Dining with children

A perfect night at the Dunes.

My daughter Hallie, who often accompanies me on these dine story missions, once again came with me Saturday night to the Winnetu, to have dinner at the Dunes.

You must all be tired of hearing: It’s been a long winter, spring, summer, of staying home, wearing clothes designed for the gym or summer camp, and at best, getting takeout (we’ve done that often, a mostly highly successful treat).

We were giddy at the idea of actually going somewhere. In dresses. And cute shoes. Carrying purses. Wearing earrings. For the first time in maybe eight months.

And sitting down to eat at a proper restaurant. Which, consistent with our caution with this whole coronavirus business since pretty much late February, felt safe: We’d be eating outside, on the Dunes’ deck, six feet from any other diners. We made a reservation for 5:15 pm — the supper hour, as my mother refers to any dinner earlier than 7 pm.

And it was my parents I thought of as I walked out onto the second-story deck of the Winnetu and overlooked the lawn and scrub pines beyond, and the south shore Atlantic beyond that. Children ran around on the grass, their parents standing by with cameras and cocktails. The little boys had plaid, short-sleeve buttoned-down shirts, and I thought of the places each summer my parents took me and my little brothers — the four of us born five years apart. My father had business meetings, and we’d all go along, hanging out on the beach or at the pool, and by the supper hour, would get dressed up and eat with our parents in the laid-back-but-fancy dining room of a lodge or inn, or even a five-star hotel.

All those little kids in plaid shirts. One summer especially came back to me: We’d had a small fire in the new house we’d moved into in our New Hampshire town. My youngest brother, typically not involved in mischief, had decided to create a “fort” in a closet. A fort complete with a lamp, which was plugged in. Soon enough, the lamp fell over onto some clothes.

As my mother told it later, it turned out to be a good thing, because she could replace the wallpaper in her bedroom that she’d ended up despising, and insurance would pay for it.

Insurance was also going to pay for us to stay at a hotel for a few weeks while the “smoke damage” was repaired. My father quickly made a reservation at a local Ramada Inn, then thought: Holy Moly! Why not spend the insurance money on a hotel somewhere else? Like Cape Cod.

So we rented adjoining rooms in a beachside motel in Dennisport, and each evening, at the supper hour, we’d dress up and go out. One night, we went to a place I remember as “Patty’s Steak House.” Like the Winnetu, it was cozy, but fancy: cloth napkins, tablecloths, tinkling silverware, and murmured approvals from the mostly adult group enjoying their martinis and old-fashioneds and escargots.

As one matron rolled her eyes at our duckling parade, my mother calmly said to her, “My children are well-behaved.”

And we were. If trouble was brewing, say if my middle two brothers were considering launching a battle over a disputed bread plate, one raised eyebrow from my mother, and they’d instantly straighten up and assume angelic expressions. The younger of the two insurgents got sleepy and fell asleep that night, right into his bowl of spaghetti. My father wiped off my brother’s forehead, picked him up and held him over his shoulder, and continued eating his meal with one hand. I remember my mother cutting my father’s steak while he held my brother.

The funny thing about that particular trip, I thought this past Saturday night looking out at the little children dressed for dinner on the lawn of the Winnetu — was that we were refugees of a sort, and If we had to hunker down somewhere for a few weeks, it might as well be somewhere splendid. Just like people I know are now doing here on Martha’s Vineyard.

About the meal: We started with cocktails, each had Elderflower Palomas — try one when you go. The excellent server wore a button on his shirt that showed his entire face. What a thoughtful detail: Let diners see what the masked server actually looks like.

There were fresh, local tomatoes, so we split an appetizer, along with a tiny “charred” quail, surrounded by roasted Brussels sprouts, smoky bacon, and fig jam. Trust me, it all works.

For dinner, Hallie had The Shorty, braised short rib, spring asparagus, potato cake, Island-grown shiitakes with a red wine demi-glaze, and roasted cipollini onions. I tried it — it tasted as good as it looks. I ordered the Pan Seared Scallops, which sat on a nest of Parmesan herb polenta, haricots verts, sweety drops, under a veil of beurre blanc. Sweety drops? “What are these, sweetie?” I asked my daughter, who is far more well-versed in the esoterica of local produce and local menus. “They’re peppers, Mom.” She looked closer. “They might even be from Lexi’s farm.” Sweety drops: little pops of red freshness, exciting the creamy polenta and rich, big sea scallops.

By halfway through our meals, we knew we’d be taking the rest home. And way too full for dessert. “We should just look at the menu, though,” I told her, “because I am, after all, on assignment here.”

I can say that in the interest of thorough reporting, we made room for a pudding of chocolate and caramel, which we practically licked clean.

Funny how one can fully understand that bad things are happening in our world — diseases, and unexpected fires, and that we are in a time of great stress — and still have an enchanting evening with a child. That’s what we had on Saturday. And I never had to lift my eyebrow at her once.

There are many dining options at Winnetu, so check the website to find one that suits you best, winnetu.com/marthas-vineyard-restaurants/about-the-dunes/dining/.