The Food-Critic Father

Todd Kliman knew that becoming a dad would change his life, but he was determined not to go the route of chicken fingers and Chuck E. Cheese. After more than 1,500 restaurant visits with his son, he's learned a thing or two about eating out with kids.

By: Todd Kliman

"Welcome to my world," my friend Laura said when I called to tell her my wife and I were having a baby.

"You mean the world of early-morning feedings and interrupted sleep?"

"I mean," she said, "the world of chicken tenders. You're in for a rude awakening, my food-critic friend."

There are things every parent-to-be fears.

The grand, existential worries: Let him be breathing, I said to myself at the moment of delivery. Let there not be a cord wrapped around his neck. Let him be normal.

Then there are the little, quotidian matters, the myriad concerns of getting along with what is, let's face it, a new housemate. A wailing, demanding housemate. A housemate who makes the slob you once roomed with--the one who raided the fridge and lounged on the couch in his underwear--look not half bad by comparison.

See also:

Todd Kliman's favorite restaurants for dining out with a child.

In the months preceding our son's arrival, I kept hearing that life was about to change, that being a parent would alter my reality in ways big and small. But it wasn't until Laura framed the terms of my soon-to-be life that the existential abstraction--change--became quotidian and concrete.

I thought I had prepared myself. Long before our son was ever a notion in our heads, my wife and I sat down one night and figured it all out--discussing, with the certainty of people for whom nothing is at stake, how we'd raise our Hypothetical Kid. We'd never buy a minivan, we wouldn't build our existence around our Hypothetical Kid's world. Hypothetical Kid would enter ours.

But what was this world I'd created? As a food critic, I ate dinner out every night--often following a long lunch. Sometimes I went out to two dinners in a single night, and the wine sometimes meant that those nights stretched into the morning.

I understood when I accepted this job that I was to think of myself as a kind of public functionary--a Designated Eater. I endured the caloric overload and the punishments to the body so readers could spend their time and money more sensibly. Not that I ever complained. This was the other thing I accepted--griping was bad form when you were eating out nightly on someone else's dime.

If it wasn't all Champagne and truffles, the fact remained that every meal was a restaurant meal. I lived a fantasy life, and I nurtured one, too. As much as I existed to feed my readers tips, I existed to feed their fantasy of the bon vivant.

Some bon vivant I was about to be, I thought, spooning strained carrots and mashed peas to a newborn.

"You have to sacrifice certain things now," an obstetrician said, preparing us for our new life.

But there were sacrifices I wasn't sure I was prepared to make.

In the beginning, things were a relative breeze.

In their first few months, most babies sleep 18 hours a day or more. The car seat was an ungainly purse we carted everywhere, leaving it on a chair beside us or on the floor next to our table. Jesse slept in his protective pod or stared blankly and drooled.

Half the time we brought him with us to restaurants, I didn't even notice he was there until it was time to leave.

"Wait," my wife said. "It gets harder."

We hit more than 100 eateries in those first three or four months--white-tablecloth spots, dives, and everything in between. By our son's first birthday, he had been to more than 250--a fact I shared with the friends and family who gathered at our house to eat cake and watch Jesse open presents.

"You're kidding," someone said.

"Nope."

"Two hundred fifty," she said. "You're keeping a total?"

"Actually, 272," I said. "But who's counting?"

She shook her head. "You're such a guy."

In a sense, we entered a new phase when Jesse graduated from the car seat, where he mostly slept, to a high chair, where he mostly didn't.

But it was the night I took my one-year-old son out for barbecue for the first time that we truly entered a new stage of parenthood.

Barbecue has always held a certain primacy for me among all the foods I cook and crave, and I wanted it to be special the first time my son dug into a pile of smoky 'cue.

It was a long drive. My wife had expressed doubts about chancing a place this far from home in rush hour, and now as we hit a patch of traffic on the Beltway, she worried we'd be getting home too late. Jesse wailed and wailed.

