Five years ago, graphics designer Nicole Kaufman, with her 2-month-old daughter and two friends, sat down in the Cafe Rodeo in Beverly Hills and ordered lunch. Kaufman's daughter ordered lunch, too, and knew just where she could find it.
In the next few days, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge will decide whether the Cafe Rodeo hostess who ordered Kaufman to stop breast-feeding her daughter acted properly, and at the same time answer a question few people knew had been asked.
Does a restaurant have the right to refuse service to women who breast-feed at the table?
Since the now 29-year-old Kaufman filed her $60,000 suit against Cafe Rodeo, other breast-feeding mothers have come forward with tales of having been shooed out of restaurants or told to feed their babies in the restrooms.
Bonnie Schuster, whose husband heard about the case on TV, testified at Kaufman's trial that two years ago she was at the Cafe Rodeo and asked to stop breast-feeding her baby, who was 5 months old at the time.
"I had my daughter's head tucked under a loose-fitting shirt--no one could see anything, in fact she looked like she was sleeping," Schuster said. "When the hostess came over, she had to ask if I was breast-feeding--she wasn't sure. When I told her I was, she said, 'Well, you can't nurse in the restaurant, you have to go to the ladies' room.' I was shocked."
The issue has put Kaufman in a spotlight she says she didn't seek, and has caused restaurant owners throughout the area to establish their own breast-feeding policies.
"I'm a very quiet person, and I'm certainly not a strident feminist," Kaufman said. "It's just that the (incident at the restaurant) upset me. I wanted to know if it was legal for a restaurant to tell me that I didn't have the right to nurse my baby."
Kaufman's attorney, the high-profile feminist Gloria Allred, said there is no state law addressing the issue.
Cafe Rodeo general manager Jack Appelquist believes that the case is frivolous, saying Kaufman simply misunderstood the restaurant's policy, which, he said, is "not anti-breast feeding."
"I wasn't personally involved in those cases," said Appelquist. "I'm not saying that things weren't presented wrong by the manager who happened to handle that situation, and if they did handle it improperly, I would certainly apologize."
Aaron Sheldon, the attorney representing Cafe Rodeo, maintains that women can nurse in the restaurant dining room as long as they're discreet.
"We give them the choice of covering up with a napkin, perhaps, or using the ladies' room," Sheldon said.
Kaufman said that when she began breast-feeding at Cafe Rodeo, she was wearing a high-collared dress and turned away from diners when she began feeding her baby.
In her closing argument at the trial, Allred said breast-feeding is not a crime and wondered about the logic of telling women to nurse their children in restrooms.
"Must babies be banished to eat in the toilet area where health regulations would prevent meals from being served to other diners?" Allred said.
Although some callers to radio talk show programs have expressed passionate opinions against public breast-feeding, many of the area's premier restaurateurs are siding with Allred and Kaufman.
"It's something that happens all over the world," said L'Orangerie owner Gerard Ferry. "If a child is hungry and the woman feels comfortable, we will let her."
"We have no policy against breast-feeding at all," said L'Ermitage manager David Oltman. "No one's ever seemed to mind it."
"As long as it's done with elegance," said Patrick Terrail of Ma Maison Sofitel, "I don't mind."
Among the restaurants contacted, only Chasen's refused to state a position on the subject. "We don't get those kind of people here," a spokesman said.
"It happens a lot in our restaurant," said John Strobel of Angeli and Trattoria Angeli. "I think in the course of five years, I've witnessed it about 50 times, and it doesn't bother me in the slightest. It seems to me that what people are offended by is the concept, not the reality, of breast-feeding. And most women are aware enough of social etiquette that they're not going to be indiscreet about what they're doing."
"Most mothers don't want to be exhibitionists," said Spago manager Tom Kaplan. "Wolf's and Barbara's philosophy on children is that it's fine if people breast-feed." (Spago chef Wolfgang Puck and his wife and partner Barbara Lazaroff became parents just last month.)
"My wife felt free to breast-feed in the restaurant," said Hans Rockenwagner, who is the chef-owner at Venice's Rockenwagner and Fama in Santa Monica. "But I do see how others think it can be a problem. Sometimes people get uneasy trying to figure out where to look. You don't want to look away and seem like a jerk, but you don't want to stare like a voyeur either. Still, I think it's the man's problem, not the mother's. She shouldn't have to change the way she acts."