...CHILDREN: eating out with the wiggly set
Washington — `CHILDREN are welcome in our restaurant just as long as their parents are aware of how the children affect other diners,'' says Anne Hartley, vice-president of Maison Blanche restaurant, about two blocks from the White House. ``If a child seems uncomfortable, and no one's happy - including the nearby diners - the considerate thing for parents to do is soothe the child or remove him from the situation.''
But ``I have seen remarkable children aged 2 to 7,'' Ms. Hartley adds.
``In some fashion - either by the parents' voice or their companionship - parents are keeping their children occupied and out of mischief with subtle, not overt, tyranny.''
More of the country's 63 million youngsters under the age of 18 are accompanying their parents when the family dines out. By 1990 there will be about 23 million of them.
The National Restaurant Association's 1987 survey showed that the number of children under age 6 eating in upscale restaurants rose 43 percent between 1982 and 1986 - four times as fast as growth of the upscale segment over all.
One of the reasons for this trend is smaller families. Another is that, with the rising number of working mothers, today's parents often have more money than time.
There is also less access to baby sitters. And many parents, often older, first-time ones, desire to spend their nonworking time with their children.
Finally, according to a 1987 Gallup survey of 509 restaurants in all price categories, 75 percent said they offered child-size portions or a children's menu.
``Most restaurateurs had better be aware that children are potential paying customers,'' comments Pam Milley, general manager of Washington's Hamburger Hamlet, a bicoastal restaurant chain.
``Sometimes they miss the fact that children will be the next generation of customers. Right now they bring in parents to restaurants as much as parents bring in children.''
One National Restaurant Association study made a few years ago showed that 26 percent of children and 32 percent of teen-agers played a role in selecting restaurants families would visit.
``Restaurants don't cater to children, sometimes, because the establishments find kids take up table space and don't pay, are a nuisance, hard to control, and disruptive to other customers,'' Ms. Milley continues.
``Some parents look at restaurateurs as a baby-sitting service, so they can relax in the air conditioning.''
She says she sees more children in restaurants now than 10 years ago. ``Sometimes dinner is the only opportunity in the day for the family to get together.''
Hamburger Hamlet puts large sheets of white paper and four crayons on each table for kids' enjoyment.
In Washington's upscale Georgetown, where his restaurant is ``an adult playground,'' Dennis Gease, the general manager of El Torito, a 32-year-old chain, says:
``It's expected that children will scream and cry. Sometimes we have to tell parents there is a serious safety problem with children running around.
``We don't allow our employees to run. We tell them one time, and that's all it takes.''
Generally, parents ``contain'' their children, he points out. ``We love children here.''
Most of the children patronizing Jean-Pierre in Washington are well behaved, reports Jean Michael Faret, the owner, because parents would be uncomfortable if their offspring weren't [comfortable]. ``I won't tell children to shut up. I've had small children, and I know what it's all about. I'm flexible in this matter.''
Most people do not alert restaurants in advance that they are bringing a child.
When they do, owner Janet Cam of Washington's expensive Le Pavillon (prix fixe starts at $60) tells them children are welcome as long as they can sit through a dinner lasting three hours. To ease the strain, she provides a bottle warmer in a private room with 19th-century Oriental antiques.
Some adults, mindful of the fuss their toddlers can create, prefer to eat their meals at home until their children are older and more manageable.
``It's not restful when you take out a little baby. There's a good chance one of you parents will leap up to your feet to quiet the baby,'' says Catherine Donnelly, mother of one and a federal government employee.
``You worry about other people being put out and your child getting cranky at bedtime.''
The food likes and dislikes of Mrs. Donnelly's two-year-old son also help her decide to eat at home.
``If you're paying big bucks for a meal, you're going for peace and serenity.
``Why pay for haute cuisine for a child when he wants hot dogs?'' Donnelly adds.