"The placemat has a monkey on it," notes 7-year-old Simon, stretching the cheese from his stuffed-crust pizza over his head.
"I like the fake plants because they're pretty and they never die," says Annie, our 9-year-old. "And they have cheap spaghetti and those big-assed sundaes."
My husband stops buttering his pancakes with sweeping backward strokes that inadvertently flick a yellow blob onto his "Live Blues, Dead Chickens" T-shirt. "Annie! Watch your language, please! And Sime ... stop playing with your food and eat, please."
I stop spooning ranch dressing into my mouth long enough to look around embarrassedly, and count how many patrons or restaurant employees might be looking on in disapproval ... something that happens regularly at restaurants claiming to be "family-friendly." A tired-looking mother with a toddler across her lap uses her free hand to sneak bites of pasta over his head as he drifts off to sleep. At another nearby table, a man dutifully lunches with his elderly mother, who vociferously asks him to remind her what she had here last Friday. An Edgewood Police officer leaves with a cup of coffee to go, and servers call him by name as he waves goodbye. Next to us, a family of six is occupying two tables with three generations; the toddler loudly screeches and sticks her finger into her mother's sandwich. Nobody glares or condemns them with covert whispers. Suddenly, the refreshing realization hits me: Nobody is monitoring my kids' table manners, or anyone else's.
It isn't merely that they're progressive enough to have a diaper deck in the men's room as well as the ladies' room, or three styles of high chair available. We're eating in one of the only places where it's genuinely OK to be yourself, and act like you might around your own dinner table. We're eating in a place with surprisingly good steaks, where a little girl can order "a bowl of grapes" even though it's not on the menu, and where a man leaves the salad bar with slices of fresh watermelon piled high on his plate, even on the first of October. We're eating in a place with photographs of Kennywood rides adorning the walls, which inspire great conversations about bygone summer outings. We're eating in a place that Simon calls "more fun than playing Twister."
"But you fall down every time we play Twister," teases Annie, who is eating her entire piece of garlic bread when in every other circumstance she'd leave crusts.
"Exactly," he answers, mouth full of pizza.
Our waitress is sweeping the carpet with one of those Oreck hand-sweepers somebody's grandma might use, instead of a boisterous electric vacuum. The nearby toddler wants to help, because it looks like fun, but the waitress pats her on the head good-naturedly and keeps on going. In a few moments, she'll bring us three of the coveted "Smiley Cookies," which are now frosted yellow and orange for Halloween. "You gave us three cookies, but the baby has no teeth," we point out. She winks and suggests maybe the baby will share his cookie with Mom and Dad.
On our way out, we spot a placard that proclaims, "Our mission at Eat'n Park is to make your visit personal, fresh and consistently satisfying." Borrowing President Bush's words for a more accurate purpose, "Mission accomplished."