Getting kids interested in food seems to be a growing trend, with articles about parents taking their kids to fine dining restaurants or enrolling them in kids’ cooking classes popping up in publications right across North America, with opinion split on whether it’s a positive development.

But once kids hit their teenage years, dining out at restaurants is something that can not only be an enjoyable way to socialize, but a great way to learn about new foods and new cultures.

For the past few weeks, and continuing into early May, kids in grades 7 and 8 from Parkdale Public School have joined members of the arts collective Mammalian Diving Reflex for a series of dinners in restaurants in Parkdale and along Queen Street West called Eat the Street. Part performance art happening and part a lesson in food, culture and etiquette, the kids have the opportunity to act as restaurant reviewers, critiquing the food, service, and atmosphere of a space that is more than likely foreign to them. The idea is to watch how the kids interact with the restaurant and how the restaurant, including staff and other patrons, interact with them.

Mammalian Diving Reflex (MDR) is an arts group headed by artistic director Darren O’Donnell. They have a mandate to “investigate the social sphere … producing one-off events, theatre-based performance, theoretical texts and community happenings”. MDR has worked with the Parkdale Pumas before; this is the second year they’ve produced a Parkdale Public School vs. Queen Street West project, and the group is known for producing various projects worldwide involving kids.

“It’s actually primarily conceived as a social intervention into the neighbourhood and a form of institutional critique that demands that the business step up and respond to the presence of children in the neighbourhood,” explains O’Donnell, when I ask him if everyone involved is taking the project seriously. “It’s also an attempt to instantiate a temporary atypical community with individuals who do share the neighbourhood but never interact.”

“Lastly, it’s an opportunity for the kids,” he continues. “The review aspect is serious but not so much a review about the food, but about the whole experience, how they’re treated, what unexpected things do they experience.”

The aspect of individuals sharing a neighbourhood but never interacting rang true for us when we joined the group at the Drake Hotel last week. One of the most upscale restaurants on the list of Parkdale icons such as the Skyline and the Cadillac Lounge that the kids will be visiting, it was obvious that many of them had never been somewhere quite so fancy; their typical eating out experience being a slice of pizza at lunch. Not having children of our own and not knowing many people with teenagers, sharing a table with a bunch of 12 and 13-year olds we’d never met also put Greg and I at a disadvantage; they weren’t especially interested in talking to us at first.

The Drake staff did a great job of putting the kids at ease, though, explaining the specials in a kid-friendly way without talking down to them, and encouraging them to order whatever they wanted from the menu.

O’Donnell explained to me that 40 kids were selected to participate by Parkdale Public School staff; some of the kids had worked with MDR on previous projects, while others were selected from the student council and ESL programs. MDR staff then visited restaurants in the neighbourhood to find the 11 interested in participating, and the kids rotate through the various restaurants with anywhere between 10 to 20 visiting each place.

The restaurants comp the kids’ meals and MDR receives funding from various arts council organizations to cover other costs. Besides O’Donnell, a number of other MDR staff and volunteers attend each event to help keep things under control and make sure the kids all get home safely at the end of the night.

Some of the kids are assigned specific things to order such as the most expensive menu item or the weirdest thing on the menu. This is designed to keep things interesting, and to keep them all from ordering something they’re familiar with, such as burgers. But when Gobika, one of the girls sitting with us – and assigned to order the most expensive thing on the menu – goes for the rib eye steak, her friends follow suit, even though they don’t end up liking their meal very much. They indicate that their meat is too charred on the outside (and “tastes like tires”) and under-done on the inside. And while we explained to them the differences beforehand and they’ve all confidently ordered their steaks medium well, the kitchen has sent them out closer to medium rare. When I point out that they can send the steak back to be re-cooked, they all look at me wide-eyed and silent. Gobika, on the other hand, a tiny little girl who can’t weigh a hundred pounds soaking wet, devours hers in its entirety.

The sushi we’re all served as an amuse also confuses. Some of the kids have never used chopsticks, and they’re not too keen on the nori. One girl is distraught to find a whole sardine atop her Caesar salad.

However, further down the table, another kid eats a whole ball of wasabi paste on a dare, with plenty of water after the fact, and another student named Haley, who has been assigned to order the weirdest thing on the menu, finds herself faced with a plate of oysters. She’s a trooper though, and with some instructions, eats two out of a plate of six, kindly sharing the rest with me and her teachers. She’s not off the hook though, because Drake general manager Bill Simpson has slipped me a copy of the Drake’s special Sugar Shack maple fest menu and I convince her that the pancakes with foie gras, maple syrup and cherry preserves is weirder than oysters. She doesn’t care for it (I shouldn’t have told her it was liver) but she does try it.

Later, Drake staff take the kids in small groups to tour the kitchen where Haley admits to wanting to be a chef. Chef Anthony Rose invites her back for a day of shadowing him in the kitchen.

The kids all have notebooks to record their comments, which O’Donnell and the volunteers collect at the end of the evening so he can add their reactions to the Eat the Street blog. In addition they all fill out evaluation forms, judging the restaurant in categories such as cleanest washrooms and coolest looking waiter/waitress, and rating each establishment on criteria such as décor, food, and how they were treated. The series will culminate in an awards ceremony on May 11th at the Gladstone Hotel where the kids will give out handmade awards to the winning restaurants.

At the end of the evening, we head up to the SkyLounge, the Drake’s rooftop patio, where the kids all get toys from the Drake General Store, and Simpson donates a cheque on behalf of the Drake Hotel for $1000 to MDR to help cover costs. Despite some silliness and giggling in the dining room (the girls with us were all enthralled by a particularly cute waiter), their behaviour was very mature. They were all taking the dinner seriously, trying different foods when they were offered, and acting surprisingly cool when a CityTV reporter questioned them on camera or the reporter from CBC Radio shoved a microphone in their faces. But up on the rooftop, with toy soldiers and bubbles and half of them wearing fake pirate eyepatches and moustaches, they’re suddenly kids again.

O’Donnell and MDR want the dining series to challenge perceptions about Parkdale, and about kids. We don’t think of teenagers as being able to behave appropriately in the more mature setting of an upscale restaurant. We don’t expect them to be interested in trying new foods or having new experiences outside of their daily routine of school, family, and extracurricular activities. But given the opportunity, they hold their own and then some, so in the end, it wasn’t just their perceptions of the experience that were challenged, but ours as well.

Eat the Street continues until May 7th at various locations in Parkdale and along Queen West including Cadillac Lounge, Oddfellows and Addis Ababa. For more information, check out the schedule to either join the group or drop by for dinner and observe the diners in action.