Dining out with the dog

07:51, Dec 12 2011

How many cafes in New Zealand have menus for dogs? Not many. But I read a few weeks ago about Beach Babylon, in Wellington, and we got a chance to visit at the weekend. How dog-friendly would this dog-friendly café be? And should more eateries be like this?

Beach Babylon has the first key requirement, which is a dedicated space outdoors. You can't take a dog into an indoor café, can you, as is the habit in France and is possible in many British pubs? Would you? I wouldn't. Well, I wouldn't assume I could, whereas I do assume that I'm allowed to have dogs with me if I'm at an al fresco table. I haven't yet been wrong in that assumption.

We've learnt which places have outdoor tables, which places have clued-up staff, and which have a general hospitableness to those customers with a dog in tow. My favourite café is one where the staff start filling a water bowl for the dogs even as we're fluffing around settling at a table and hooking the leashes to some anchored part of the furniture. The staff have even promised that if their usual outdoor tables are taken, they'll carry an indoor table out for us; this is the kind of hospitality that wins return business!

Some cafes provide water bowls and an outdoor tap; others will bring a bowl unbidden; others will bring one when asked. None have ever turned me down or seemed unwilling. Is that because they're all relaxed about having dogs around, or because our dogs are so irresistibly friendly, or because I asked particularly charmingly? I don't know. I do imagine that if we arrived with our dogs and were demanding or pushy about special treatment, we'd be unpopular. Be polite and reasonable to the staff, and they'll return the compliment, I've found. High-maintenance demands or pushiness don't go down well.

And it should go without saying, but it doesn't, that your dog's personality and controllability had better fit a world where other people are inches away, trying to relax and enjoy themselves. For us, this means that we settle the dogs under our table, leashed and kept as calm as we can make them. We have to stay in tune with what the dogs are doing, even while making conversation or reading the weekend newspaper. It took a few visits to cafes for the dogs to get used to the drill, and I'm glad of the patience others showed while Phoebe and Connor were learning their restaurant manners. Similar to taking toddlers out to dine, I suppose.

Most restaurants, though, have a kiddie menu to help keep kids engaged; they don't do the same for dogs. Which is where Beach Babylon comes in. The waiter offered us their dog menu - a page with goodies listed including "pupsicles" and a beef-and-beer dish. The high-end choice would have been beef mince for $8 but I went for the pea and ham gazpacho. Soon two bowls arrived full of a big helping of soup with chunks of appetising-looking ham. Phoebe and Connor chased the ham chunks around the bowls, consuming the pea soup more by accident than design. But on the hot day, the extra fluid did no harm.

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At the bottom of one of the bowls was the inscription, "even better than the toilet bowl".

Beach Babylon apparently offers dog beds, but Phoebe and Connor were happy to rest in the shade created by three humans and a table. Apart from a few seconds of barking from Connor when a Poodle walked by a few feet away, both behaved themselves immaculately. Two Spoodles at another table were brought over to visit, and all four dogs were calm and friendly.

I'm not a restaurant reviewer, but I can tell you that all bowls and plates were cleared. The early-summer sun was a blessing. But it was especially good to sit with our dogs at a place where we knew we were completely, specifically welcome; where we could watch and meet other people's dogs; where staff would not glower and where a grumble from another customer would have breached the spirit of the place.

For those reasons alone, we'll return. And if we hear about other eating-places that make a similar effort to make us diners-with-dogs feel at home, we'll try them. Would you?

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