A Course in Fine Dining

Skip the fast food on your next trip.

The good news is that there have never been so many restaurants anxious to welcome you -- and your kids. The bad news: No matter where you go, kids are going to behave like kids. They'll spill their drinks, bicker with their siblings and complain they'll starve to death right there, on the restaurant floor, if they wait a minute longer for their food. When the meal finally comes, they're not hungry anymore. They can't wait to leave.

I know. I've been there more times than I can count in restaurants around the country with my three kids. I've watched plenty of other frustrated parents do the restaurant dance, too. But when you're traveling, there's often no alternative. Even if you're staying at a condo or camping, you don't want to prepare every meal. That's no vacation.

At least now many restaurateurs are trying to make dining out less an ordeal and, hopefully, fun -- sometimes, anyway.

They're tinkering with children's menus to include a more eclectic selection, training the wait staff to be more child-friendly (bring those french fries right out!), cooking up family promotions, offering spill-proof cups and going so far as to have entertainers on hand at especially busy times.

One Pennsylvania-based chain, The Italian Oven, invites kids to make their own pizzas, while T.G.I.Friday's is introducing an activity book with postcards traveling kids can punch out and send home to their friends.

Restaurant owners aren't doing all this to be nice, of course; they're doing it because it makes business sense. The National Restaurant Association confirms what parents already know: more parents than ever are bringing the kids along when they eat out -- from the time they're babies. That's especially true as record numbers of families travel.

"We have 100 high chairs and some nights, all 100 are in use," says Steve Gold, a spokesman for the Ark Restaurant Group which runs the trendy America Restaurants in New York and Washington, favorites with the family tourist crowd.

"Going out to dinner isn't a status thing anymore," observes Barbara Patrick, a researcher for the Yankelovich Monitor, which has chronicled social trends for the past 25 years. "People are spending more time with their kids and restaurant-going is a reflection of that."

That doesn't necessarily mean fast food places, these days.

"Our customers are bringing the kids to the places they went on dates," says Jimmy Banakis, a vice-president of the Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, known for themed restaurants. Banakis notes that some of kids have extremely sophisticated palates, ordering up Greek lamb and barbecued shrimp along with plenty of burgers, pizzas and grilled cheese sandwiches.

These junior gourmets are shaping up to be some of the most important guests at the table, too. "The kids have the swing vote deciding where the family goes to eat," explains National Restaurant Association spokesman Wendy Webster.

"If the kids are happy, the parents will come back," adds America's Gold.

Of course, there are plenty of restaurants -- and restaurant-goers -- that still don't want kids anywhere in the vicinity. Call first and, to be safe, stay away from quiet, dimly lit places, especially on weekend nights.

Ethnic eateries, on the other hand, are always good bets wherever you're traveling. Not only will the tab be modest, but the kids are bound to find something to eat: plain tortillas, rice, or pasta.

My rule: With the kids, noisy is better. Earlier is too. If you're wondering whether taking them to a restaurant is worth the bother, sometimes it is.

For some busy families, vacations may be the only time they eat meals together on a regular basis. Child development experts note that eating out can be a good learning experience for the kids.

"They can try new foods, practice making choices, even learn about money," explains Dr. Edward Schor, a pediatrician and Iowa public health official who is chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' early childhood committee. They can learn appropriate ways to behave in public places and see how other families interact as well.

Schor's tip: Always bring along a book to read. "You can read while you wait," says Schor, father of three young kids who wonders why restaurants don't stock kids' books. "Any child can hold still for a story."

Along with a couple of books, tote a special "restaurant bag" with stickers, plastic characters and small games for the younger kids. Los Angeles pediatrician Neal Kaufman, director of primary pediatrics at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, says cards always worked for his older ones. The key: interaction with the kids.

No matter what their ages, don't expect any child to sit in a car or plane for hours and then sit quietly in a restaurant for two more. "That's impossible for their bodies," says Hanne Sonquist, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based parent educator and family therapist.

"Go to a playground first and let them burn off some energy," Sonquist suggests. "Then they'll be ready to sit."

Put the sparring siblings on opposite sides of the table and immediately order something so the kids don't have to wait.

If the older ones turn up their noses at the kids' menu -- as mine do, ask if they may split a portion. More restaurants will oblige these days. Let them make a meal of soup and a potato, or an appetizer and desert.

Whatever you do, don't make a restaurant the battleground over food. "You'll always lose," says Dr. Kaufman.

Bon appetit!

(c) 1996, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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