Sometimes I think about the special family nights we had when I was a little girl in Missouri. My parents would take my sister and me out to the local mall, where we stopped at the toy store and bought new coloring books, or sometimes new outfits for our Barbie dolls (1966 American Girls, for the aficionados out there). Then Mom would say, “Hey, let’s go out to dinner!” and we knew we were in for a treat – Pope’s Cafeteria. Pope’s was a popular mall restaurant then, serving meatloaf and mashed potatoes and chicken livers with onions and similar fare. I loved going to Pope’s. I was old enough to stand there and hold the brown tray by myself, moving slowly through the line, choosing my own food. My favorite part was the glistening rows of red, green, orange and yellow Jello cubes. I could never choose just one, each color tempted me equally. I have no idea what else we ate, but I remember settling back in an oversized gold booth, cozy and secure and happy with my family. After dinner we’d go outside, where my sister and I would chase each other around the huge round fountain filled with goldfish and wishing pennies. Once I fell in, causing a great splash and commotion, giving my family a reason to tease me on every future visit to Pope’s.

Every family needs a dependable, kid-friendly restaurant, one with enough of a variety of menu items to interest the adults and familiar enough for children. Ours was Riva House. Our family Riva House tradition goes back to when LL and I were dating, and we would stop in for spring rolls, clam chowder and a glass of wine at the bar to visit with a friend who worked there. Years later I would eat two orders of prawn cocktail at one time, every single week, while pregnant with Kid One. Riva House was the first restaurant we took him at just a week old, where we took turns cuddling him while we ate because we couldn’t stand to be not holding him. Riva was our place to refuel after a morning at the Boardwalk, to meet for lunch on a day off school, and to bring my family when they visit from the Midwest, starved for fresh fish.

We have the same routine every time we go in, and this past visit was no exception. We order as soon as we sit down – our growing children can get impatient if they wait too long for food. The boys start with cups of clam chowder, eating in the manner those only young children can get away with, dipping oyster crackers into the creamy soup one by one and eating each tiny cracker with two bites. They smack their lips, wondering why I don’t make clam chowder like this at home. The waiter is very accommodating at bringing several extra packets of crackers. Then fish and chips for the oldest and baby fish bites for the youngest, (the Riva House staff knows these as fried clam strips). A dinner salad with crab and a poached salmon salad for the adults, but to prove that we are not too grown-up, we also get a basket of fried zucchini sticks.

We sit next to the huge picture window looking out towards the lighthouse and watch the pelicans diving trying to catch their next meal and the surfers paddling trying to catch the next wave. As we speculate about the different types of buoys in the bay, I realize that these are restaurant memories my children will have, and they are as much the same as mine as they are different. They may not remember any more of their meals than the French fries, but they will remember the happy, safe feeling of sharing a meal with their family.

After dinner, we wander down to the “sea lion zoo” at the end of the wharf. This time we were lucky and saw an immense male throwing himself up onto a crossbeam, finally successful after three attempts. The boys tire of the show and chase each other around the cut-outs, laughing and shrieking. I just hope no one falls in.

This piece was originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel sometime in 2004. I’m happy to have found it in my archives and be able to post it now that the Kids are young adults and these particular challenging times are behind me, and particularly thankful for the reminders of the memories we all made and shared.