The closest I will come to celebrity is walking into a restaurant in China with a baby.
Recently in Shanghai with a 10-month-old in tow, and eager to try as many soup dumplings as my travel-addled stomach would accommodate, I approached our first few meals in the city with trepidation. How long would we be able to stay before our fellow diners began shooting us death stares? A friend had tried to assure me that the Chinese don't mind children even in the finest of restaurants; this turned out to be true. The baby was even whisked away on a couple of occasions at the insistence of a waiter or passing grandparent for a more comprehensive cooing over.
Illustration: Simon LetchCredit:
Chalk this enthusiastic reception up to a very different restaurant culture to our own. There are, of course, many other ways in which eating out in China contrasts with the Australian way. I noticed that, even in upscale restaurants, tables for two were not common; instead, the dining room was dominated by larger groups, which in turn increased the ambient volume and helped contribute to the welcoming atmosphere for rambunctious little ones. Staring into one another's eyes over candlelight as soft jazz played in the background did not seem the done thing.
I asked my friend whether this was because romance was construed differently in China. "Fancy restaurants for two aren't as cool as taking lots of people, shouting them an expensive meal and using that to impress your date," he replied. Additionally, a restaurant manager I spoke to who had spent time in Australia told me that there's less dating in China.
Most of his patrons were businesspeople, he said. They came to the restaurant to do deals over Peking duck, and to watch others doing the same.
But if dining out in China bears little resemblance to doing it in Australia, it's even less like Japan, where at the top end of the market at least, there's no such imperative to see and be seen. While there's certainly plenty of business conducted in restaurants, it tends to happen in a private room, which almost all offer.
In Japan there's also no sense that the customer is ever right. Don't expect an extensive menu from which to conjure a banquet. Instead, the chef is boss, and it's their singular vision which shapes the meal. Diners are exquisitely appreciative. I have rarely seen someone so thrilled as the Japanese couple next to me in a Michelin-starred Kyoto kaiseki establishment when they were presented with rice and red beans at the conclusion of a multi-course dinner.
At that same restaurant, hidden inside a traditional wooden townhouse, I glimpsed a domestic idyll in the private dining room: young parents sat on tatami mats next to their baby, who contentedly crawled around their feet as they ate.
I had thought that the West, by contrast, was actively hostile to the idea of children eating well. But in France – specifically the gastronomic paradise, Burgundy – I had my preconceptions of Gallic stuffiness shattered. At a nice but by no means extravagant establishment for lunch, my niece and nephew were offered the children's set menu. It began with white asparagus and was followed by a steak, over which the waiter poured a jus. On the kid's menu, a jus! France continues to take the cake.
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