How “You Have A Baby . . . In A Bar” Isn’t an Insult Anymore

Reese Witherspoon fans will recall the scene in Sweet Home Alabama where she returns to her redneck hometown from Manhattan and runs into an old high school acquaintance in a bar. She exclaims, “Look at you, you have a baby. . . In a bar,” her face frozen in appalled disdain. The sentiment is obvious: you’re a terrible, trashy parent for bringing your child to a drinking establishment.

But many of those who laughed and judged along with Reese now pack up the strollers and toy bags and hightail it to the brewery on a Saturday afternoon with their kids, and a thick air of nonchalance, in tow. Hell, Reese probably does it, too.

The fiery debate over whether or not kids belong in bars gained national attention several years ago when the New York Times turned its attention to the tribulations of the hipster community of Park Slope, Brooklyn. Resentful imbibers claimed that parents who bring their kids to bars are selfish assholes who don’t want to give up their social lives, something they should have thought about prior to reproducing. While brash, this statement isn’t entirely incorrect. Taking a child to a bar is a selfish endeavor. The child derives no benefit from being there, only the parents do. But at the same time, does this mean parents should never be allowed to do this?

Let’s first take a look at what’s actually legal.

In California, the law itself is pretty unambiguous. Section 25665 of the Alcohol Beverage Control statute states that no minor is allowed in a bar unless it is a restaurant that happens to have a bar attached to it. However, the definition of a bar leaves room for wide interpretation. A bar in California is defined as a pubic premise “maintained and operated for the selling or serving of alcoholic beverages to the public for consumption on the premises, and in which food shall not be sold or served to the public as in a bona fide public eating place, but upon which premises food products may be sold or served incidentally to the sale or service of alcoholic beverages, in accordance with rules prescribed by the department.”

This clearly means all bars, breweries, and tasting rooms that don’t serve food are legally kid-free zones and should be enforced as such. Food-free bars like Vesuvio in San Francisco agree; a notice on their door greets patrons with the unapologetic statement that due to California law, on one under 21 is permitted on their premises, including babies. Sorry.

Where we run into trouble is the murky conglomerate of taverns, breweries, and wine bars that do serve food. Are these considered “bona fide” eating places? Does an establishment that serves a limited appetizer-style menu (food products that are “sold or served incidentally to the sale or service” of alcohol) constitute a 21 and up establishment, too? Since California law has failed to elucidate this, the decision seems to be up to the property’s owner. For example, Wine Steals is a San Diego wine bar that offers a full menu from entree salads to pizzas to panini, something that could define it as a bona fide eating place. Yet it brandishes a sign identical to Vesuvio’s on its door — no minors allowed.

Here’s my own kid/bar delineation, which I created using the outmoded trifecta of law, common sense, and decorum:

Acceptable Family-Friendly Zones

Restaurants and breweries that offer a full menu — in other words, “bona fide” eating places.

Acceptable Adult-Only Zones

Bars, breweries, and tasting rooms without food, as well as wine bars. These are traditionally “adult” atmospheres where both non-parents and parents sans kids come for the sole purpose of unwinding and socializing with other friends. And they’re entitled to this kid-free atmosphere.

There’s a gaggle of arguments for and against both sides, and I’ve responded to a few of the cliches below:

The Family-Friendly Side

  • In Germany, families hang out together in beer gardens all the time.” Yes, and we should all follow the shining example that Germany has set for the world, especially in its most recent hundred years. There’s no empirical data proving that family time in a beer garden has a positive social impact whatsoever.
  • My kid is quiet and not bothering you. You shouldn’t have a problem with him/her being here.” I like to use the traditional example of a fancy dinner out to rebut this claim. Are people allowed to bring children to an upscale restaurant? Of course. Is it the most considerate or socially acceptable decision? Certainly not. We can all pretty much agree on that. Yet, why is that argument inapplicable to breweries and wine bars? If we extract the logic from the upscale dinner example, it’s that 1) people are spending a lot of money, and therefore 2) they should expect relaxing, enjoyable, kid-free atmosphere. But what constitutes “a lot” of money varies wildly. For some couples, $40 is a lot. Perhaps such a couple chooses to spend their $40 on a few craft beers, or on splitting a bottle of wine. And maybe they can only do that on a Saturday afternoon because one, or both, works at night. Is their experience any less valid than the fancy dinner? Are they any less entitled to an “adult” atmosphere?

The Adults-Only Side

  • Kids shouldn’t be allowed anywhere that there’s drinking — this includes breweries with food.” One writer on Thrillist went on a ludicrous rampage about how kids shouldn’t even be allowed at brunch because people might wish to drown their hangovers in carafes of mimosas. Families should be welcome at eating establishments, and parents should feel free to have drinks while there.
  • You’re setting a terrible example for your kids.” No, alcoholism sets a terrible example for your kids, and that’s been going on behind the closed doors of millions of American homes for decades. Drinking in the presence of your children in a restaurant versus at home makes no difference.
  • I don’t want to hear a kid wailing in my ear when I’m at a bar.” This is fair. Which is why if you’re at one of the adult-only establishments I’ve outlined, you shouldn’t have to. But if you’re at a family-friendly one, it’s unfortunately fair game.

No matter which side of the debate you fall on, it’s safe to say that all of us who’ve been raised in the United States have been taught, until very recently, that bars are adult spaces. Taverns, pubs, and bars are places of refuge from the things that gnaw at us — family, work, friends, the demons inside our heads, whatever the case may be. Like it or not, bringing a child into that space, even if he or she is well-behaved, alters that dynamic.

For this reason, parents who push for the wide acceptance of children in bars have a tough sell ahead of them. It’s not (always) a matter of liking or hating kids, but how their presence changes what it means for adults to inhabit an adults-only venue. It’s asking for a cultural overhaul, and that’s not something that will come easily.

Originally published at on May 7, 2015.

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