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With Fido Along, There's No Need for a Doggie Bag

L.A. STORIES. A slice of life in Southern California.


There's a different and growing clientele in trendy--and not so trendy--outdoor Los Angeles eateries.

It generally walks on four legs, barks when hungry and eats under, not at, the table.

Well-groomed dogs are lining L.A.-area sidewalks inside the gates of outdoor restaurants, parking under tablecloths and waiting expectantly for a dropped morsel. Dog lovers are comparing notes about which establishments are most hospitable to pets, and some restaurants now serve bones and large water dishes to their four-legged customers.

David Saul, president of the West L.A. Chapter of the California Restaurant Assn., says sidewalk restaurants began popping up throughout the Los Angeles area in the early 1980s as a stab at a more European style. Outdoor eating is more social and more casual, he says, because people often dress more casually when they know they'll be eating outdoors. Add an increasing fear of crime and longer workdays away from Fido, and taking a dog to dinner outside is not such a strange idea.

Except it's illegal.

According to state health laws, animals other than those assisting people with disabilities are not allowed in any food preparation area or any place where food is served.

Indoors or outdoors. Period.

But there are laws. And there are laws.

Dan Walsh, of the food and drug branch of the California Department of Health Services, says enforcement is a matter of priorities: "Whether it's a health problem is more of a question. I try to look at these things in a common-sense way; the intent of this law is to keep the food from being adulterated by the animal.

"The likelihood of contamination happening in the kitchen with poor food preparation practices is thousands of times more of a problem than bringing a pet to your table."

Saul says he's been stunned lately at the would-be dining companions of some customers at Junior's Restaurant. Health codes have forced him, he explains, to turn away would-be diners who have walked inside with parrots on their shoulders.

Dog lovers, though, are causing the biggest stir.

One woman brings three bandanna-clad golden retrievers to Tra Di Noi in Malibu, says waitress Jennifer Bones: "She plops them all down and they just sit there. Sometimes it's a distraction."

Like the other restaurants at Malibu's Country Mart, Tra Di Noi has a public eating area where anyone can sit whether they are patronizing the restaurant or not. So dogs, argues day manager Robin Baty, should not bother anyone:

"It's a European sort of thing to do, I put out to-go containers of water for the dogs. We try to accommodate people's needs and as long as it doesn't bother other customers, we don't see a problem with it."

But Los Angeles is not Paris.

Carl Charles, bureau director for the L.A. County District Environmental Health Services, says his staff has not regularly observed animals in restaurants. The department regulates food establishments in L.A. County except those in Vernon, Pasadena and Long Beach.

"Even if our people were writing this up on a regular basis," he says, "they are only going to be there twice a year and most of this would occur when we're not there," Charles says.

If inspectors find such a violation, he says, they would cite the restaurant. But with about 150 sanitarians to inspect roughly 20,000 L.A. County restaurants twice yearly, in addition to 70,000 or so other inspection sites, he says there is little the department can do.

Walsh is more blunt: "In the big picture, if it's not directly causing a health hazard, where do you want your tax dollars spent?"

That's just fine with Roberta and Bob Kay and their bearded collie, Gertie. The Kays, of Marina del Rey, and their friends Bonnie and Steve Grossman, of West L.A., make no bones that they plan meals out around their dogs.

"I have to work so much during the week that when I'm not working, I want to spend as much time with her as I can," Roberta Kay says. "I feel guilty about leaving her all the time."

Like other pet owners who won't be separated from their animals, the Grossmans and the Kays look for dog-friendly restaurants. They case outdoor cafes before dining and compare notes about which serve the best dog bones and other goodies. (Steve Grossman even feeds his dog, Beckie, with his fork.)

They and other dog owners say that while they're unsure exactly what the law is regarding pets at outdoor cafes, they admit knowing it isn't quite legal. They just don't particularly care.

Gregory Widen, of Hollywood Hills, says he takes his dog with him when he patronizes nearby restaurants on Sunset Boulevard. It's a nice opportunity for a walk and some time outside for Shasta, his golden retriever/German shepherd mix.

Since his dog doesn't bother other customers or restaurant workers, he sees nothing wrong with it:

"We're becoming a more outdoor cafe city and the outdoor cafe life is dogs and conversation and coffee. It's all kind of the same thing."

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