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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Does your dog really belong in this restaurant?

According to the New York City Department of Health and many diners with service dogs, your dog does not belong in a restaurant — but some dog owners can’t part with their pets. (Anna Sorokina/The New York Times)

By Rachel Sugar

On a quiet weekday evening inside a restaurant in Brooklyn, a dog under a table announced its presence with a single pronounced yap. At a scoop shop in downtown Manhattan, a large white poodle was spoon-fed what appeared to be vanilla ice cream. In the dining room of a chic Midtown restaurant, a teacup Pomeranian strutted across the floor.

When it comes to dogs in restaurants, two things can be true at once: first, according to the New York City health code, “no live animal shall be kept, housed or permitted to enter into or remain in any food service establishment,” with a few exceptions, including service animals and city-approved dog cafes such as Boris & Horton.

Second: the dog nibbling a french fry at the next table.

There are 617,000 licensed dogs in New York City, and the vast majority, presumably, eat in. But while no city agency tracks how many dogs are regulars at the city’s restaurants, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number is far from zero. Whether this is a scourge or a delight depends on whom you ask — and tensions between the two camps can run high.

“Nowadays, it’s very common to see dogs in restaurants,” said Beth Torin, a restaurant-safety consultant who until 2020 was executive director of the Office of Food Safety in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “Nobody goes anywhere without their dogs.”

Often, the pets make an understated entrance. “A lot of times, you won’t even see the dog” until you seat the owners, said Ally Gallegos, a former maître d’ at an upscale neighborhood restaurant in the West Village. “And you’re like, ‘Oh, God.’”

What happens next is straightforward, at least in theory. The Americans with Disabilities Act allows the staff to ask just two questions: Is the dog a service animal, required because of the owner’s disability? And what work or task has the dog been trained to perform? This should mean that service dogs get in with no problems, and other pets are gently redirected outside. (Pets are allowed on outdoor patios at the restaurant’s discretion.)

In practice, this is often not what happens: “People are afraid to deny a dog,” said Thomas Panek, the CEO and president of the nonprofit Guiding Eyes for the Blind, in Yorktown Heights, New York. (Panek, who is legally blind, is assisted by a service dog named Ten.) A result is that, over time, “they have all these bad experiences with dogs that really shouldn’t be in the restaurant.”

“You’re getting into hundreds of conflicts of varying degrees of intensity every shift,” said Lindsey Peckham, a hospitality consultant who has worked in some of the city’s most acclaimed dining rooms, including Eleven Madison Park. “You’re like, this isn’t the hill I’m going to die on.”

Peckham recalls a time when “dogs in restaurants were a very rare exception.” Then, she said, came the proliferation of emotional support dogs, which do not legally qualify as service animals but sound as if they do. And in the return to post-pandemic normalcy, she theorized, many New Yorkers wouldn’t — or couldn’t — leave their dogs at home. “So all of a sudden, dogs are everywhere.”

One of those dogs is Darcy, an anxious Chihuahua-Pomeranian mix, who is a regular at a number of West Village restaurants. “If I leave her for an extended period of time at home, I have to give her trazodone,” said her owner, Samantha Leach, a writer and editor. “I feel guilty.”

And so, for the most part, where Leach goes, so does Darcy. Should they be turned away, “that’s super fair and valid,” Leach said, but more often than not, Darcy is greeted with open arms and, occasionally, bacon.

Most dogs are well-mannered, said one Manhattan hospitality veteran, who asked not to be identified to avoid the impression that he was speaking for his employers.

The trouble is the outliers: There was the time, Peckham recalled, that two boisterous Chihuahuas were allowed to gallivant across the banquettes of a formal Manhattan restaurant. And the time a small dog startled a large dog, who let out a “guttural woof,” stood up suddenly and knocked over a table of food and wine at an elegant downtown spot. And the time a muscular puppy bit a server in a Brooklyn restaurant.

“The real issue is space,” said Jeremiah Stone, a chef and co-owner of Bar Contra and Wildair. Service is a ballet; nobody wants to trip over an errant schnauzer.

But the group most hurt by nonservice dogs in restaurants may be the owners of real service dogs. Because some people lie about their dogs being service animals, well-meaning restaurant hosts don’t always know how to recognize a real service dog at work.

“A service dog is meant to be invisible in public,” said Olivia Jean Hamilton, 30, an actor who is assisted by a mobility dog, a goldendoodle named Tobias. The impostors, she explained, “give people misconceptions.”

“People are dreading us,” Hamilton said. “It genuinely gives me anxiety going to a restaurant I haven’t been to before, because I don’t know how they’re going to respond to me.”

Exhausted by the steady parade of dogs, some restaurant owners have turned to emotional appeals. Shari Call, the owner of Simple Loaf Bakehouse in Park Slope, Brooklyn, hung a standard “dogs are not allowed” sign, with her own addition: “The fine was expensive,” it pleads. “Please help us by respecting the rules.”

“That is a lie,” Call admitted, but the effect was immediate.

In an email, Shari Logan, an assistant press secretary for the health department, said its inspectors “work tirelessly to ensure that restaurants are following the rules.” But whether those rules are enforced is another question: According to data provided by the health department, of the 20,781 restaurants cited last year, 84 establishments, or less than half a percent, were cited for live animal violations involving dogs. (The fines range from $200 to $350.)

In other words, the chances of being caught are slim. “I’ve never actually heard of anybody getting fined,” Call said.

The health department declined to elaborate on its specific concerns about dogs in dining rooms, but Torin, the restaurant-safety consultant and a self-identified dog lover, was blunt: “Dogs are dirty.”

According to the Food and Drug Administration’s food code, animals can transmit “disease-causing organisms” and “pathogens” that can contaminate food, “shed hair continuously” and “may deposit liquid or fecal waste.”

Which is not to say there are no dog-friendly hot spots — but they cannot be named here. Stone of Wildair and his American Staffordshire terrier, Kombu, were regulars for a while at a “pretty nice” restaurant and covert dog destination. Among the regulars, he said, there had been an unspoken agreement: “Let’s not ruin this thing.”

But the simple truth is that restaurant staff can’t screen dogs for their behavior, said the manager of a Michelin-starred Brooklyn restaurant, who asked not to be identified to avoid speaking for her employer. There is no obvious and reasonable way to draw lines between the good boys and the very good boys.

“All of our dogs, if we’re going to bring them in a restaurant, need to behave,” said Panek, of Guiding Eyes for the Blind. “And if they don’t behave, they should be asked to leave. It’s pretty simple.”

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