, or mashed into the floor or table. "There are restaurants that are designed for that kind of thing," one chef told me, with exasperation. "We're trying to do something nice here, to create a place where people can get away and relax and enjoy themselves. I wish I could [ban kids] like that place in Pennsylvania. But I'd get killed for it. Maybe if we all did it at once."
But even as some chefs are dreaming of a McDain's-inspired revolution, Danny Meyer, who is looked to as a kind of guru in the hospitality business, is totally against banning kids. However, he says, it's on the parents to do the right thing: "If a child misbehaves or is a distraction, it's the parents' responsibility to remove them; if they don't, they are the ones with bad manners, not the kids. And if an adult misbehaves or drinks too much or annoys the other diners, it's the manager's job or the owner's job to address it. The issue isn't kids, it's behavior."
Some nonparents take a larger view. As one writer in New York City put it to me, "If children aren't taught how to behave in a restaurant, and are just given chicken fingers everywhere they go, they'll never learn about food and they'll become obnoxious, rude patrons as adults."
I myself am not 100% convinced. Kids are hard to control by nature. And there are a lot of restaurants that cater to families. That's where small kids should eat. Unless you're Robbie Knievel, you don't learn to ride a bike on a Harley, and you don't learn how to be out in public by dining in grownup restaurants. While it would be madness to deny families the right to bring their kids to all restaurants, it would be equally insane to allow maddened toddlers access to places adults pay top dollar to enjoy with one another. It's really not that radical an idea; I find it odd that the nation had to look to Monroeville, Pa., to consider something that makes such self-evident sense. If it doesn't happen, the chefs themselves might well throw a tantrum.
Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His latest book, Colonel Sanders and the American Dream, will be out next year. Taste of America, Ozersky's food column for TIME.com, appears every Wednesday.