Chef Didier Durand has spent months testing his restaurant’s new menu on his most finicky customer: Princess, his 2-year-old French poodle.
The ostrich country pate? To drool for. The bone marrow gateau? Delightfully crunchy. The grilled steak hache? Gone in a gulp.
Durand and other chefs across the city are preparing to serve a canine clientele as the Chicago City Council considers an ordinance this month that would let dogs eat next to people in outdoor cafes.
“When spring comes, everyone wants to be outside with their pets,” said Alderman Walter Burnett Jr., who owns Star, a Shih Tzu, and a pit bull named Shadow. “It seems ridiculous that people can’t stop off at a cafe for a sandwich and get their pet some water to drink or something to nibble on too.”
It’s good to be a dog in America, where it seems no indulgence is too luxurious. Dogs are served organic food, entertained at canine day-care centers, and pampered at pooch-only spas with aromatherapy and deep-tissue massages. Pet lovers increasingly tote Toto around with them on city sidewalks and in parks and other public spaces.
“I don’t have a backyard, so every minute I’m outside without my dog, Mitzie, she’s stuck back in the condo,” said Rachel Baker, 28, a lawyer who lives in downtown Chicago. “I’ve sneaked Mitzie into restaurants in her carrier. If she barks, someone pretends to sneeze. We’ve mortified friends by doing it, but we’ve never been kicked out of a restaurant.”
But the proposed Chicago ordinance has raised hackles among people on the other side of the canine cultural divide.
“It’s bad enough that when you go to a restaurant they ask if you want to sit in the smoking or nonsmoking area. Now, it’s going to be dog or no-dog seating?” asked Terrence Lee, 37, a graduate student who lives a couple blocks from Durand’s downtown restaurant, Cyrano’s Bistrot & Wine Bar. “I don’t want some mutt sniffing at my shoes while I’m out spending money and trying to impress my date.”
Besides, Lee said, “I’m a cat person.”
If the ordinance is approved, Chicago would join a small but growing number of cities willing to adjust or overlook health codes to appease a public hungry to include pets in the dining experience.
In Alexandria, Va., cafe owners routinely offer Milk-Bone biscuits to dogs lounging at their owners’ feet. In downtown Long Beach, panting pups often cool off in the summer by slurping from bowls of water placed at the entrances of shops and eateries. And in Florida this month, Gov. Jeb Bush signed a “doggie dining” bill, which created a three-year pilot program letting restaurants choose to allow dogs to dine outside with their owners.
“There’s no reason Chicago can’t do this,” said Ken Sawyer, director of government relations for the Illinois Restaurant Assn., which has lobbied city politicians to introduce the ordinance that would modify the city health code. “The laws need to change, as people’s attitudes about dining have changed.”
Federal law requires that restaurants allow guide dogs for the blind inside, and Illinois, like most states, prevents all but service animals from sitting hip to haunch with humans at dining establishments. California and New York -- long considered to be America’s gastronomic leaders -- have health code regulations that force diners to keep their nonworking pets off restaurant property -- indoors and out.
“Forget the obvious concerns about health and sanitary issues,” said Rick Sampson, president and chief executive of the New York State Restaurant Assn. “All it’d take is one dog to bite someone, and you’d be open to a lawsuit.”
But in Chicago -- named the most pooch-friendly city in the U.S. last year by Dog Fancy magazine, which cited the high number of dog-friendly businesses and public spaces -- such rules are often ignored.
After all, pet owners say, the season for outdoor activities lasts only from April to early October. And they want to spend every possible moment in the sunshine with their dogs.
Michelle Schwartz, a 36-year-old dentist, said she and Prada, her Lhasa apso-poodle mix, were such frequent visitors to the tony Gibsons Steakhouse that “the hostess knows us by name.”
At A Taste of Heaven, a North Side restaurant known for its sign that says “children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices,” dogs perched at their owners’ feet are more welcome than noisy toddlers.
“Everyone loves dogs,” said owner Dan McCauley. “Not everyone loves a screaming child.”
Such attitudes exasperate city officials, who explain to customers and dog-friendly restaurateurs that dogs are, in fact, animals and some “can contaminate a dining area,” said Frances Guichard, director of the food protection program for the Chicago Department of Public Health. “The law says they’re not supposed to be there.”
The Illinois Restaurant Assn., however, insists that customers want their pets to have their own doggy bags.
The trade group began lobbying aldermen on the issue a few months ago, after several high-end Chicago restaurants received fines for taking part in a charity event called Take Your Dog to Dinner.
The fundraiser pulled in nearly $10,000 for a nonprofit organization that pairs pets with physical therapy patients. It also drew the attention of health department officials, who slapped several of the restaurants -- including Cyrano’s Bistrot -- with a $250 fine.
While the City Council considers the matter, Durand is putting the final touches on his $5 prix fixe four-course canine menu -- and hoping that a buzz about his luxury meal will provide a welcome boost of business.
The ceramic dog bowls, for the mineral water, are stacked in the back. So are tiny bud vases.
“I see this as being a special occasion, a night out for people and their best friends,” said Durand, who saw plenty of dogs inside restaurants back home in France. “The people could come here and find a girlfriend or a boyfriend. The dogs could meet someone to go play fetch with in the park.”
But dog nutritionists warn that there is such a thing as too much pampering.
“Eating out usually means eating food that’s laden with calories,” said George C. Fahey Jr., a professor of animal and nutritional sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “People might think they’re giving their dog a treat, but really, they’re just making them obese.”