I told her we could bail at the next exit.

"Stick to the plan," she said, slipping Jesse animal crackers.

I suspected she encouraged me to keep going only so she'd have the ideal incriminating illustration to use against me the next time I suggested we venture out too late for a restaurant.

Traffic eased up. We managed to be only 40 minutes late.

Fortunately, the food--ribs, pulled pork, beans, cornbread, coleslaw--came quickly. Jesse, despite the in-car appetizer, was ravenous. He attacked his plate, shoving bits of spare rib into his mouth as if satisfying some deep need. I'd never seen him go at any food like this. But I'd never turned him loose on barbecue. He's got it in his genes, I thought, marveling at his sauce-smeared face. I took pictures.

We drove home in one of those warm, expansive moods when your earlier fears have been exposed as premature and overstated and life feels loose and easy. We laughed and celebrated his initiation into the culture of barbecue and the world of adult eating.

And then at 3 in the morning, my son, snugly sleeping between Mommy and Daddy, spewed the contents of his stomach all over himself, our bed, and us.

Even after we changed the sheets, the smell of wood smoke and stomach acid was unmistakable.

Yay, solid foods!

Next: "My fork!" he cried.

 

Illustration by Britt Spencer.

My wife laid down certain rules after that: In a high chair by 6 at the latest. If traffic is bad and we have to bail, so be it.

Dinner became something to prepare for twice.

There were the preparations I needed to make for him and the preparations I needed to make for me, to ensure that my stealth mission--my anonymous visit to a restaurant as a critic--came off without a hitch.

Afternoons usually went like this:

Make a reservation under an assumed name--my nom de mange, I like to call it. E-mail my wife to be ready to leave the house at the appointed time. Choose all of the dishes we'd order. E-mail our guests the "rules" for the night: what can and can't be talked about at the table, when and how to pass plates so that I'm able to sample each dish, how to quiz the waitstaff about the Syrah and the veal without lapsing into an SS-style interrogation.

At the same time:

Load his bag with necessities--change of clothes, diapers, sippy cup. Choose an assortment of books along with crayons and paper. Fill and pack Tupperware containers with Cheez-Its, Cheerios, and animal crackers while relishing the irony of sneaking cheap processed food into a restaurant that charges $16 for a glass of wine.

Sometimes I prepared in vain.

One night as we were nearing the restaurant, I glanced into the rearview mirror. There he was, a limp pile of limbs.

"What should we do now?" I asked.

The look on my wife's face said: Tell me that's a rhetorical question.

We'd already taken him out three nights in a row. If it were just any restaurant, I said, I'd understand. But this was Important Restaurant X. I'd been waiting five weeks to get in. I proposed we give it 15 minutes, that maybe he'd wake up then and we could have our meal. I drove around the block three times.

He did not wake up.

Five more minutes, I said.

"No," she said, peeved that I'd thought to push through.

My son, if he'd known I had put my needs as a critic above his, would probably have been peeved, too.

The hostess professed understanding when I called to cancel five minutes after we were supposed to be there, but her blithe, sing-songy tone oozed the opposite. It was all peeve.

As for me, I had left peeved and was approaching pissed. Dinner at Important Restaurant X turned out to be takeout pizza from Chain Restaurant Y. It was cold by the time we got it home.

It was rare that we missed a meal. But there were many I wished we had.

One night when Jesse was almost two, we were at an Italian restaurant in Alexandria. The waitress was excellent, and we put in orders for drinks and appetizers. All was well until my son dropped his fork.

How did he know this wasn't his fork? He just knew.

Illustration by Britt Spencer.

He was inconsolable.

"It's okay," I said, "they'll get you a new one."

You would have thought a stranger had snatched his Elmo doll. Tears streamed down his pinched red face.

I handed him my fork.

No. He wanted his fork.

How did he know this wasn't his fork? He just knew.

The stares were coming from every corner of the restaurant as he wailed.

