At 11 months, Haley Koch has been to more restaurants than her mother, Susan Udelson, had been to by the time she was a teen-ager. Barely able to maneuver a spoon, the baby's dining experiences include brunch at the Pleasant Peasant, lunch at the Occidental and dinner at Germaine's.
For the most part, Haley, a tranquil child, has behaved beautifully. "But we're really not bringing her to train her in restaurant etiquette or anything," said Udelson, a television producer who lives in the District. "Not at 11 months. It's more for our convenience. Sometimes we're too tired to cook, and we want to go out, and we want a good meal, and it's too late to find a sitter. So we bring her along."
It is said that for every baby born, two yuppies bite the dust. But old habits, apparently, die hard. Many young professionals, accustomed to the good life before baby, are reluctant to give up the fine urban dining that was so much a part of their childless life style. So now, instead of the usual dinner reservations, it's likely to be, "a table for two ... and, er, do you have a high chair?"
If the answer is no, parents aren't always deterred. Managers at all sorts of Washington restaurants -- from the trendy American Cafe to the exclusive Le Lion d'Or -- say that couples are increasingly propping infants in Kangerockeroos and hooking toddlers in Sassyseats to the edge of linen-covered tables. They are pushing strollers into cramped cafes, and asking to be seated in quiet corners, not for romantic reasons, but in case Junior, as well he might, lets out a hearty howl.
"I'm always surprised, but it does happen every now and then," said Le Lion d'Or owner Jean Pierre Goyenvalle, when asked if anyone ever brings babies or small children into his restaurant, where dinner for two typically costs about $200. "There's nothing much you can do. We try to accommodate them as best we can."
Goyenvalle could recall only one time when the presence of a baby caused a slight problem. "Some people came in with a very small child, and we sat them at a table," he said. "Some other people at the next table said, 'Please, give us another table. We have so many children at home, we don't want to be near them when we go out for dinner.' "
Fancy French restaurants might be the extreme for mom, dad and the kid, who is likely to enjoy Bernaise sauce more for its finger-painting potential than for its taste. Though different parents have different ideas about which restaurants are appropriate for children, few go as far as Le Lion d'Or. But, clearly, there are lots of people who think appropriate can go far beyond McDonald's and Burger King.
For the restaurant industry, that attitude is translating to an increased awareness of children as potential customers. "Not only are people taking children out to eat more, but children are increasingly influencing the choice of restaurants people are going to," said Anne Papa, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association. She cited a recent issue of the association's magazine that was devoted almost entirely to how restaurants can creatively accommodate children.
The issue also contained a survey showing an overall increase in the number of people bringing children along for meals out. The biggest increase was in the "upscale" restaurant category, where the number of people dining out with children under age 6 increased by almost 45 percent between 1982 and 1986. "These are people who became accustomed to good food before having children and don't want to give that up," Papa said. "Your yuppies, so to speak."
In many ways, changes in the restaurant industry mirror larger social trends. A generation ago, the typical mom stayed home and cooked dinner. Eating out was reserved for special occasions, and was considered a welcome break away from the kids. But today's families often have more money than time, and, consequently, dine out more frequently. With the rising number of working mothers, dual-income couples, smaller families and older first-time parents, eating out with kids is often an alternative to Lean Cuisine or take-out Chinese.
"Before Jason was born, Bob and I ate out two or three times a week at least," said Kathleen McCleery, mother of a 9-month-old who lives in Arlington. "We've certainly cut back on restaurants since we've had him, but we'd be drastically changing our life style if we eliminated going out completely."
McCleery said they do not invite Jason if they're going someplace extra special, but they often include him at more casual restaurants. "I think of a baby sitter as being for a big occasion. But if I want to go out for a good meal, and if it's the sort of place I can wear jeans, I figure it's okay to bring the kid."
Other parents bring their babies to restaurants because they enjoy their youthful company. Udelson, for instance, said when she was not working, she missed going to lunch with friends from her job. So periodically she and her daughter would go out for lunch as the day's social event. "Haley was someone to babble to," she said.
Rachel Pines, a management consultant who lives on Capitol Hill, said her 2-year-old son, Justin, has been "everywhere -- from Roy Rogers to The Broker -- and frankly, I don't think he has a preference."
Pines admits that going out with a 2-year-old is a vastly different experience from a quiet dinner for two. "You definitely cannot have the kind of meal you could if the child wasn't there," she said. "When we take Justin, I know he'll be stirring his water and grabbing pats of butter and things like that. It's not exactly an easy, relaxing meal."
Still, since she works all week and her son is in day-care, Pines enjoys spending her free time in the child's company. "I don't mind the disruption," she said. "I want to include Justin in my activities. I like being with him."
