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Where "good restaurant" and "small children" go together

Wednesday, May 21 2003
It has recently come to my attention that in a town that professes to be the restaurant capital of the U.S., that boasts cuisine from every U.N.-represented nation-state on Earth, there are scant few "good" (i.e., upscale, quality) restaurants that comfortably serve foodies who have small children. Which is strange, considering that the only thing San Francisco has more of than good restaurants is foodies with small children.

I know that "good restaurant" and "small children" don't seem to go together, but as I'm more often than not toting a toddler these days, when I happen upon this unlikely harmonic convergence, I take notice.

For two years, Chenery Park (683 Chenery, 337-8537), in the cozy urban hamlet of Glen Park, has been steadily building a loyal clientele of neighborhood regulars, Noe Valley spillovers, and ... foodies with small children. The former two come for the top-notch New American food; the latter because of Tuesday "Kids Bring the Parents" night -- a weekly event that gives gustatorially inclined and baby-sitting-challenged folks a chance to eat tasty, grown-up cuisine in an un-Chevys-like setting.

The waiters are paragons of patience, sweeping to your table with menus, crayons, and a call for "drinks ... many, many drinks." A look around the room lays to rest any guilt you might have over little Max disturbing the neighbors with his symphonic rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." At the table behind you, young Madeline is turning chicken fingerlings and mashed potatoes into a unique pot pie; across the room, tiny Madison has removed her shirt.

It is not, perhaps, the kind of chaos everyone can stomach. But rarely have I seen a room full of such delighted diners, big and small. The key isn't just the setting, but the food, which straddles the line between comfort vittles and haute cuisine. Several dishes have found their way into my little black book. But frankly -- and in full realization that I am going to be dismissed by nonbreeders as having the palate of a pre-pubescent -- it's the baked macaroni and cheese that jingles my bells.

Chef/partners Gaines Dobbins and Richard Rosen have been collaborating in the kitchen for more than a decade, first at L'Avenue, then at Boulevard. The menu reflects their love of Creole cooking with staples such as gumbo, fried chicken, and catfish, but the mac 'n' cheese is an ode to classic Middle America. With equal parts béchamel, jack, and cheddar (plus "just enough Parmesan and Gruyère to make it appealing to adults without scaring off the kids," says Dobbins), a dash of nutmeg and cayenne, and a sprinkling of toasted panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), the dish comes out of the oven with a satisfyingly crunchy top and a child-pleasing gooey center.

Kids' night was the brainchild of Dobbins and GM Joe Kowal.

"I couldn't find places to take Sam when he was of a certain age," says Dobbins, whose son is now 11. "And Joe said, 'If we can get kids in here, the parents will follow.'"

And they did. In droves. The event has been so successful that the restaurant has had to reorder high chairs twice; there's not an inch of blank space on the chart where kids put their names and get stars each time they visit.

"It's also the highest percentage of wine sales we do all week," laughs Dobbins.

Beyond giving parents a place to tantalize their taste buds free of cartoons, Chenery Park also trains future gourmands.

"Kids should be brought up to learn how to behave in restaurants, especially in this town," insists Dobbins. "Here, not knowing how ... is a stigma that will stick with you your whole life."

About The Author

Bonnie Wach

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