It dawned on me: I've become the diner I used to despise.

I once shot dirty looks at tables with kids who wouldn't pipe down. I never thought twice about asking to be moved to another table, away from the offending baby.

Now I always found myself scanning the room for tables with small children, curious to know how their dinner was going. Reading online reviews, with their frequent, raging criticism of parents who brought young children to restaurants, made me cringe. "Who do these arrogant, entitled yuppie assholes think they are?" went a typical review on Yelp. "What makes them think their oh-so-precious princes and princesses are welcome at every goddamn restaurant in the city?"

My wife, at the limit of her frustration, gathered Jesse up and took him outside.

Ten minutes later, he returned . . . and remembered why he'd been so upset.

"My fork!" he cried.

He and my wife spent the remainder of the meal outside while I ate parts of two appetizers, three entrées, and two salads.

In American culture, there are restaurants for adults and there are restaurants for kids, and the two are not expected to mix.

It's different at Latin and Asian restaurants, where no such divide seems to exist.

The first time I took Jesse to a roadside joint in Bladensburg's Little Mexico--he was probably six months old--the waitress fussed over him for a minute or two before extending her arms like a forgotten aunt.

The expression on my wife's face was priceless: diplomacy vying with primal anxiety. You want me to hand over my baby? But she relented. The waitress scooped him up, cuddled him, cooed over him--and whisked him out of the dining room.

Now my wife's alarm was palpable.

We found our waitress in the kitchen, parading Jesse around as the cooks entertained him with their shiny tools.

Even better was the restaurant in Annandale's Koreatown where the co-owner descended on our table as if she were his bub-bub and hadn't seen him in weeks. She took him to a nearby table where her staff was chopping vegetables. For the next 20 minutes, she bounced him on her knee and dangled scallions in front of him as if they were car keys, entreating us to seize the chance to eat in quiet, just the two of us.

These were among the most extraordinary restaurant experiences I've ever had. Not only was our son showered with affection, but we were made to feel like part of an extended family. We were being embraced, too.

By contrast, whenever I walked into an American restaurant with him in those first two years, there was seldom a smile, much less an embrace. My son was a problem to be solved.

"You can't bring that in here," the general manager of a popular restaurant commanded us one afternoon.

We think he was referring to the stroller.

Next: Things were harder without my wife there--like being-denied-the-use-of-my-limbs harder.

 

Illustration by Britt Spencer

Around the time Jesse turned two, my wife made a decision.

Her decisions are never the result of minor epiphanies. They never involve switching cell-phone providers or choosing a new doctor. When she says, "I've made a decision," I brace myself.

"It's too hard taking us along," she said. "And I don't enjoy it if he doesn't enjoy it, and who can tell if he's going to? There are just so many things that can happen."

The precipitating event had occurred a few nights earlier at a restaurant in DC's Palisades I was reevaluating. She was feeding Jesse a hunk of bread and butter, and he began to choke and then cry. Every head turned. My wife quieted him after several moments, enabling us to hear all the disparaging things everyone around us was saying--condemnations of our parenting style, of our effrontery in taking him out to eat at a place like this. (Never mind that the restaurant had a high chair!) We spent the late-summer night taking turns with him out on the sidewalk, one of us holding down the table, the other walking him back and forth on the pavement, all three of us bitten by mosquitoes. At least somebody ate.

"You've got a job to do, and you're trying to make everybody happy and making nobody happy," my wife said. "So just forget it."

"What about one of the noisy places?" I suggested.

I'd come to love the noisy places, those casual midlevel restaurants with exposed ceilings and cement floors that had been popping up in DC. Young people loved them, finding in their cool industrial aesthetic a validation of their decision to live in the expensive but bustling big city; older people hated them, despairing of ever having a normal conversation. As a food critic, I saw the merits of both arguments. But as a new parent, I was a fierce partisan. I loved the protective cover they offered. My son could screech like an electrocuted cat, as he did one night at a clattering bistro, and no one would glance up from the scallop crudo. If only every new restaurant that opened had decibel levels akin to that of a construction site, I sometimes thought.

