Step up to the plate

The whole family can dine out, with practice, a little strategy and thoughtfully-chosen restaurants

The meal begins innocently enough, but hissed parental threats provoke howls of childish protest before the server has a chance to ask 'How is everything tonight?'

Dessert? Out of the question.

A 2003 survey conducted to find out more about kids' attitudes to eating out revealed that nearly 90 percent of families with children dine in restaurants at least once a month and 44 percent try their luck on a weekly basis. Then why does the whole process continue to seem so complicated? Some smart choices, reinforcing good manners and maintaining realistic expectations will help make these family forays satisfying experiences for everyone involved.

'It's not that people aren't interested in etiquette,' says Susan Marino of The Etiquette Center, 'but it takes time to model it.' Marino notes that families dining out face a disconnect between the lax habits of home and the higher standards parents have for public behavior.

The bottom line: If children aren't taught at home through example and practice how to wield silverware, handle a napkin, or make polite conversation, you can't expect them to wow the outside world with their impeccable table manners. 'When children can use utensils, it's time to start teaching etiquette. The sooner, the better,' Marino says.

In fact, Marino has encountered 11-year-olds who weren't sure how to use a knife. In her etiquette classes for children, Marino starts by teaching kids how to set the table. She then introduces practice food, runs through proper utensil technique and tells kids 'all about the napkin.'

Fearing my own napkin skills had lost their starch, I asked Marino for a refresher course: 'Well, the napkin goes on the left, with the open edge on the left. A child should learn to open it and put it in his lap without losing or playing with it. After the meal, the child should wipe his face and set the napkin, unfolded, to the left.' Some of Marino's classes culminate with a trip to a restaurant.

'Make a nice meal out a reward for practice and improvement at home,' she suggests. 'Preparation is the key.'

Prepared parents also bring several other dining strategies to the table. Some opt for booths to shield fellow diners from mayhem. Others seek outdoor seating or request a spot where they are less likely to disturb other guests. Wherever the family winds up, Marino recommends holding kids to one rule above all others: Stay seated. Should collisions with free-range children occur, servers risk spilling the contents of their trays.

Most children find it difficult to resist the charms of small, cleverly packaged objects like butter pats, jelly squares and mustard, ketchup and sugar packets. Etiquette experts are unanimous on this point: Don't let them go there. Marino says it is perfectly acceptable to occupy the youngest kids with your own bag of tricks, as long as noisemakers and other sound effects stay at home. When harmony and order reign over your table, fellow diners won't begrudge your children a few books or quiet toys.

There are other distractions you can use to your advantage. Take the potent novelty of a kiddie cocktail, for example. If it comes with several cherries and narrow straw (for slow-paced sipping), you can usually buy a couple of minutes of delighted compliance ' before the sugar rush hits, that is.

Admittedly, treating children to fancy soft drinks is the first step down a slippery slope ' it's just a matter of time before maraschino cherries take over your fridge or your child starts requesting orange juice in a wine glass before you've had your first cup of coffee.

Many restaurants offer crayons and paper, but a few go to greater lengths to capture the imaginations of their youngest guests. Catie Tollefson is a firm believer in keeping children occupied at all times. She works at Ella's Deli, where a dizzying collection of mechanical objects clicks, clacks and spins across the walls and ceiling. Even the tables come equipped with buttons that make things go.

Another strategy ' make it quick. Ten minutes feels like an eternity to a toddler, so the time it takes to get food to the table is important. Red Robin tries to pare order-to-table time down to just eight minutes. A strategy you can adopt at any restaurant is tightening the timeline of your meal by dining out early in the week or by arriving early in the evening, before the kitchen gets slammed.

When my friend, a coffee shop proprietor and fellow parent, heard that I was writing about dining with kids in Madison, he looked stricken. 'Please,' he begged, 'whatever you do, don't mention my shop.'

Too bad ' once you brush aside the scone crumbs and over-the-laptop glares of the creative class, coffee shops make ideal stops for families. Counter service ensures that you can sit down to lunch or a snack in a matter of minutes. Plus, you've already settled the tab, so there's nothing to stop you from sailing out the door as soon as the wind changes.

Other family favorites require more commitment than coffee shops, but you can pay any of them a visit without spoiling someone's big-ticket, child-free dinner date. (That said, do tip generously.)

These days, Roman Candle tops my family's short list. Our four-year-old adores the little serving tables that fold down from the wall, but she really flips for the pepperoni pizza with a blue moon ice cream chaser. On our most recent visit, the timely delivery of a small Lego box kept her occupied while my husband and I sipped wine and savored a few minutes of uninterrupted conversation.

Families with a taste for adventure and healthy fare will enjoy The Dardanelles, where children are made to feel most welcome. As soon as we sat down, our waiter presented my daughter with a small teapot of fruit punch. Delighted, she dubbed the treat 'princess juice' and spent the next ten minutes daintily (and very quietly) pouring herself mug after miniature mug. Fresh vegetables play an important role in this restaurant's flavorful Mediterrean dishes, but the kitchen will gladly accommodate less-developed palates with simple meals of parmesan noodles or shish kebab.

If it's Friday, it's fish fry for many families across Wisconsin. Irish Waters scores with crisply battered fish and reasonably priced kids' meals. Bonus point: The wait for a table is rarely as taxing as it can be at other Madison-area fish fries.

Benvenuto's dishes up a crowd-pleasing menu of Italian comfort food. Portions are generous, so you may not need to tap into the children's options at all if you ask for an extra plate. Well-spaced tables and crayons for the kids mitigate your family's impact on the rest of the dining room.

Believe it or not, children hunger for family traditions and generally behave best when they know what to expect. When you find a place that everyone in the family enjoys, stick with it ' there are benefits to becoming regulars. A warm welcome from a restaurant's owner or waitstaff adds a special dimension to family meals away from home.

The Etiquette Center, theetiquettecenter.com, 800-647-4086

Benvenuto's, benvenutos.com, 1849 Northport Dr., 241-1144, 2949 Triverton Pike Dr., 278-7800

Ella's Deli, ellas-deli.com, 2902 E. Washington Ave., 241-5291

Roman Candle, theromancandle.com, 1054 Williamson St., 258-2000

The Dardanelles, thedardanellesrestaurant.com, 1851 Monroe St., 256-8804

Irish Waters, foodspot.com/irishwaters, 702 N. Whitney Way, 233-3398

Red Robin, redrobin.com, 2440 East Springs Dr., 301-0435, 522 Monona Dr.

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