My 15-year-old daughter was recently invited by a classmate’s family to a super swanky dinner event at a super-duper swanky restaurant in New York City.
When she was telling me about it the next day there was a lot of “who wore what” and “what was on the menu” discussion. And then she said this to me, “Thanks for taking us to Victoria & Albert’s. I knew what to expect at the dinner last night because we had been to V&A’s.”
After I got over the shock of such an overt expression of gratitude and politesse from a teenager, I allowed myself a brief moment of parental pride. My plan to use Disney restaurants as a manners training ground had worked!
Using Disney Restaurants as Manners Boot Camp
I understand that using Victoria & Albert’s as etiquette boot camp is a bit over-the-top, but the concept could be applied to any signature restaurant at Walt Disney World. Before I get going, let me say that while of course you can (and should) teach manners at restaurants in your home town and at your own dinner table, the Disney signature restaurants are an ideal learning environment for adult behavior.
The Disney signature restaurants have all the elements of posh and polite, PLUS all the elements of easy-going and family-friendly. The restaurants put you in a position to succeed, with no fear or threat of derision or embarrassment if you don’t. The Disney signature venues are the perfect stepping stone on the path to civilized behavior.
Here are some things your children can learn and practice at a signature venue:
It’s Nice to Look Nice
Casual dress has permeated many areas of our culture. You rarely see people in formal attire on airplanes or Broadway shows any more. But despite the generalized sartorial slacking, there are places where it matters what your wear.
The signature dining rooms in Disney World do have dress codes. Take the time to share the dress code information with your children. Discuss why you think it’s important to neaten up for special occasions. Your kids may disagree with you, but at least you’ve gotten the concept of a dress code on their radar.
The Disney Difference
The benefit of being in a Disney restaurant is that while the dress codes do exist, the requirements are quite modest. Chances are extremely high that you’ve already got all the components of the code in your closet.
Let your kids know in advance that proper behavior is expected in proper places. While it may be fine to slump in your seat or eat with your hands at the local pizzeria, these behaviors may not be acceptable at a finer establishment. The list of basic table manners is virtually endless. To avoid mutiny, choose just one or two of the following to focus on during your meal:
- Proper posture
- Using your napkin
- Elbows off the table
- Please and thank you
- Chew with your mouth closed
- Butter your bread one bite a time
- Wait to eat until everyone has been served
- Ask to be excused if you need to leave the table
The Disney Difference
The Disney difference is that the restaurant staff has truly seen it all before. Your child’s manners will not be scrutinized by your server; you’ll receive no stink-eye for a mouth wiped on a sleeve or a slurped soup.
Respect the Waitstaff
Signature restaurants are the perfect place to demonstrate that waiters and other staff deserve our respect. Show your kids how to look at your server when he’s speaking, and listen to the menu specials or special instructions.
When they order, have them look the server in the eye and speak in a loud, clear voice. Demonstrate that please and thank you are non-negotiable phrases when speaking with any waitstaff.
What are all these forks for?
At home or family chain restaurants, your kids will likely only encounter the basic triumvirate of fork, knife, and spoon. At a signature restaurant, there may be multiples of all these items.
A pre-meal chat with your kids may be order to explain the order of operations: silverware is typically used from outside in and from smallest to tallest. Again, no one will look askance if junior is using his entree fork for his appetizer; that’s why this is a great place to practice.
Here’s a Tip
With a full table service laid out, it’s easy to forget which items are yours and which are your neighbor’s. Here’s an easy trick to help kids (and grownups) remember which bread plate and glass are theirs:
To remember which bread plate and which drink are yours, make the OK symbol with both hands. Your left hand will look like a lower-case B, that tells you your BREAD is on the left. Your right hand will look like a lower-case D, this tell you your DRINK is on the right. You’ll never forget again
Deciphering the Menu
Most menus you’ll encounter will feature entrees of basic protein (beef, pork, lamb, poultry, fish), pasta, or vegetables. The fancier the restaurant, the more likely these basic items will be described using some confusing sounding words. The more your kids learn to decipher the lingo with you, the more comfortable they’ll feel with a sophisticated menu when they’re on their own.
A quick look at California Grill menu below shows several words that, depending on your home cooking habits, may be new to your kids: polenta, risotto, zinfandel, glaze, piperade, huile, demi, cavatelli, truffle, artichokes, gnocchi, broccoli rabe, hijiki, sautéed, broccolini. And that’s just the entrees!
If some of these words are new to you as well, enlist the assistance of your server (Editor’s Note: I always ask — who knows if there are some goodies buried underneath those big words that I’ll just love!). Even better, have your kids ask the waiter to describe the menu items they need help with.
The benefit of starting your kids on “fancy” food at Disney is that signature restaurants have the capability of modifying almost any dish to suit the diner’s needs. For example, on the California Grill menu above, if you want the pork but don’t want polenta, you can ask that it be served with the mashed potatoes from the beef instead. The chefs at Disney won’t blink an eye at making a switch.
And don’t forget that there are safety net kids’ menus at every signature restaurant at Walt Disney World (with the exception of Victoria & Albert’s). There’s no shame in mac n’ cheese at Walt Disney World (in fact, many of the signature restaurants are serving macaroni and cheese on the adult menu!)
Pacing your food consumption
During other meals at Disney parks, you may be in a hurry to leave and get to the attractions; but at a signature meal, the food is the attraction.
Discuss the art of enjoying a fine meal at a leisurely pace. Ask your children to watch the other people at the table to make sure that they’re not eating faster or slower than everyone else. Remind them to enjoy and savor their food, not just bolt it down.
Small talk is a big deal
A signature meal, with its multiple courses and relaxed pace, offers plenty of time for family bonding. Rather than just watch each other eat, discuss the fine art of polite conversation with your children.
Some of the highlights you might want to emphasize are:
- Don’t interrupt the person speaking
- Bathroom humor is inappropriate for the dinner table
- Indoor voices, please
- Don’t monopolize the conversation
- Ask the other person polite questions to start a conversation topic
- If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all
- Respond to questions in more than monosyllables
Tips on Tipping
Tipping is an important part of restaurant culture in the U.S. When you get your bill, take a few moments to discuss tip calculation with your children. If they’re old enough to figure percentages, perhaps ask them to work out what the tip should be. See our Tipping in Disney Restaurants page for more info.
So Disney Foodies, have you taken your kiddos to signature restaurants? What were they able to learn from the experience? Let us know in the comments below.