This is definitely a very interesting thread. I have some very mixed feelings about children in restaurants. Personally, I don't mind children who stay in their chairs and behave reasonably well. For what it's worth, I definitely go out with friends and their children, but I have not been to any high-end restaurants with them.
One time a friend's child started to get a bit cranky. Since it was the end of the evening, they had a simple solution--time for them to go! It was a very nice solution and the entire evening was pleasant. Had it been the middle of the dinner, they probably would have stepped outside for a few minutes until the child was a bit calmer. (Of course, this can be a bit tricky in the winter in a small restaurant.)
I have another friend who allows her child to roam around the restaurant. She justifies this behavior by saying that if the restaurant wants to stay in business in our neighborhood, they will allow children to scamper about. Not only do I find this a bit annoying, but it can also be quite a bit dangerous. As a result, I try not to go out with this friend.
There has been a lot of discussion on why a child would be brought to a high-end restaurant. As a child, my brother and I were brought to high-end restaurants on two occasions: my grandparents' 70th and 75th anniversaries. The restaurants in question were Tavern on the Green and Windows on the World. In both cases, my grandparents wanted to have a nice meal with great service; they also wanted to spend time with the people who were close to them. I still vaguely remember both restaurants, and I definitely remember my grandparents being very happy that I was there with my younger brother. For what it's worth, I think we were very well behaved. (I can also remember the venison pate with truffles on the menu at Tavern on the Green, and I can also remember that it was my first introduction to a fixed price menu.) I know my grandparents would not have wanted to have an experience at a nice restaurant for these occasions without my brother and myself in attendance.
My brother has some very nice memories of Windows on the World. They gave him his own miniature bottle of soda, they put him next to the window, and they tried to make sure that he was having a good experience. This had a two-fold effect: he remembers nothing but good service at Windows on the World, and he was very pleasant because his needs were met.
Well, here was the specific scenario last night: Couple number 1 arrives with infant, toddler and granny in tow. They are shown to a small semi-private room in the restaurant where the infant immediately starts wailing and the toddler starts unpacking toys on the floor and singing. Couple number 2 arrives, also with infant and toddler and granny. They are shown to an adjacent table. Mother comes flying to the hostess stand where she complains that the other children are making noise. She is then shown to another alcove in the restaurant where her children can now start wailing and singing without being bothered by the other children. At one point in the evening, it seemed the children at both tables were communicating in screams "I've got this part covered, too". The daddy in the main dining room picks up the infant and starts slowly strolling THROUGH THE RESTAURANT, oblivious to the 4 food runners, 6 waiters, 2 sommeliers, and other 80 customers. This is in contrast to the night before when an African diplomat brought his family, including 3 small children. They sat perfectly poised at the table. The maitre d' offered children items to the parents, pasta and such. He was astonished when the littlest boy said in perfect French "I want the lamb. I really like lamb". It was a rough night.
So what could have been done in this situation? Honestly, I don't work in a restaurant, so take my advice with a grain of salt. And I certainly do not want to try to second-guess the situation. As a customer, I would like the same sort of treatment in any high-end restaurant if I had or did not have children. I would want to have a good meal with unobtrusive and polite service. I guess it can be hard to be diplomatic in this kind of situation. I don't know who said it, but I think this quote is oddly appropriate: "A diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to Hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip."
Did you have a well-stated policy? If you require a jacket and a tie, I want to know ahead of time. Similarly, I want to know if children aren't allowed.
If there is a problem with my behavior, I want to know in a polite and inconspicuous way. For example, if I accidentally knock a plate off the table at a nice restaurant, I want the situation taken care of without a big deal. If I have a child who has toys on the floor, I would like to be politely asked that they be moved so that waiters won't trip.
Finally, if I am disturbing other guests, I want to be treated how you would other bad guests. What do you do if a guest is drunk and loud? Can you do the same with a parent who has a screaming child?
A Windows on the World approach may have worked as well. Perhaps children should merely be treated as customers with special needs. Give them extra attention during their experience at the restaurant, and if they don't need the attention, then throttle it back throughout the meal. Maybe a waiter or busboy that was good with children can be assigned to look after tables with children.
On the flip side, the next time these parents attempt to make a reservation or attempt to come into the restaurant, the restaurant might want to think twice before accepting the reservation or offering seats.
As for the other customers, were the ones who were visibly disturbed offered a complimentary dessert or glass of wine even if they didn't complain directly? If I were a pissed off customer, this would definitely go a long way to making me happy.
It sounds like an awful evening for almost everyone concerned. It's really too bad--one of the goals of all people who go out for the evening is to have a good time.