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SMALL FRY : At the Daily Grill, Keeping Youngsters and Their Parents Happy Is Child's Play

August 09, 1992|Ruth Reichl

I was raised in restaurants.

This had certain advantages; for one thing, it made it possible for me to survive into adulthood--an otherwise iffy proposition given my mother's propensity for poisoning people. This is not a joke; people who ate my mother's cooking regularly ended up in the hospital. At the engagement party she threw for my brother, for instance, 26 of his future in-laws had to be rushed to the emergency room.

It had disadvantages, too. I remember endless evenings of being propped up at a table, listening to my parents' conversation drone on while I wished I could be playing outside, reading a book, or anywhere else on earth. I remember waiters bribing me to keep quiet with 20 desserts that I would gladly have sacrificed if only I could have gone to bed. I remember too many nights when I wore a good dress instead of shorts, ate coq au vin when hot dogs would have made me happier or watched a chocolate souffle slowly go into its slump when what I really wanted was to feel a Popsicle melting against my chin.

At 6, I knew the proper way to eat snails, lobster and caviar, and I could say mushroom in four languages. "She's gotten so much out of going out," my mother assured her friends when they remarked on my good manners. When I opened my own restaurant, my mother nodded knowingly and said, "Isn't it a good thing that we used to take you out so often?"

Frankly, no. Taking children out to eat may be convenient for the parents--think of all the money they save on baby-sitters--but, in my experience, it's rarely much fun for the kids.

Of course, things have changed since my parents dragged me around the restaurant circuit. In those days, children in restaurants were rarely seen and never heard. Today, children are going out to eat in record numbers. The National Restaurant Assn. reports that, from 1990 to 1991, one-quarter of all table-service restaurants saw the number of diners under age 13 increase. As a result, restaurants are starting to take their youngest customers seriously. Some East Coast establishments, such as Rockwell's in Scarsdale, N.Y., offer child care for patrons, and A Piece of Quiet in Denver actually has a separate Kids' Cafe where parents can leave their children while they go next door for dinner. No Southern California restaurant provides on-site baby-sitting, but a few are so kid-conscious that if you take your children out to eat, you can be relatively sure that everybody will have a good time.

My parents would have loved to know about the Daily Grill--a place where they could have fed me for $1.75--and I would have been thrilled to open a menu and discover a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

In my younger days, I would have especially appreciated the restaurant's roomy booths. A kid can flop across them if he gets tired and wiggle beneath them if he gets bored, although he's not likely to be. The staff instantly appears with an enormous jar filled with crayons to play with, and because the tables are covered with paper, there's plenty of room for artistic expression.

More important, the staff understands that a hungry child is not patient. I have never seen French fries and Coca-Cola materialize so quickly--not even at McDonald's.

But best of all, there's something here for every appetite. While kids are munching on grilled-cheese sandwiches and squishy spaghetti and meatballs that only they could love, adults are free to indulge in more satisfying stuff--a glass of wine, poached salmon, steak tartare or the best shrimp cocktail in the region.

There are actually quite a few superlative dishes on this straightforwardly American menu. The hamburgers here are terrific--hefty wedges of coarsely ground meat, grilled and served in buns with just the right proportion of crunch to sog. (The children's burgers are smaller, cheaper and easier to manage, and, unlike the grown-up version, they come with fries.) The Daily Grill does a great Caesar salad and a chopped vegetable salad so colorful that you might even entice your children to try it. The kitchen also knows everything about grilling meat and fish so that they come out as you like them. Potatoes are cooked seven ways, and the shrimp Louie is that homage to Americana that it was meant to be--an embarrassment of richness that actually has the nerve to call itself a salad.

Anybody under 10 will probably want a hot fudge sundae for dessert, or possibly the cold fudge sundae called "brownie with ice cream." For me, it'll be rice pudding.

If you're a kid, you can eat fast here--or slow. You can eat a lot--or a little. Nobody will get anxious if you suddenly feel the need to take a stroll around the restaurant and see what everybody else is eating. And if you get really bored, you can stretch out in a booth and go to sleep.

There are now four Daily Grills in Southern California, with a fifth scheduled to open in Studio City in 1993. I only wish there had been Daily Grills when I was a kid.

Daily Grill, 100 W. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles; (310) 659-3100. 16101 Ventura Blvd., Encino; (818) 986- 4111. 11677 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood; (310) 442- 0044. Fashion Island Shopping Center, 957 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach; (714) 644-2223. Lunch and dinner served daily. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $25-$45.

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