Politicians want to shepherd in a new era in dining

January 22, 2004|By Kevin Cowherd

BY YESTERDAY, the image of terrified diners stepping past snarling pit bulls to get to their table at the Brass Elephant was beginning to recede, and it was safe to call Dan Morhaim, the guy who started the whole thing.

Morhaim, a member of the House of Delegates from Baltimore County, has introduced a bill that would allow restaurants to let dogs in their establishments.

Morhaim saw the issue mainly as one of revenue: Some dog owners would be more likely to eat out if restaurants admitted their pets, which might help restaurants make a little more money.

And he pointed out that in Europe, it's common to see dogs in restaurants.

But a lot of people - including, for the record, me - thought the idea was nuts.

To these people, bellying up to a nice steak dinner while staring into the mournful eyes of a basset hound wasn't an appetizing thought at all.

Neither was the prospect of enjoying a relaxing after-dinner coffee while a dogfight breaks out at the next table.

So when the story broke in The Sun, Morhaim found himself getting whacked around pretty good on talk radio.

"The mail's been running 50-50," he was saying now over the phone. "Some of it ranges from `Don't you have anything better to do than this?' to `How would this actually work?' to `I have allergies and [don't want] this.' "

Morhaim's voice was hoarse. He is an emergency room physician, and a few hours earlier, he had rallied in Annapolis with hundreds of other doctors to protest rising insurance costs.

All that fist-pumping and yelling had wreaked havoc with his vocal cords. But he seemed amused that of all the heavy issues he's tackled in nine years as a lawmaker - health care, drug addiction, juvenile justice, etc. - the dog bill was the one getting all the attention.

And, obviously, not all the attention was flattering.

Are you out of your mind? seemed to be a common response from the talk-radio callers.

"Yes, that was a lot of it," he said of the reaction to the bill. "And I understand it ... and don't begrudge it."

Actually, even though I think the bill is nuts, Dan Morhaim comes across as an otherwise thoughtful, down-to-earth guy.

As to how he came to think that eating out with dogs was a swell idea, Morhaim, a Democrat, points out that the bill's co-sponsor, Republican Del. Charles R. Boutin of Harford County, introduced a similar bill a few years ago.

Then Morhaim tells you he's a big dog person who often takes his own dog, a Bijon Frise named Louie, on his rounds to nursing homes, where the patients love to hug him. Louie, that is.

In conversations with other dog lovers, Morhaim says, "I talked to a lot of people who don't go to restaurants because their dog can't go in."

So he began to think of the economic repercussions of this and decided a bill allowing dogs in restaurants might be helpful to both pet owners and restaurateurs.

Morhaim said he wanted to emphasize that the decision on whether to let dogs in would be up to each individual restaurant. The restaurants could also set their own conditions as to when and where dogs are allowed.

"If a restaurant wanted to be dog-friendly on slow Monday afternoons ... or wanted to limit [dogs] to the patio area, that would be fine, too," he said.

And if a diner shows up with a pit bull that's snarling and looks like it wants to make a meal out of the thorax of the maitre d', common sense would prevail.

"If the restaurant doesn't want to let the pit bull in, they won't," he said.

When I hung up with Morhaim, I called my old friend Neil Smith, who owns the Crackpot Seafood Restaurant in Towson.

The Crackpot is where I once spent a delightful lunch hour sampling the World's Largest Crab Cake, which weighed approximately as much as a boat anchor and yet was very tasty.

I know that January and February are slow months in the restaurant biz, and I thought the admission of dogs to the Crackpot might be just the ticket to liven things up.

A couple of Dobermans lolling under the tables, a Jack Russell terrier or two sprinting through the aisles, a waitress accidentally stepping on the tail of a German shepherd as she served an elderly couple their crab soup - why, the possibilities for entertainment were endless.

But when I brought up Morhaim's bill, Smith shot it down.

"My reaction is, absolutely not," he said, adding that the last thing he needed was dogs making a mess on the floor while customers enjoyed their meals.

Boy, some of these restaurant owners are so hung up on that stuff.

"And people and their pets [in a restaurant] are like people and their kids," he continued. "Some people have total control over their kids, they're very responsible, they don't let their kids get up from the table and run around.

" ... And I would imagine you'd have the same thing with a pet owner. Some would have total control over their pets, some wouldn't."

So I guess that means no dogs at the Crackpot.

Then again, you can't get a decent crab cake in France, either.

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