Diners with dogs may soon be saying 'bone appetit'

Chai is a gal with a social life many would envy. Come spring and summer, you'll find her out two or three nights a week, dining al fresco, at any number of Baltimore-area dining establishments.

Her favorite would have to be Shuckers in Fells Point, where they fix her a drink just the way she likes it.

"When we say, 'Want to go to Shuckers?' she'll dance around like a nut and bark her head off," says Christopher Woodside, who owns the 82-pound bulldog. "She prefers ice in her water bowl and Shuckers gives it to her like that."

No matter how happy it makes her, Woodside knows full well it's illegal to take his dog to a restaurant. Even if the place has outdoor seating. That's why he and Chai are among those with fingers — and paws — crossed for a bill before the General Assembly that would free Maryland to join Florida, California and Minnesota in allowing dining outside with dogs.

Del. Dan K. Morhaim, who is sponsoring the Dining Out Growth Act of 2011, says the law would give a much-needed boost to the state's restaurant industry, which has had a tough go of it in the recent economic downturn.

"Frankly, anything that develops economic activity right now is good," the Baltimore County Democrat says. "Now when people are outside and walking with their dogs, they'll walk by a place where they'd like to stop and eat. But they won't because they can't."

Though Shuckers and dozens of other restaurants with outdoor areas already welcome dogs, hundreds more don't because doing so violates state health code.

For instance, La Paz, a Mexican restaurant on the scenic Carroll Creek Promenade in Frederick for years had opened its patio to dogs — until an inspector reminded owner Graham Baker that it was illegal. Now every time Baker sees people strolling past the restaurant with dogs, he knows he's losing business.

"People feel very strongly about being able to have that ability to dine with their dog," he says. "When the patio was open to dogs, we had people coming in regularly. But with the economy the way it's been, if they had to leave their dog at home, they were staying home as well."

The fines, which vary by jurisdiction, are sporadically enforced. In Baltimore, restaurants can face a $100 citation. In 2004 Morhaim proposed a bill that would have allowed people and their dogs to eat together inside restaurants — as they do in Europe. After some legislators treated the idea like a joke, the delegate withdrew it.

While people aren't ready to accept bringing dogs into restaurants anytime soon, the hospitality industry has realized that some people won't dine without their pets.

Tracey Thompson has run a website called PetFriendlyRestaurant.com since 2006. On it, she lists more than 2,600 restaurants nationwide that welcome pets — legally or otherwise. Ninety percent of them were added in the past year.

"It's absolutely becoming a trend," she says. "Dogs have become an integral part of the family, and you want the whole family together when you go out."

The doggie dining bill meets its first test at 1 p.m. Tuesday with a hearing before the House of Delegates Health and Government Operations Committee. Lawmakers aren't expecting the hearing to be a hotly contested affair. As of late last week, no one had signed up to speak against it.

The proposal has the support of a number of area restaurateurs, the Humane Society of the United States and — most importantly — the state's health department.

Last year when the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a similar bill that applied to only Frederick, the health department opposed it, as did the Restaurant Association of Maryland, which is not taking a position on the new bill, according to Vice President Melvin Thompson.

"Last year, we were very concerned and opposed to the bill because it conflicted with Maryland state health regulations that prohibited animals other than service animals in dining areas," Thompson explained. "The state health department expressed this year they were willing to relax those regulations and that removed that reservation."

Health departments nationwide have long been of the mind that mixing animals and food wasn't safe. In 2007, that's the reason Baltimore health officials cited as they cracked down on bars and cafes that had been allowing dogs inside. In the case of One Eyed Mikes in Fells Point, a dog named Duke, who'd been something of a well-known house mascot, had to go.

Morhaim has structured his legislation so that restaurants could opt into the program, allowing dogs in outdoor dining areas only, if they wanted to. If a restaurant allowed it, it could set its own limits for when, where and even the size and type of dogs permitted.

Thompson said that flexible language pleased his association, because when he surveyed members with outdoor dining space about the bill, only about half were in favor of it.

For instance, in Fells Point, the restaurant group that runs Kali's Court, Mezze and Meli is happy to serve diners with dogs at the two more casual locations. But when people show up at outdoor tables, dogs in tow, at the elegant Kali's, managers gently turn them away.

"We've already had the issue come up a couple times," says general manager Nicola Angelini. "Other patrons will be like, 'Don't put that next to me.' It would ruin their dining experience."

If passed, the law would take effect in October.

At Baltimore's City Cafe, they were so eager to court area dog owners that last year they had custom biscuits made. Every diner that came in with their pup got a treat that looked like a dog wearing a chef's hat — and the hat said City Cafe.

"When those customers are made welcome," says co-owner Bruce Brodie, "it encourages them to come back and to tell their other friends with dogs that we at City Cafe are dog lovers."

Brodie, who owns a yellow Labrador named George, is strongly supporting the bill, saying, "It would be nice to see how much more business we'd get if it were legal."


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