It took all of half a meal for me to realize that being a daddy and being a food critic were incompatible, like pairing foie gras with ice cream.

"No," my wife said, "not even the noisy places."

The only exception she'd make was for a Latin or Asian restaurant.

"How about we revisit this again in a few months?" I said.

She didn't agree; she didn't disagree.

"Look, we're learning," she said. "He's going through phases, but we're going through them, too. This isn't forever. And that doesn't mean you can't go out with him, just the two of you. It'll be good for you to have that time together. Daddy-and-Jesse time."

Things were harder without my wife there--like being-denied-the-use-of-my-limbs harder.

I hadn't realized just how smooth and skilled she was until I was forced to handle it all myself. How did she do it? How did she attend to all his needs--cutting his food into small bites, reading him a story, swabbing him down whenever his face became one big schmutz--while also serving as a sounding board for my impressions and ideas?

It took all of half a meal for me to realize that being a daddy and being a food critic were incompatible, like pairing foie gras with ice cream.

I couldn't make mental notes about the red wine that was served too warm, the sauce that hadn't been properly reduced, the waitress who neglected to fill the water glasses . . . and also read him a story, color with him, and cut his food into 47 pieces.

Restaurant visit number 466: I ducked into the bathroom to make notes. I figured the sanctuary of the stall would reduce the static in my head.

I began pecking out letters on my iPhone: "Scallops = slight translucence in center, dark crusting on top. Micro-greens, dabs of corn sauce. Gazpacho blended smooth, a thickness there--bread or bread crumbs?" But I still had my son with me.

"Daddy, whatcha doin'?"

"Making notes," I said.

I heard someone enter the bathroom. "Making notes," Jesse sing-songed as the door to the next stall slammed shut.

"Daddy's making notes."

My son the mole.

My stall-mate could have been a manager, a waiter. I imagined walking back to my table to the stares of the staff as the news made the rounds: critic in the house.

Among the first laws of being a food critic is not to take things personally. Our recourse is our column. A bad night is writing material.

But my dinners out with Jesse several nights a week were an exercise in double consciousness. I was both the discerning critic and the anxious father. The critic in me focused on the server's knowledge of the menu and of food generally, his ability to keep the flow of the meal smooth and steady. The father in me was fixated on the waiter's regard for the little person at the table. Servers were either with you, I was learning, or they were against you. There was rarely an in-between.

One night a waiter set down a giant steak knife in front of my son. Servers routinely gave him stemware. A few brought him apple juice or milk in a wine goblet.
I'll never forget restaurant visit number 684 and the cast-iron skillet of mushrooms and polenta. "Hot--careful," the waiter warned. He walked away, leaving the scalding handle much too near my son's face.

Jesse's little fingers drifted toward it. I grabbed his forearm and squeezed hard. He began to cry at the pain I'd caused--a pain to forestall a nastier, more lasting one.

Hoping to avert disaster, I created it: I knocked over a glass, spilling water all over. The waiter materialized with napkins and stood watching as I blotted while the spill, moving as inexorably as floodwaters, dripped onto Jesse's lap.

The manager swung by, and the men stood watching. Doing nothing. Like men do.

The male staff at restaurants were, almost without exception, awful. That's not to say all the waitresses were superior at their jobs, just that the women were more inclined to understand that having a toddler at the table meant taking care of things other than drink requests and asking if everything was seasoned properly. More inclined to improvise entertainments to distract Jesse--spoons and straws to play with, pen and paper to for drawing, even a cookie fetched from the petit four plate.

Some people prefer a female doctor--believing, rightly or wrongly, that a woman will be more sensitive to their needs. I had never understood that position until now. I didn't ask to be taken care of by a waitress and not a waiter when my son was with me, but the father in me pleaded silently to be given a waitress.

