- Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times
- Grant Achatz’s tweet about bringing a baby to Alinea touched a nerve on social media, but the chef points out, “as many of us who have children, me included, realize, you have a very small window in which little ones behave themselves.”
Maybe we shouldn’t expect a news story inspired by a tweet to go very far beyond the tweet in terms of informational content.
Here was last Saturday’s tweet by Alinea’s Grant Achatz:
Tbl brings 8mo.Old. It cries. Diners mad. Tell ppl no kids? Subject diners 2crying? Ppl take infants 2 plays? Concerts? Hate saying no,but…
The story of the scandalous evening at Alinea went viral. War is one thing, death another. Famine might be a third. But no horror approaches laying out half a grand for an evening for two at a swell restaurant and spending it in earshot of a mewling infant. “I am mainly just stunned and appalled that anyone would go to a Michelin Starred restaurant with an infant,” said Trudy Richardson, a relatively temperate Alinea patron putting in her two cents on the restaurant’s Facebook page. “The total lack of class and lack of care for others is unbelievable. Stop the children; if they can afford to eat in this restaurant then they can afford to pay for a sitter. They are like most Americans today and are totally about themselves and have no care for others.”
But on the other hand, it’s been said this couple had already paid for their meals, and Alinea doesn’t refund. So when the babysitter backed out at the last minute, what were they to do? Eat the cost? Some Alinea diners are made of more money than others.
But did the babysitter back out? I didn’t see any stories that pinned this down. And assuming the sitter did—what then? Did the couple call Alinea and explain their situation? Did they say, “Under the circumstances, we’d rather go to IHOP. But if you can’t refund or reschedule us, we’ve got no choice but to come ahead.”
If they called and said something along those lines, I’d think of them one way. If they didn’t, I’d think another.
If they did call, how did Alinea reply?
I made a list of basic questions that had gone unanswered in the reporting I’d seen and e-mailed them to Alinea. Here are some others:
Had this situation come up before? Did Alinea have a policy that covered it? Could Alinea legally have sent the couple home but kept their money? Wouldn’t that have been a lawsuit waiting to happen, and the worst publicity in the world?
One report said the baby was fine for an hour but then began to cry, at which point someone on staff suggested the couple take the baby out of the dining room. Was this correct? If something like that happened, what was the couple’s response?
For that matter, how did the couple behave throughout? Were they apologetic about bringing a baby along, or defiant? Did they show any sensitivity to the other diners, or did they ignore them? Did they act as if the crying baby was their problem or the restaurant’s?
And, oh yes—who were they? It certainly rounded out the Steve Bartman story back in 2003 finding out who Bartman was. The restaurant must know their names. Friends must know who they were. Had anyone come forward?
And had Alinea heard from the couple since? I could imagine them highly grateful at being allowed to stay and eat their meal. I could imagine them furious at having no choice but go ahead with the evening they’d already paid for even though they didn’t want their baby at Alinea any more than Achatz or anyone else did.
Late Wednesday afternoon Achatz called me and answered my questions.
He said he had no idea if the couple had lost their babysitter. “I didn’t interview them,” he said. “That was merely social media assuming they lost their babysitter. I thought I made that very clear with Good Morning America, but they edited it out.”
So, no, the couple didn’t call ahead. And in fact couple is the wrong word. It was a party of four sitting at one of five tables in a small, intimate downstairs room. When the group arrived the baby was fine. “But,” said Achatz, “as many of us who have children, me included, realize, you have a very small window in which little ones behave themselves. If you can go an hour it’s awesome. But Alinea is a four-hour experience.”
Long before the four hours were over, the baby began to cry. Achatz could hear the crying from the kitchen in another part of the restaurant. “The general manager came up to me in the kitchen and said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘Take it easy. See how it goes. I don’t want them to leave. I want them to enjoy the experience.'” But he also wanted everyone at the other tables in the room to enjoy the experience.
Eventually the general manager approached the woman on whose lap the infant spent the evening and suggested she step into the foyer. “She got up and took the child into the bathroom for a minute and came back,” said Achatz, “and the child continued to fuss. And she never did anything else. It was like, ‘I’ve done my part. I tried and failed. And now I’m not going to deal with it.’ It almost felt like it was people projecting this entitlement. Like ‘We’re here, we can do whatever we want, we paid for it,’ without any concern for the people around them.”
This was not the first time an infant had crossed the threshold of Alinea, Achatz told me. There have been other infants, and there have been breastfeeding mothers. But this baby’s disruption was unprecedented, he said, because the adults refused to take responsibility for its behavior.
Even so, he said he never seriously considered asking the group to leave. And despite the question implicit in his tweet and explicit in some of the reporting on it, he is not thinking of changing the policy that lets parents bring infants. Infants are fine, he believes, so long as the grown-ups with them act like grown-ups.
Has Achatz ever had a call from anyone whose babysitter canceled at the last minute?
Not exactly, he said, but he was in a similar situation just a couple of weeks ago, thanks to the polar vortex. “A lot of our guests come in from New York and San Francisco, wherever,” he said. “And a lot of flights were canceled. We refunded their tickets. If this party would have contacted us and said, ‘Here’s the situation. What can we do?’—and everybody is saying the babysitter canceled at the last moment and I have no idea how that got into the ether, but as far as I know it’s untrue—but if they had, of course we’d have been accommodating. We do this all the time.”
One other thing that might be untrue: Achatz’s tweet said the baby was eight months old. He was guessing. But precise numbers make for better journalism, even when they’re made up. So when the media moved in on the story—for example, here—that’s the age the baby became.
Achatz has heard from all four of the other tables in the room. They sent e-mails letting him know their evening was less than ideal. But he hasn’t heard from the fifth table. Tell me who they are and I’ll call them, I told him. “I can’t do that,” Achatz replied. He wouldn’t even say if they were from out of town.
There are times, even they might agree, when silence is golden.