Cafe Society

You've Got to Be Kidding

It takes about ten minutes to get to the table, walking slowly and deliberately, with two or three items dropped along the way, which means other diners are bumping their heads trying to help. Once we reach the table, there's much deliberation over whether this time we need booster seats -- they'll be vehemently declined, only to be needed on an emergency basis fifteen minutes later -- and who's going to sit next to Mommy. The unusual physical attributes of other diners are loudly acknowledged -- "Why does he have that thing sticking out of his neck?" -- and then the crayons appear, and a battle ensues over who has cerulean and who gets burnt marshmallow. Sippie cups are filled, and we put in an order for appetizers -- "Can we get those quickly, please?" -- and then someone knocks over a water glass. Simultaneously, everyone discovers that they have knives, which are then flung at the adults, point first, because "they're very dangerous."

"When is our food going to get here? I'm starving!" is said 75 times before the food does arrive, and then all of the icky items are removed from the plates and thrown onto the table. Someone knocks over another water glass. Someone announces that she's not really hungry. Someone drops her fork and, in trying to reach it from a booster seat, tips over the cup of crayons, and each one lands so that it is glued to the table by a piece of icky food. After three bites, everyone wants to know if it's time to leave yet. The server has rolled her eyes so much that they are permanently stuck looking up toward her eyebrows. There's enough food on the floor to feed a Third World country. Someone has made a sculpture out of all of the forks on the table by entangling the tines so that it looks like some newfangled toy, except these will never come apart.

Most restaurants would rather you bring your flatulence to dinner than your kids, but a few brave, foolish ones tout themselves as family eateries. The test of these establishments is whether they really know what they've gotten themselves into, because serving kids is only slightly less tricky than, say, trying to get a big hunk of bloody meat into a lion's mouth: It's noisy, it's messy, they're easily distracted, and they have been known to bite.

Some places, like Ed Debevic's, try to fight fire with blowtorches. Bring the kids, they say, and we'll be louder, sloppier and talk back to you far more than your little angels ever could. And there is some appeal to that. At a place whose motto is "Eat and get out," your kids aren't going to ruin someone's marriage proposal or interfere with the big merger.

Except that places like Ed Debevic's actually exacerbate the situation. What's going to whip kids into a frenzy more than music encouraging them to do the mashed potato in a restaurant? And who wants to be waited on by incipient thespians who are so needy that they turn sullen if you don't go along with their witty repartee? It's hard to say which visit to Ed's was more exhausting: the first, when we tried to keep up with what was going on, or the second, when we tried to ignore what was going on -- which only made the staff pursue us more relentlessly.

The concept is '50s diner; the first Ed Debevic's opened in Phoenix in 1984, and not long after that, I visited the one in Chicago (the ownership company is still Debevic Diners of Lettuce Entertain You fame, but Bravo Restaurants manages the eateries now). Back then, when I was single and less harried, it was a novel spot to hit for a burger. Maybe my memory's going, but I seem to recall that the only annoying thing about it was the way the servers purposely tried to be as rude as possible by snapping their gum and answering any request with a snide remark. But now the servers are hired via "casting call" and are required to dress and act like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis -- except none of these folks look even remotely like them, so the results can be kind of painful to look at.

These "actors" do a fairly reasonable job of impersonating waiters, and periodically they are summoned to the middle of the restaurant to dance while a loud DJ spins the platters and eggs everyone on. Sometimes the servers are summoned while you're in the middle of conducting business, but they always come back. You have to admire their spunk, but you also wonder why on earth anyone would choose to make his or her living this way. But some of them seem to enjoy it, and that, at least, makes the whole routine easier to swallow.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner

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