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Child’s Play : Three squares with a toddler in tow: Eating out with kids may be overrated

When my cousin Molly descended unexpectedly upon me last week--with her 18-month old son in tow--I was delighted. Haven’t I been reading that taking kids out to eat is all the rage? Doesn’t every magazine suddenly have articles advising you upon this very subject? I was being presented with a young child--and the perfect opportunity to do some field research.

I had no idea what I was in for.

BREAKFAST

Young Rocco went bounding into Campanile, dragging Molly behind him. While she stood at the blackboard trying to interest him in the specials of the day, he made faces at the women behind the counter, poked his fingers into the various muffins, and knocked over a cup of cappuccino. “Look,” I finally said, “Why don’t I stand in line and get breakfast while you get Rocco settled into a high chair?”

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Molly thought this was a fine idea--but first she had to compose a menu for her darling. She wondered if he’d like some raisin toast and eggs? She considered a coffee cake made of peaches and brioche. She contemplated oat scones. And she finally decided that he’d be happiest with orange juice and a blueberry muffin.

Rocco, meanwhile, had wriggled free of his mom and was investigating the dining room. Out of the corner of my eye I could see him attempting to swipe a spoon off of somebody’s table; fortunately the people in question seemed to think this was adorable. I turned around to deal with the breakfast issue: I ordered granola for Molly (I thought she’d probably need all the strength she could get) and a summer fruit crumble for myself. I turned back to look at the dining room: Rocco seemed to be fishing in the fountain that occupies the center of the room.

I wouldn’t exactly say breakfast was restful. Rocco sat in his high chair, devoured most of the muffin in about two seconds, and then went off to terrorize the fish. He was soon joined at the fountain by a little girl. Molly kept raving about how this was the best granola she’d ever tasted, but she barely had time to eat: she kept jumping up to keep Rocco from falling into the fountain. Then she was running into the back dining room where Rocco and his little friend were playing hide and seek. She had another bite before going off to trundle up and down the staircase behind her son, who seemed to think the stairs were a wonderful new toy.

Meanwhile, I sat, eating that rich and wonderful summer fruit crumble and trying to pretend that I had no connection to Molly and Rocco. I reminded myself that they’d be gone in a day. I had a second cup of coffee. I ate the rest of Molly’s delicious granola. I read the papers.

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When Rocco started trying to invade the kitchen, Molly decided it was time to go. Rocco did not seem happy about this decision. “That,” said Molly, leading him firmly out the door, “is the perfect place to take a child. I wouldn’t take Rocco to Campanile for dinner, but the breakfast is great and in the morning with the back dining room empty, it’s like a playground.”

Rocco’s not really talking yet, but he seemed to agree.

Campanile, 624 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 938-1447. Breakfast Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-11:30 a.m. Breakfast for two, about $14.

LUNCH

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By noon we had been on four separate slides, filled our shoes with sand and pushed too many swings to count. I was exhausted; Rocco seemed as fresh as ever. Molly suggested that we stroll through Beverly Hills. I suggested that we eat lunch. “Good idea,” said Molly. “Where?”

Where do you take the babies who lunch? Somehow the Bistro Garden didn’t seem appropriate. I was still in a quandary when we passed the perfect place. “La Salsa would be good,” said Molly. “Rocco loves rice and beans. He eats them with his baby sitter almost every day.”

We were all happy. Rocco climbed relentlessly up and down the stools, ate his rice and beans and cheese, and spilled his milk. I ignored him; I was squeezing lime onto little bits of grilled steak, slathering them with fresh salsa and wrapping them up in soft tacos. I was eating grilled scallions and watching Molly struggle with a truly heroic looking chicken burrito grande. I was being grateful that there are fast food places where you can take a kid without worrying about the other customers and still eat good food. And I was watching, with some amusement, as Rocco discovered guacamole. “He loves it!” said his mother with amazement. “He actually loves it. You can’t imagine how few foods he will eat.” She seemed to think this was a major new discovery.

La Salsa, many locations including 9631 Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly hills, (213) 276-2373. Lunch for 2, about $10.

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DINNER

Fortunately, children take naps. Unfortunately, they wake up with more energy than ever. Rocco slept for two wonderful hours, but he woke up raring to go.

We took him to the zoo. We took him swimming. And then it was time to take him to dinner. I wasn’t sure I could face it. Molly was insistent. “Surely you can think of some place that’s child-friendly,” she said.

“What do you feel like eating?” I hedged. “Indian food,” was the answer. “Isn’t it too hot for Rocco?” I wanted to know. Molly dismissed this with a wave of her hand. “There is always something for a kid to eat,” she replied breezily.

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“See?” she said when we were settled at a table in the spare, modern room that is East India Grill, “I knew there would be something great for Rocco to eat here. He’ll love the Parmesan nan.

Frankly, at this point I didn’t care whether he loved it or not. I’d come to the East India Grill because it is one of my favorite casual restaurants. I love the powerful punch of the spices, and the way they’ve taken traditional Indian recipes and made them modern with California touches. I like the toppings they put on the tandoori breads, and I think the tandoori baby back ribs are the most interesting barbecue in town. I’ve found that the green coconut curry, with its notes of coconut and cilantro, is absolutely delicious when it’s made with shrimp. And that the beef keema bharta-- a sort of spicy version of Bolognese sauce served over rice--can be absolutely addictive. So while Rocco ran in and out of the patio and navigated the chairs, I burned my mouth with chicken vindaloo, alternating bites of rice with mango chutney and hot sauce. I was happy.

So, my cousin assured me, was Rocco. He stuffed yellow rice into his mouth (and spilled it onto the floor), used the rib bones as drum sticks (and the table for a drum), and feasted on hot cheese-sprinkled bread. He drank mango lassi, a yogurt shake that Molly seemed to think was very nutritious. And then, blessedly, he fell asleep in the car on the way home.

East India Grill, 345 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 936-8844. Dinner fro two, about $25.

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THE NEXT EVENING

I don’t know how my cousin does it. Why don’t restaurants set up day-care centers so you can drop your kids off, have a nice meal, and then pick them up on your way out? As far as I’m concerned, eating out with children is overrated. What I wanted now was a grown up meal, with grown up conversation.

I tried to think of where I wanted to be; without any warning a mental picture of the patio at Orso popped into my mind.

It is surely one of the most pleasant places to be on a summer evening in Los Angeles. The wall around the patio keeps the traffic noise at bay, the trees look benevolently down upon you, and with the soft lights and the buzz of conversation, you could be almost anywhere in the world.

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We ordered martinis and cracker-like pizza bread with enough garlic to keep us pungent for weeks. We shared a plate of salami, grilled bread, mozzarella, tomatoes and greens. It was a beautiful evening; it was a calm evening; nobody climbed on the chairs. My friend had grilled trout with olive butter, yellow peppers and capers. I had pasta with arugula, tomatoes, hard ricotta, butter and Parmesan. We shared a bottle of wine.

“This hasn’t been the greatest food I’ve ever eaten,” I said as we sat spooning up an order of peach gelato, “but it sure was pleasant. I’d come back here in a minute.”

I thought, for a moment of my cousin Molly. I thought of little Rocco. I thought that maybe in about 20 years he might be old enough to join me at Orso.

Orso, 8706 West 3rd St., Los Angeles. (213) 274-7144. Dinner for two, about $55.

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