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Destination: New York

Big Apple, Little Appetites : Restaurants are setting a place for the kids

May 19, 1996|RITA CIOLLI | Ciolli is media writer for Newsday

NEW YORK — La Cote Basque is decorated for the holidays. The lights twinkle. The room glows. Mom and Dad are in full-dress vacation attire. As she removes her fashionable coat, he folds the baby stroller.

Each thinks the other has their daughter by the hand. But the regulars in the legendary restaurant, ever aware of entrances, know that the 3-year-old has gone full circle through the revolving door.

Parents panic in French, blanching faster than asparagus, as the patrons gesture that the child is alone on busy West 55th Street. She is quickly rescued.

Even at the most elegant restaurants, it seems you never arrive unobtrusively with a child.

New York's restaurants have always been prepared for the children of travelers between Thanksgiving and New Year's. (Specifically, while the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is up.) But they're becoming more receptive year-round, despite the invariably spilled drinks, periodically broken plate and occasional aria.

So when a family vacations in New York, dining together doesn't have to mean room service, takeout, or eating at a theme park such as Planet Hollywood, where the noise level can turn potatoes into French fries.Our own 4 1/2-year-old daughters, Teresa and Claire, have now seen the inside of many of New York's restaurants.

At the hot Cafe Centro above Grand Central Station, brasserie democracy rules. The kitchen, on request, even split a lobster bisque for Teresa and Claire. Each portion was in a beautifully decorated bowl. The girls pronounced it good. However, a divided roast chicken entree did not get the required Solomonic treatment. Teresa got all the white breast meat while Claire asked "what's this?" about her thigh bone.

They have enjoyed brunch at Seventh Avenue's Trattoria dell'Arte, too, for great antipastos and pizzas, if not for the expressions of dismay from the patrons at the next table that greeted an airborne bread basket. Fortunately, the flight was short. And the table where we were stationed was in a corner. That venue was fine for us. Whether it's that magical table near the bathrooms, or in a booth (to contain any wandering), location is as important in a restaurant as it is in real estate.

The most practical strategy for dining with children in New York begins with a reservation. Kids are generally more welcome during the week. Let the restaurant know that a youngster is coming. At the Union Square Cafe, a terrific restaurant, advance notice was greeted with, "Sure, bring 'em. We don't have kids hanging out at the bar. But you'll find kids here. We have plenty of food for them." Plus enough noise and conviviality so that a child's imitation of an airplane propeller won't be noticed. At the other extreme, the once-gracious Lutece, which now disappoints by fulfilling every cliche of haughtiness. A phone query about whether children were welcome was brief. "Not really." Click.

Bouley, the haute French-American restaurant in downtown Tribeca (near the World Trade Center), advised that dinner can run to three hours--an eternity for a 4-year-old, and probably for everyone around the child. "It doesn't work," the host said. The advice: "Try lunch." But Bouley noted that the kitchen accommodates all sorts of diets and easily could come up with a dish suitable for a young appetite.

At Trattoria dell'Arte, they understand that, though we found out the hard way. The only pasta one Saturday afternoon was a pappardelle in a mushroom ragu. But a brown sauce is not a welcome color on pasta and the girls just pushed their plates away. After the hostess inquired why, she told us the house secret. "We have special pasta, penne with butter or plain tomato sauce just for the kids," she said. "But we don't like to advertise it on the menu."

Nobu, the New York outpost of Los Angeles' star chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa (who runs Matsuhisa on North La Cienega), also was amenable to young visitors. "Three or under, though, is up to the parent's discretion. We would not recommend it." But, now that part-owner Robert DeNiro is the father of twins, perhaps booster seats are available anyway. Generally, dining out early is a wise move. Pre-crowd, pre-chaos. And it's especially good if you're inclined to visit an eatery such as Layla, the Tribeca magic-carpet ride to Middle Eastern food. Then, you can concentrate on the fun food and funhouse decor. And you won't have to explain the belly dancer, who materializes about 9:30 p.m.

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