HERE'S A GOOD Scruples question: A group of mothers with a total of nine children, all of whom are under six, go out to lunch together. They decide to inflict their horde on the Lebanese Taverna in Arlington, because it's convenient and has at least one food children might eat -- pizza.
As the waiter, you can: (a) Tell the party every table in the place is reserved, and help them out the door. (b) Hide them in the corner, serve them as slowly as possible and hope they'll tell all their child-owning friends never to return. Or (c) Put them in the middle of the room, pull out every high chair and break open a new pack of paper napkins.
We've run into options (a) and (b) often enough to leave us reluctant to tote small children to restaurants. Eating out, by its very nature, seems to demand skills beyond the grasp of most kids, such as the ability to sit still for a long time, speak with a soft voice and comment favorably on the joys of eating something besides Cheerios and peanut butter.
But in the case described, what the Taverna did was (c), treat that group like honored guests -- cutting the pizza into a zillion small, child-sized pieces, serving the milk in a pitcher and offering paper cups with tops to the potential spillers, cheerfully offering rags for the inevitable slops, and steering the wandering tots out of their kitchen and back to the table. Oh, incidentally, the food was terrific.
The good news is that there are more places like the Taverna where parents can actually relax with their kids. After checking for names of such gems with parents throughout the area, we found that most of them fall into the following categories:
The family-owned restaurant: If you see a child asleep in the back booth, doing homework by the cash register or waiting tables with his uncle, you're onto something good. Places like the Lebanese Taverna, owned by the Abi-najm family, don't necessarily have kid-meal boxes or video games in the corner. But they have a fundamental understanding of how kids behave and, as one mother put it, "take them for granted -- they're not surprised when the milk spills or the kid crawls under the table."
Ethnic places: Everyone we spoke to mentioned an oriental restaurant within five miles of their home as being "nothing fancy, but they're nice to the kids" -- a description also extended to selected Italian, Indian, Indochinese and so on. The rule here seems to be the smaller the place and farther away from cutting-edge cuisine, the better -- neighborhood places are ideal. Perhaps because they're less crowded, or perhaps because other cultures, particularly Third World cultures, seem to accommodate children more readily, the ethnic restaurant is often staffed with waiters who will coo over your drooling baby, stick a paper umbrella in your daughter's drink and snitch an extra fortune cookie for each child.
Chains: We're not just talking about the fast food/HoJos/Marriott factories (which everyone relies on and no one admits to), but places like the Chesapeake Bay Seafood house, which is free to kids up to six. These restaurants have high chairs, kiddie menus, and usually something more -- a placemat to color, a fish tank to visit, a decor you can spend several minutes taking in while waiting for your meal. They know better than to keep kids waiting, tend to have something your child will actually eat, offer milk and remember to bring straws and crackers.
Regardless of what's on the menu, no place is worth it with children if the line is too long or the kitchen too slow. The key here is to avoid peak hours -- something easy to do with kids who want dinner at 5:30 or a post-cartoon breakfast at 10 -- and take along a couple of toys, a bag of Cheerios for the baby and some crayons and paper for your older children.
