There was a lot to see under the tablecloth at Commander's Palace as a kid. A dozen legs. Twenty-four shoes. Napkins falling off laps and hands resting on kneecaps. A dropped butter knife. That was my view circa 10 p.m., dozing off on my mom's lap after the dishes had been cleared, a few cocktails polished off and the delicate chatter rising from one of the last lighted tables on a Friday night.
For a kid, going out to eat isn't about eating. For me, it was about embarrassing my brothers in public, trying to impress my aunt with crayon drawings and seeing my parents laugh with their parents in a way I'd never seen them do standing in our kitchen. I'd waltz around the restaurant with other kids, turning empty chairs into castle outlooks and eating the olives out of my grandmother's martini glass. Even though I didn't appreciate them at the time, those dreamy nights are some of my warmest memories — and for many area restaurants, making room for families is part of their appeal to local diners.
Middendorf's, the locale of many special-occasion dinners for my family, will celebrate its 80th anniversary next year. It's possible I'll never be able to go there without hearing my dad say about the plates of thin fried catfish he always orders, "If they didn't take it away, I'd eat myself to death." Co-owner Karen Pfeifer knows customers come to the restaurant for the experience of connecting with generations past and present. "It's part of [customers'] family tradition that has continued," she says. "We often have young families come in and say, 'I wanted my children to see where my parents and grandparents used to take us to eat every Sunday.'"
It can be cumbersome for restaurants to have little kids running around. That's why when my brothers and I were small, our parents took us to restaurants where they knew the waiters and where other families dined, so that the sudden blows from an imaginary cannonball wouldn't crash other patrons' important business meetings or a romantic dinner by candlelight. Once, my family was asked to leave an upscale French Quarter restaurant after my cousin and I refused to stop doing cartwheels a few feet from our table. Not every restaurant in the city provides the ambience and tolerance for multi-generational dining. But a few have the balance down pat.
Mark DeFelice, co-owner/chef at Pascal's Manale Restaurant, says it isn't just about having a kid's menu, but the culture of the establishment that makes families feel at home and keeps kids entertained. He's seen generation after generation walk through the restaurant's doors, and he's the fourth generation of Manales to serve them. "Some of the people coming in have been coming in since my grandfather was here," he says. Recently, a longtime patron turned 98 and had her birthday at the restaurant. She brought her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Cindy Mandina, a fourth generation manager of the longtime Canal Street hub that bears her name, calls the restaurant "a generational thing." She estimates half of Mandina's customers are families dining together. She has a kid's menu, which features versions of the restaurant's most popular dishes, like "kid meatballs and spaghetti" and "kid shrimp."
"People like to come to a place they've been coming to forever," she says. "They know the people here and the people know them. The waiters know if they like their sauce on the side, or what substitutions they need." Mandina herself grew up going to Sunday dinners at the family restaurant, and her children eat there too. They're partial to buttered French bread, she says
Mandina says she and her staff try to keep kids from running around too much, and sometimes parents take their kids outside to wait for the food to come to the table.
The day we learned that my brother and his wife were expecting my family's first grandchild, the occasion found us at Middendorf's, where my dad smiled wistfully at a multi-generational family seated at a long wooden table behind us. There were three small kids squeezing ketchup bottles over plates of catfish while their parents and grandparents knocked back Abita beers and laughed. My dad turned to us and pointed a thumb over his shoulder. "That will be us here, one day," he said.