When his daughters were 5 and 2, one doctor developed a four-pronged defense system for dining with restless children.
"The first line of defense is give them crackers to eat. When they're bored with that, you give them crackers with butter on them. If they're still not behaving, then it's time for Step 3, crackers with butter and a little sugar on top. The final defense--just hand them an open sugar packet and let them go at it.
"If they aren't flying around the ceiling by that time, hey, the food's usually being served and you can go on with your meal," he said.
Most parents dining with young children have their own methods for coping, such as bringing along books or puzzles to keep the youngsters occupied until the food shows up.
Members of families polled in four San Fernando Valley parenting groups said they are attracted to restaurants where they and their children feel most welcome. Location, quick service, reasonable price and menu also figure in their selection.
Jack Bierman, editor of Valley-based L. A. Parent, a free monthly magazine, and the father of two girls, looks for restaurants with a quick exit.
"With a young baby, we couldn't just go as easily as before, but I wasn't about to stop eating out. So we got a table near the exit and when the baby got fussy, we took turns taking her out for a walk," he said.
Parents with small children should forget about dining in fancy restaurants and look for family-style restaurants with a staff or management concerned with a child's well-being, Bierman said.
"Parents also should be flexible and adjust to their children's schedule. I know I would rather eat at 5:30 or 6 instead of not eating out at all," Bierman said.
"We eat out a lot, and we prefer restaurants that are not too quiet, have fast service and are family-run," said Susan Sally, 36, of Chatsworth, who has a 4-year-old. "We frequently go to an Armenian restaurant called Sassoon, and our daughter loves it. . . . The owners are so warm and friendly that, on our daughter's last birthday, they even gave her a gift."
Donna Burkons, 37, of Van Nuys is a working mother of two children, 9 and 7. Because she juggles career and family, they eat out four to seven times a week.
"I really like waitresses or waiters who acknowledge the child, who say, 'Hi, how are you today?' It's great when they give you a whole pile of extra napkins, water for the kids. I love children's menus or half-price specials for kids. It really helps when the restaurant gives you crayons and games on the menu while you are waiting," Burkons said.
She has a novel approach for dining with older children. "When we go out with another couple and want some time to talk, we will get the children a separate table and tell the waitress that they are with us. The kids really like it and feel very grown-up, and it gives the adults a chance to engage in adult conversation."
Parents can also help by being prepared.
Lois Watts, a Canoga Park mother of 1- and 4-year-olds, said: "We bring along little toys and books to help entertain the kids, and we try to go when it's not too busy."
Other parents suggested puzzles and snacks to fill in the time before being seated.
Many families suggested going to restaurants where there is no wait to sit down. This often means calling ahead and asking for the best times to bring in young children. Sometimes going for lunch can be easier than a hectic dinner with tired children and parents, some parents said.
Shawn Crane, 28, a Tarzana mother of an 11-month-old boy, called a French restaurant to find out if it would be appropriate to bring the baby to a birthday dinner. "They were very friendly and told me that they had highchairs for the baby. Even though he doesn't usually sit in them, I could tell by their attitude that my son would be welcome, and the dinner went well. We also try to remember that young children can be really messy, so we always try to leave a good tip," she said.
One of the best ways to find child-friendly restaurants is to ask friends who are parents which ones they prefer. Check out restaurants in your area by calling first to see if they are amenable to children.
Parents polled recommended these area restaurants for the reasons listed:
Marie Callender's: six Valley locations, booster seats, highchairs, booths and children's menu that includes story and crayons.
TGI Fridays, 5919 Canoga Ave., Woodland Hills: booster seats, highchairs, children's menu, crayons and balloons, outside seating, music.
Follow Your Heart, 21825 Sherman Way, Canoga Park: booster seats, highchairs, children's menu, crayons, outside seating, changing table in restroom.
International House of Pancakes: eight Valley locations, booster seats, highchairs, children's menu; after 4 p.m., children under 5 eat free with the purchase of an adult meal.
Sassoon Restaurant, 18970 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana: Armenian food, highchair; many items on the menu will appeal to children.
The Cheesecake Factory, 6324 Canoga Ave., Woodland Hills: booster seats, highchairs, free fruit plate with bread given to children under 2, booths, outside seating.
Mel's Drive In, 14846 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, and 19964 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills: booster seats, highchairs, children's menu, crayons and balloons, booths.
Red Terrace, 15622 Ventura Blvd., Encino: Chinese food, booster seats, highchairs, a la carte items that appeal to children, booths.
Que Pasa, 14433 1/2 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks: booster seats, highchairs, children's menu with games and crayons, booths.