Credit: Illustration by Max Kornell

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Megan Zatz sensed trouble when her son’s drink arrived at the table. The server set down a pint glass, brimming with milk, in front of the 2-year-old Zach. “What am I supposed to do with this?” Zatz remembers wondering. This is the same kid who, during a family outing to Mount Pleasant’s Tonic, knocked his mom’s full bloody Mary into her lap. “I really looked like I’d wet my pants,” says Zatz.

A likely outcome, according Eric Eun, the high priest of child drinks and owner of Morty’s (formerly Krupin’s) delicatessen in Tenleytown. Eun, who is the father of a toddler, says there are five things that can happen when a small child is served a drink in an adult-sized glass:

1. The child attempts to manipulate the too-tall glass and spills all over himself.

2. The child grabs the straw and pulls it toward himself, upsetting the glass.

3. The child sees ice and puts his hand inside the cup to grab at it. “This becomes a very annoying issue for the parents,” writes Eun in an e-mail.

4. An open cup “gives the kid an opportunity to put other objects or food into the cup to watch what floats and what does not.”

5. The larger cup becomes one more thing that can possibly be knocked over by an active child.

The ultimate dining wet blanket is a wet crotch. A wet anything, really. “If you give a kid an adult glass, and it spills, it’s over,” says Eun. “The parents are pissed the rest of the meal.”

Morty’s is just one local restaurant that makes a point of preventing this waterfall effect. The restaurant’s hard-plastic children’s cups are the standard short variety with a tight-fitting lid and attached bendy straw. Eun is so passionate about dry, happy tables that the sushi joint next door, Murasaki, recently started stocking kids’ cups at Eun’s request. “The new owners [of Murasaki] all have kids,” he says. “When you have an ownership that has kids, things get a lot more family-friendly.”

And liquids are a large part of appealing to youngsters. Before a little one encounters his first taste of french fries or chicken nuggets, he’s a sucker for a cold milk or apple juice. As kids get older, the idea of a special refreshment at a restaurant—chocolate milk, a different juice, soda—is a draw in itself. And so are the special cups.

The kids’ cups at PF Chang’s in Clarendon are printed with Chinese characters and pictures of pandas. The cups at Morty’s have pictures of animals on them—which Eun says can make a big difference in a family’s dining experience. “If you have a cup with animals on it…they’ll pick up the cup and start naming the animals,” says Eun. “If there are grandparents around, they love it….It’s bad to say, but it kind of makes you think that at least your kid is adding value [to the meal].”

At Parker’s in Bethesda, keeping kids occupied and happy is part of the business plan; liquids are often, well, the magic elixir. “If kids are getting loud, we offer them some nice juice,” says server Andrea Fortes. The restaurant has an arsenal of child-calming tactics in Fortes, who used to be an au pair, and her husband, who coaches soccer in addition to serving and bartending at the restaurant. On Tuesday nights, when Parker’s offers a kids-eat-free special, the couple keep children entertained with games, coloring competitions, and singing, often at a table separate from the adults. “If the kids order too many sodas,” she says, “we ask the parents if it’s OK.”

Parker’s goes through about 250 kids’ cups a week. Though the restaurant offers lemonade, smoothies, and a half-dozen juices, most of those cups are filled with milk, says General Manager Matthew Touhey. Parker’s goes through 12 gallons of milk a week.

Even a place whose clientele drinks more mojitos than milk is starting to think of the children. Logan Circle’s hip Latin/Asian fusion restaurant Merkádo Kitchen now stocks sippy cups. They share space with the sake cups and martini glasses at the hotspot, which crawls with young singles nearly every night of the week.

“One customer made a suggestion,” says partner Josh Hahn. “We abide by the rule that if one person thinks something, then probably a lot of people do and just aren’t saying anything.” He says that Merkádo doesn’t get much young-family traffic, but that the kids who do show up like to try the restaurant’s exotic juices—and stocking the spill-proof vessels is a worthy investment. “It’s one of those things that doesn’t take up much space, doesn’t cost a whole lot of money,” he says. The restaurant has about a dozen standard washable, spill-proof cups in its permanent rotation, and rarely does one go rolling out the door, says Hahn.

For those not ready to invest so much in the future drinkers of America, there are always quick-and-dirty substitutes. The small size of Dupont Circle’s Pizzeria Paradiso makes a double-duty, can-do spirit necessary. In lieu of a kids’ menu, the kitchen will go easy on the garlic, substitute a milder cheese, or pick the chunks out of the tomato sauce for wary young eaters, says Paradiso General Manager Dean Madrid. And Paradiso’s version of a child-proof cup is a to-go cup with the lid taped on for good measure.

“Our servers are really inventive,” says Madrid. “We do what we can.”