Most parents already have one or two standby restaurants for their kids. Here are those mentioned most often by our sources: CASA MARIA MEXICAN RESTAURANT -- 1915 Tysons Corner Center, McLean (893-2443); 700 Water St. SW, Washington (554-5302); 5951 Stevenson Ave., Alexandria (370-9681). Normally thought of as a place for salsafied yuppies, the Casa Maria also has wonderful big booths where you can hide your children. Other perks include the corn chips, which come almost as soon as you sit down, and a children's menu with both Mexican food and the ubiquitous hot dog and hamburger, plus drink, for $1.99. Portions on adult entrees are astonishingly generous, so you may just want to split a couple of tacos with your kid. Don't miss the bathrooms. High chairs and boosters. CHESAPEAKE BAY SEAFOOD HOUSE -- Fifteen locations in Virginia and Maryland. These are bonanzas for hungry people who like fried food, especially seafood. Children up to six are free and given their choice of baby shrimp, chicken, clams or two kinds of fish. And folks with teenagers can stuff them here with all-you-can-eat items ranging from $5 for the baby shrimp to $15 for the scallops. All these come with hush puppies, french fries and cole slaw. Other advantages include the decor, which often includes fish tanks you can visit, and their policy of trying to get you served within ten minutes. With the Chesapeake doing a 70 percent family business, the ambience tends to be deep-fat-fried Grand Central Station -- so you need not be embarrassed with a fussy kid. High chairs and boosters. FRESHER COOKER -- 11232 Georgia Ave., Wheaton, 949-3002. Part of a national chain (the next closest outlet is in Norfolk), the Cooker serves a kind of healthy fast food -- a salad bar that runs to things like Granola, a homemade soup bar, several vegetarian dishes and some pastas. There are three items on the children's menu -- hot dogs and two pastas -- which come with a beverage and cookie for $1.69. They also have good kid things like milk, juice and yogurt; the food we've eaten there was wonderful. High chairs and boosters. HAMBURGER HAMLET -- 10400 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda (897-5350); 5225 Wisconsin Ave. NW (near Chevy Chase line, 244-2037); 3125 M Street NW (near intersection with Wisconsin, 965-6970). This is the place to go when you want a real hamburger -- some say theirs are among the best in town. No children's menu, but two kids could easily split a burger or their baby cheeseburger platter (four miniature burgers for $5.95), or try their $2.95 hot dog. The tables are covered with white paper cloths, and patrons are provided with a shot glass full of crayons to decorate them, "which the kids like and the adults love," says a spokesman. If you order a hot fudge sundae on your birthday, they'll stick a candle in and sing. High chairs and boosters. HOULIHAN'S OLD PLACE -- 4444 Willard Ave., Chevy Chase (654-9020); 3222 M St. NW, Georgetown Park Mall (342-2280). There are five items on the children's menu ranging from grilled cheese to hamburgers and chicken, all between $1.95 and $2.25. The menu itself comes with crayons, so kids can color it. Grownups enjoy the American food -- burgers, salads and some fancy items like teriyaki steak. High chairs and boosters. ITALIAN OVEN -- 9917 Lee Highway, Fairfax (385-8912); 501 N. Randolph St., Arlington (522-1005); 6852 Old Dominion Drive, McLean (893-7777). A homemade pizza and pasta joint, the Oven serves very generous portions that can easily be shared with a child, or split between two. The paper placemats, with their maps of Italy, can be colored. High chairs and boosters. LEBANESE TAVERNA -- 5900 Washington Blvd., Arlington, 241-8681. A family-owned restaurant, it is something of a hang-out for the metropolitan Lebanese community. Kids like their pizza, gyros and souvlaki; adults crave their hummus. No children's menu. High chairs and booster seats. Very accommodating for young children. MAGIC PAN -- Five locations in Maryland and Virginia. They started out as crepe places and have gone on to offer things like homemade pasta and chicken marsala. Kids' menu includes things like a crepe-wrapped hot dog for $1.95. High chairs available, but unless you come in off-peak hours, older children may do better in this atmosphere. Most outlets have crepe-making visible for kids to watch. O'DONNELL'S RESTAURANT -- 8301 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, 656-6200. This is a slightly upscale seafood place to take the kids and grandma for Sunday dinner. For $4.75, kids can get a full meal including appetizer, one of six entrees (chopped steak to scallops), two vegetables, rolls, and ice cream. When they're done, the waiter will take them to a treasure chest full of the kind of things your 5&10 sells. This is their 30th year of serving families, and they have it down to a science. High chairs and boosters. TASTEE DINER -- 10536 Lee Highway, Fairfax (541-6720); 118 Washington Blvd., Laurel (953-7567); 7731 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda (652-3970). These are great places to go for breakfast when you just can't face oat bran anymore -- lots of grease, eggs and bacon. A diner the way you remember them. High chairs and boosters.
Deborah Churchman last wrote for Weekend on wholesale food markets.