Fine dining and toddlers may seem like a disastrous combination, but take a deep breath and another sip of wine, perfectly paired by the sommelier. While I'd be the first to suggest calling your favorite babysitter and enjoying your special meal without the risk of a cranky toddler, sometimes you're traveling in another city and don't want to leave your child with a stranger, even one that is highly recommended by your hotel concierge. If there's a special occasion place you've been wanting to try, don't give up on it or assume you'll have to wait until you go on a vacation sans kids or they're pre-teens capable of sitting through a multi-course meal. Here are my tips for those times you want a world-class meal but don't have a trusted babysitter:
1. Rest and exercise: Obvious but true: ensure your child is well rested (full nap, if he takes one) AND has gotten lots of exercise at the playground. He'll be better able to sit still for awhile without being cranky, due to tiredness, or antsy, from not enough energy expended earlier in the day.
2. Dine early: A corollary to the above is to make as early a reservation as possible, to lessen the chance of your toddler becoming tired due to it being too close to his nap or bedtime. Reserve the earliest seating whether it's 11am for brunch or 5:30pm for dinner. The other benefit of being the early seating is that the kitchen will have just opened, so your order will be among the first and you'll have less of a wait for your food.
3. Ask to dine within 1 hour: Check with your server on how long it will take to cook the dishes you plan on ordering, and ask their advice in picking dishes that will enable you to dine in under 1 hour, which is about the absolute maximum for most toddlers.
4. Involve your toddler when ordering: Toddlers are often more willing to try something that they've had a hand in ordering (or better yet, cooking, but that's not an option here at a restaurant). So find a couple of menu choices that you would like, and then ask your toddler to choose which one he'd like to share with you.
5. Bring healthy snacks: Ensure your child is quite hungry (but not starving, since that could entail a meltdown) when you arrive, and have some nutritious food with you that she can eat while waiting for your order to arrive. Since there's likely to be bread offered, we like to bring cubes of cheese, apple or banana pieces, sweet potato or another favorite vegetable, or organic whole grain cereal. Also, this way, if your child doesn't like anything you ordered, she won't go hungry.
6. Read favorite books: Most toddlers can't amuse themselves at a restaurant, so you'll need to keep them busy either with eating or by reading a favorite book. We bring 4-5 longish ones with us, and between courses read to our son and ask him questions about the story. He remains engrossed, and we still get to enjoy amazing dining.
7. Use a baby carrier if possible: A special occasion restaurant isn't going to have highchairs of course, and even if your toddler is tall enough to sit in a regular chair there's a high risk of her wanting to wander off at some point. If your child is under 40 lbs. and still likes being carried occasionally in a carrier (I use and love the Ergo), indulge her and have one of you wear her in front or on the side, and adjust how you sit at the table so that she can still reach for food and you can read to her.
8. If all else fails, eat in shifts: Naturally, other diners have not signed up for a special occasion marred by a fussy child; so if your toddler does get cranky or loud, do the right thing and have one of you take him out of the restaurant for a walk around, while the other finishes eating, then switch off.
9. It's better to ask for forgiveness than permission: Very high end restaurants are unlikely to actually want families with toddlers to make a reservation, but are less likely to turn you away once you arrive there dressed up (including your toddler) and with a plan for making it work. If you're using a baby carrier and have one child, just make a reservation for two, as you won't be taking up much more space than a couple.
10. Know the limits (of your child and the restaurant): Naturally, everything has limits, and there are some children and restaurants where this just won't work. If your child barely eats and can't sit still for any stories, you may be out of luck. In New York, I wouldn't attempt to bring a toddler to Thomas Keller's Per Se (unless sitting in the bar area) as the dining experience is 10-11 courses, and there's no option for shortening that. You'll need a restaurant where ordering 2-3 courses is an option, and it can realistically take about an hour. In San Francisco, my recommendation for this is Restaurant Gary Danko, which is not only superb, and arguably the best restaurant in the city, but also has a kitchen that can turn out 3 sumptuous courses within the hour and a friendly, very accomodating staff. In New York, try weekend brunch (with a stellar bread/pastry basket) or an early dinner at Telepan, on the Upper West Side. Balthazar in New York is also good for brunch, and more casual than Telepan but will require a reservation booked very far in advance, as will Gary Danko.