It was hard with him. It was hard without him. The nights that neither he nor she came with me felt strange, as if I had one life and they had another. I sometimes felt like a traveling salesman.

Next: We never did visit that "kid-friendly" place.

 

 

Illustration by Britt Spencer.

The texts my wife liked to send me while I was out at dinner were meant to impart a sense of closeness but only reinforced this feeling of being alone on the road. Restaurant-going had been a huge part of our dating life. Our first dinner date had been at Red Sea, the now-defunct Ethiopian place on 18th Street in DC's Adams Morgan. Nothing fancy. I'd wanted to see whether she was my kind of woman--a real eater, up for an adventure--or a princess in need of pampering.

"How's dinner?" she would text me.

If the food was good, I downplayed it. If it was mediocre, I made her think I had spared her from something awful. I declined to give dish descriptions, rendering my meal in single-word summations: chicken, polenta, sorbet.

"I made Jesse some mashed yams with cinnamon, which he seemed to love," she texted one night. "I had the rest of the chicken from Friday plus heated up some ramen."

Ramen! The last resort of the penny-pinching college student. I felt a stab in my stomach.

I often brought home leftovers, which my wife dug into the next day at lunch, or sometimes in the middle of the night. Whether veal cheeks over polenta from a French restaurant or pollo a la brasa from a carryout rotisserie, it didn't matter. All distinctions were erased by refrigeration. Everything tasted like fast food. "I guess you had to be there," she'd say.

Still, I persisted: "Let me bring you something."

"Whatever you want. Enjoy yourself. I love you."

"Tell him Daddy loves him and misses him. And I love you, too."

Thinking I might persuade my wife to relax the rules, I told her one night about a new non-Asian, non-Latin place that advertised itself as kid-friendly.

I had already done my homework, calling ahead to ask the manager about the menu (hot dogs and chicken tenders) and the provided-for distractions (a coloring book and crayons). What a parent is paying for in patronizing a kid-friendly restaurant is immunity from the dirty looks of other diners. Nobody who comes to a place with coloring books and crayons ought to complain about a kid acting up at the next table--or so my wife contended. "If they have a high chair," she said, "they've made the decision that kids are welcome."

Not that she trusted restaurants to understand that that's what they'd decided. My wife no longer took restaurants at their word when it came to children.

"What makes this place kid-friendly?" she wanted to know, pouncing on the phrase like a prosecutor.

"Besides the menu, I don't know. A high chair? Coloring books?"

"Just because they have a high chair," she said, "doesn't mean they're going to be competent."

My God, I thought. It's happened: My wife has become a mother.

I knew the moment she pushed him out into the world that her life had changed and that ours, together, had changed along with it. But for some reason it wasn't emotionally real to me until now. This fierce protective instinct--where had it been hiding all these years? She'd always been willing to give things a try, always relished the opportunity to turn a bad situation into something good. I was under no illusion that she believed it was her job in life to make me happy, but if there was anyone, before, whom she sought to comfort or appease or please, it was me.

We never did visit that "kid-friendly" place.

I was leery of characterizing him as a precocious toddler foodie.

The line between discernment and snobbery can seem razor-thin in the world of food. I've never wanted to be the kind of critic concerned chiefly with handing out demerits and judging dishes according to some Olympian notion of correctness. I've never wanted readers to feel that I equate a discriminating palate with a sense of my own superiority.

In my reviews, I've always strived to remember I'm writing for all sorts of readers and that my goal in critiquing a restaurant is to craft an interesting piece that diners who might never get to the restaurant would want to read.

It hasn't always been easy, because to talk with any degree of specificity about food is to lapse necessarily into a kind of inside baseball. And to engage professionally in any form of artistic criticism is to choose a life in which you're constantly working out your theories and ideas--intellectualizing experiences that most people never bother to analyze.