For restaurants, policies on whether to admit children are often a delicate balance between meeting their customers' demands and providing an appropriate atmosphere for patrons without kids. Most restaurant managers say they welcome children, though they do so with varying degrees of enthusiasm. "If a couple feels comfortable bringing a child to a restaurant like this, well, I suppose that's the most important thing," said Keith Shuman, general manager of 209 1/2, an intimate and pricey restaurant within view of the Capitol. Shuman said that while the restaurant doesn't disallow children, it doesn't encourage them either. "We're not going to offer an early evening special, let's put it that way," he said.
Lisa Tumminello, a manager at City Cafe, who also has worked at the sister restaurant, Nora, said, "I don't think people associate either place as being a children's restaurant, but we like to be thought of as a place where people know they can come and be comfortable. And if that means bringing their children, well that's okay. We're more than happy to accommodate them."
Most receptive to children are restaurants where the atmosphere is less intimate. An example is the American Cafe, which has branches around the city and in the suburbs. Sharon Parker, assistant to the president of the American Cafe, said when the restaurant chain started in the late '70s, it was geared for young, working professionals. Now that those customers are having children, the chain is trying to consider the needs of families.
Recently, American Cafe revised its policy book to include a section devoted to catering to people with children. It also created a new "children's menu" as a separate feature. And now, several branches of the restaurants are even considering adding high chairs to their list of features. "We have no problem with kids at all," Parker said enthusiastically.
But even restaurants less enthusiastic about kids say that when a couple with a baby pops in, they are mindful of making them comfortable. Tumminello recalled a time when the restaurant wasn't busy and a waitress carried a restless baby in her arms so his parents could finish their meal in peace. Michael Moran, manager of Cafe Petitto on Connecticut Avenue, said he usually directs parents with babies to the back of the small restaurant so they "have enough room for all the things they carry around with them."
But, Moran, like many others, said that the children who come into his restaurant are usually well-behaved and that parents seem genuinely concerned about not disturbing fellow patrons. As for the occasional child who acts up, Moran said: "A breadstick works wonders."
Attitudes on when and where children should be seen vary as widely as children's behavior. Some parents say they feel that as paying customers, they are entitled to bring their child along wherever they wish. Others say they choose their restaurants carefully, calling first and asking if it's okay to bring along a child. "You can usually tell by the way the person responds," said Kathleen McCleery.
District resident Linda McKoy, mother of 16-month-old Tony, said she usually looks for places where service is quick and the din is loud enough that if the child misbehaves, no one would notice.
Still, on rare occasion, McKoy has brought her son to more reserved eating establishments. In one instance, she was meeting some of her former law firm colleagues for lunch at the Tabard Inn, a cozy restaurant on 17th and N. As it turned out, Tony behaved like a perfect gentleman, but his mother admitted she was apprehensive throughout the meal. "You never know before you go what kind of mood your child is going to be in," she said. "And you worry about ruining the atmosphere for everyone else.
Part of her success during lunch at the Tabard Inn was that she was abundantly prepared to intervene if Tony behaved like a baby. "I felt like Mary Poppins with my bag of props," she said. "I brought his little cup with a spout, a Tupperware thing with a sandwich and some slices of cheese, some toys ... "
Like McKoy, most parents who dine out with children say they tote certain supplies and follow certain rules when bringing along baby. "I'm very careful about going early," said McCleery. "I won't go somewhere nice at 7:30 or 8 o'clock on a Saturday night."
She also added that she usually feeds her son first so she doesn't have to worry about giving him food from the menu. "I bring Cheerios to keep him occupied while we eat, and a large assortment of toys," she said. "And then, when he gets bored with those, I give him my keys."
Other parents say when they dine out with kids they forego appetizers and desserts, which can prolong a meal and stretch a small child's good behavior beyond reasonable limits. And still others say they always remember to leave a big tip, particularly for the waiter or waitress who has contended with a restless or sloppy baby. "At least 20 percent," said one father. "I think of it as an impact fee."
Parents also add that they need to be psychologically prepared for the fact that a child might misbehave. "You just never know," said McKoy, recalling a meal in a nice Chinese restaurant where she sat alone as her husband entertained their toddler at the tank of fresh fish.
Rachel Pines described feeling embarrassed after getting up from the table with Justin, who had sat quietly through dinner. "There was a sea of peas under his seat," she said. It wasn't the first embarrassment, or the last. "We joke about all the places we can't go back to."
Because of the possibility of fallen peas and other atrocities, many parents follow only one rule when it comes to dining out: Leave the children home. They say they feel extremely self-conscious about any noise their child might make, even if it's louder to them than anyone else. They worry about spending good money for good food and a bad time.
Said Margaret Brown, a book restoration specialist at the Library of Congress and mother of 4-year-old George: "When I go out to a nice restaurant, I like to relax. The best way for me to do that is to go without him."
Mary Hickey is a Washington-based free-lance writer.