Norman Hightower, 11, called it the best lunch he'd ever eaten -- gulf shrimp over pasta and marinara sauce, mozzarella sticks, fresh fruit and homemade brownies with vanilla fudge ice cream.
"It's much better than cafeteria food," Norman declared. "This lunch is very good."
That is exactly what his hosts at the 3 1/2 -star Peerce's Plantation restaurant in the Phoenix area of northern Baltimore County wanted to hear. The red carpet was rolled out this week for eight pupils from the Villa Maria School, a program for children with emotional problems.
"It's very nice for these guys to be able to go out and to have the joy to dine like this," teacher Connie Dean said. "Many just would not have had the opportunity otherwise."
Wednesday's visit was part of a school exercise to give the students a glimpse of the business world. In this case, the restaurant business.
As part of the school's prevocational program, Ms. Dean and her students have been talking about food and food preparation, mixing in lessons about table manners and other social graces. There also have been lessons on woodwork and sewing.
While some may take the experience of fine dining for granted, Ms. Dean said that it is a good way for her students to practice social skills. That lesson isn't taken lightly at Villa Maria, where students receive preparation for returning to regular school settings.
Nestled along Dulaney Road in Timonium, Villa Maria is a resource for students who can't function in traditional school settings. Because of genetic factors or such terrible experiences as abuse, many of the students have emotional problems.
"We like to think of them as our neighbors," owner Peerce Lake said of the ongoing relationship with the children at the school, a relationship that included a fund-raiser at the restaurant in 1990. "We just wanted to show them another side of life."
The non-public school is owned by Associated Catholic Charities, but is state-funded. Ms. Dean said she is worried that a new wave of budget cuts could jeopardize the Villa Maria program for 112 boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 11 years.
At Peerce's Plantation, the students took a tour of the kitchen and freezer and were served kiddie cocktails at the bar.
"A lot of our kids have problems with self-esteem and this helped a lot," said Ms. Dean, herself a former employee of Peerce's. "It just made the children feel really special."