I felt a version of this tension playing out in me as Jesse racked up the restaurant visits--not as many as in his first year but still two, three, even four times a week.

"Your son's going to be such a foodie!" people would say when they learned what sorts of foods he considered normal.

I would cringe.

Some years ago for this magazine, I edited a story about prepubescent food snobs--kids who sneered at fish sticks and pined for bacalao and who knew to order off the secret menu.

My Hypothetical Kid would never be like those kids, I remember vowing. He'd eat widely and learn to love food and gain exposure to all the cultures and cuisines of the globe. He wasn't going to be one of those children whose sophistication comes across as a party trick. I wasn't going to let him become an adult in kiddie clothing.

It was, of course, premature to tell what sort of kid he would become--he was three.

A parents' group met in our neighborhood once a month, with mothers, fathers, and children coming together for a couple of hours at a playground or someone's home. Inevitably, talk of sleeping routines gave way to talk of food. Emma was a very good eater and had recently discovered broccoli, which of course she adored, while Sebastian not only ate hummus but actually liked to eat the chickpeas themselves, and Gabriella, who had only recently weaned herself from the bottle, had developed an inexplicable taste for pickles. Can you imagine?

I preferred to downplay Jesse's catholicism in these sorts of conversations. I was leery of characterizing him as a precocious toddler foodie.

There was another reason I kept quiet: I feared exposing myself as the food-world equivalent of the arrogant Little League coach. I liked to joke to my wife that, eating out as often as he did and being exposed to such an astonishing array of cuisines, Jesse had already surpassed his peers who were blissfully munching away on McNuggets, ignorant of what they were doing to their bodies and (of greater concern to me) their taste buds.

But all humor conceals a darker truth.


I was proud.

Next: My son uttered the words with an almost sinister deliberation, driving the dagger in more deeply: "McDonald's is delicious."

 

In his three years on this earth, Jesse had pretty much devoured it. Thai, Indian, Salvadoran, Vietnamese, Afghan, Cuban, Greek, Turkish, Ethiopian, French, Brazilian, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Armenian, Peruvian, Bolivian, Kazakhstani, Bosnian--there was nothing he hadn't tried. The list of foods he loved and asked for was long: edamame and mango lassi and chicken tikka and char siu bao and grilled stuffed grape leaves and kanom jeeb and chicken curry puffs.

He made the other kids from the parents' group look like pikers. He made me look like a piker. I had been writing professionally about food for a decade but had never tasted many of these things until I was in my mid-twenties.

Was there a correlation between trying so many kinds of foods at such a tender age and becoming a richer, more broad-minded person? I liked to think so. Jesse wasn't being dragged out to dinner night after night at Daddy's whim, I told my wife; he was getting an education. And what an education it was. You couldn't buy an education like this.

As I made this point one night in the car after restaurant visit number 872--the third night in a row I had kept him out two hours past bedtime as I worked feverishly to finish my work for a dining guide--Jesse, giddy with tiredness, was belting out songs in the back as if he'd just discovered Ethel Merman on YouTube.

"Daddy? Sing?"

"You like to think you're the guide, in control," a friend with two kids in their twenties told me. "But you're not. All you can do is direct them a little. You're not the bike. You're more like the training wheels. And what you have to remember is eventually the training wheels come off."

We were on our way to restaurant visit 924 when my son pointed out the pair of golden arches looming ahead.

This is what's commonly referred to as a teachable moment, a chance to put forward a philosophy of food and, in this way, install a belief system that will last a lifetime.

"It's not yucky," he said and then, gathering himself, uttered the words with an almost sinister deliberation, driving the dagger in more deeply: "McDonald's is delicious."

"McDonald's," I said, "is yucky."

"It's not yucky," my son replied.

"Ick," I said. "Ugh." I shuddered.

Jesse became agitated, thrashing against the constraints of his car seat. He was crying. "It's not yucky," he said and then, gathering himself, uttered the words with an almost sinister deliberation, driving the dagger in more deeply: "McDonald's is delicious."

It required every ounce of concentration on my part not to hit the car in front of me.

It required every ounce of concentration on my wife's part not to burst out laughing.

"How'd this happen?" I demanded. "Did someone take him to a McDonald's? One of the babysitters?"

Silence. A guilty silence.

"I mean," my wife said cautiously, "he's had fries a couple of times."

"You've taken him for fries?"

"A couple times."

"A couple--"

"Okay, a few. Maybe a burger once or twice." She winced, cutely.

"How could you?"

Number 1,000 loomed, a figure I'd been pointing to for nearly a year. But it seemed ridiculous now, all that number-keeping. All that striving.

"He's three, you know," my wife said.

"I know."

"Do you?"

"What are you saying?"

"He just enjoys being with you."

My son had had a rough week: two doctors' visits, an upset stomach, and--either because he'd just turned three or because the gods had decided to complicate our life even more--a growth spurt that made him cranky. I hadn't been around much, having been cramming in final visits to several restaurants before an upcoming family trip.

That Saturday, I decided, would be Daddy-and-Jesse day.

"Aww," my wife said. "He really could use some Daddy time. What's the plan?"

I told her.

"You mean," she said, "you plan to take him to work with you."

"No. To dim sum."

"You're sure about that."

"He loves dim sum."

"I meant you're sure this isn't work? This isn't a place you're reviewing, or checking up on? What's the restaurant?"

I told her.

"I've never heard of it."

"It's new."

"Uh-huh," she said. That tone again. "Just try to have a good time, okay?"

It was noon when we arrived for restaurant visit 1,027. The place was a scene of happy chaos. Extended families huddled around big circular tables with lazy Susans, servers dashed through the room like rush-hour commuters in pursuit of a departing subway train, the hawkers with their metal carts circled in search of a sale, lifting lids and sending up little clouds of steam.

Our table was a scene of happy chaos, too. Steamed pork buns and roast pork buns. Shrimp dumplings and shrimp balls. Rice-noodle crepes stuffed with shrimp and stuffed with ground pork. Tiny custard pies and pineapple buns for dessert. I don't think I had ever seen Jesse eat so much at any one meal. For a feeder descended from a long line of feeders, there's nothing quite as gratifying as seeing someone you love eat with gusto.

Somewhere between the shrimp balls and the shrimp noodle crepes, my wife texted me: "How's it going?"

"He's loving it," I wrote back. "He looks relaxed and happy, and he's eating like someone who hasn't seen food in a week."

"I'm glad he's getting his fill. He loves being with his daddy."

A triumph.

Back home, I couldn't help myself. Before I had unstrapped the diaper bag from my shoulder, before I had helped him out of his shoes, before I had even stepped ten feet into the house, I began exulting. I was dangerously skirting the line of gloating. There were, I said, all sorts of ways to have a good time and all sorts of venues. It didn't always have to be a zoo, a park, a playground. He could come into our world, I said; we didn't have to go into his.

"I'm glad it went so well," my wife said, walking into the living room only to be crushed by my son's running, lunging hug.

"Amazingly well," I corrected.

"Jesse, did you have a good time with Daddy?"

For the next ten minutes, as my wife helped him into a new set of clothes and then all three of us went into the playroom, I listened to my son tell the story of the day.

It came in bursts, a little at a time, and what he said wasn't as interesting as what he didn't say.

The afternoon, according to Jesse, amounted to the following: Sitting next to Daddy. Eating with Daddy. Blowing bubbles in the water glass with Daddy. Laughing at the waiter with the funny glasses with Daddy. Making the bunched-up straw wrapper into a snake with Daddy.

He didn't mention a single dish. He didn't mention any food at all.

My son is up to something like 1,300 visits by now.

I don't know how many exactly.

My wife and I just had another child, a son, and life is busier than ever.

In any case, I've stopped counting.

This article appears in the February 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.