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What makes a restaurant child-friendly?

  • p

I see frequent requests on the various boards for child-friendly restaurants. I also get the feeling that there are widely varying standards as to what equates to child-friendly.

Some posters (often those who are childless, but not all) seem to equate child-friendly with "family" restaurants, as in places where your screaming brat will be one among many. The only time I will consider one of those is if we are with our niece and nephew, whose parents have some odd ideas about parental control in restaurants. This is McWendyKing, but with table service and higher prices.

Others seem to equate child-friendly with places that provide crayons, colorable menus, and kid's meals. These may or may not be family restaurants. I've seen some very adult places go totally overboard to entertain children, up to and including providing toys for the kids to borrow during the meal. Our kid likes the local brewpub for this reason.

And then, there are the places that don't have special provisions for kids other than booster seats and high chairs, but are sensitive to the special needs of families with young children. There may not be crayons, but the staff will know that they might offer to bring the child's entree when the appetizers come. Kids are welcome, and there are probably some other well-behaved children dining there. There may even be a kid's selection that mimics the adult fare, only modified for a child's sensibilities--fewer complex sauces and such. Or it might be something like dim sum, where the speed of the food's arrival and the parade of carts are fascinating to a youngster.

We tend to dine at places that are in the third category. I definitely consider them kid-friendly. Waitstaff hover over our kid, and we're constantly getting comments about how big she is getting. We're pros at scanning the menu and finding items appropriate for a 5 year-old who will try almost anything, but dislikes gooey sauces and a few particular spices. Even the most incendiary cusines have some less intense dishes. She knows to stay in her seat and will complain if other children are ill-behaved.

But I'm reluctant to call this third category child-friendly when people ask for child-friendly restaurants. I suspect this isn't what they were seeking. Do I just state that a place of this sort, "welcomes well-behaved children and has food appropriate for an adventuresome young palate?"

Is there a better code out there? A lot of posters seem to be asking on behalf of visiting relatives, and they don't necessarily have a clue as to whether little Bobby and Juanita can sit through a meal without errupting. Our area (DC) has a ton of ethnic places with kid-friendly dishes and staff; I hate to condemn Bobby and Juanita to the local diner when they could be munching the kid's sushi platter (all cooked) at my local sushi and sake bar.

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  1. I have 2 boys (ages 8 and 2) and we eat out often. We NEVER go to McWendyBurger.....or TGIFriday, or such.
    We DO try to exercise some control over their behavior (I have taken the baby home many times.....and when the older one was little, I occasionally had to take him outside to calm down). OTOH, 2 year olds are not as calm and quiet as most adults (but not as noisy as, say, drunks).

    I don't care about 'kids meals' - in most places, they are fried junk; it's nice if the place will make half orders. Often an appetizer is enough, esp. for the little one.

    To me, a somewhat child friendly place is a) Not too quiet; b) Serves food quickly; c) Offers a variety of items; and d) Tries to cope.

    A very child friendly place will have waiters who actually like kids; not be cramped; offer a spot for strollers; and maybe even provide crayons.

    Parents, however, can do a lot to make a child more restaurant-friendly. Bring a couple toys (one great one is Magna Doodle). Don't order multi-course meals. Pay attention to the kids (I have seen many parents just ignoring their kids until they throw a fit.....sheesh). Check out the place before you bring the kids. etc.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Peter Flom

      We play word games with our 5 year-old to stave off boredom as we wait for the meal to arrive. It's been 20 questions for quite some time now, but before that it was a version of I Spy.

      The niece and nephew I mentioned in my original post have evidently never experienced such parental entertainment; we ended up at a tapas place with them last year and the kids were fascinated. Though I never witnessed it, my in-laws tell me the niece used to be permitted to wander around a restaurant, begging bits of food from diners. The amazing thing is that her mother waitressed while in college and still thought this was okay.

    2. Since we're on CH, I'd give posters the benefit of the doubt and go ahead and suggest those ethnic places with friendly staff. To me a big part of what makes a place "child-friendly" would be staff that smiles when you walk in with kids. Low lighting, hushed room and/or worried-looking waiter would probably be things that made me question whether a spot was appropriate.
      I personally won't be looking for kid's menus or crayons when I become a parent, although I do expect to have fewer options.

      5 Replies
      1. re: julesrules

        "I personally won't be looking for kid's menus or crayons when I become a parent"

        No, you will quickly learn to bring your own crayons! :)

        1. re: Junie D

          Crayons, I think, are a disaster waiting to happen.
          They roll. They get lost. They get sat on. The paper gets torn up and thrown around.

          I like toys that don't do any of those things.
          For little ones: Magnadoodle (sorry to keep mentioning it), or fairly small dolls or similar toys.
          For bigger ones - Game boy or the equivalent, with the requirement that the volume be turned DOWN

          1. re: Peter Flom

            Little ziploc baggies of cheerios are also a disaster waiting to happen, and will most likely end up ground into the carpeting for the rest of the night.

            1. re: Peter Flom

              Depending on the child and the setting, child-friendly can mean anything from human-sized mice and whack-a-mole to an offer of a telephone book.

              I'm not a parent (yet), so, clearly, I can think whatever I like, and just wait till I AM one someday and change my mind. :) That said, I'm in the third camp as well, but "entertainment bags" aren't my bag, so to speak. I'll likely follow the plan my parents did, by taking us to restaurants we were ready for, without special concessions.

              My parents held our table manners to the same standard at home as if we were eating at the finest table in the land, so the reciprocal seems natural. Magnadoodles and game boys are fine toys, but dining with family can be entertainment enough for a child in the appropriate setting, and dining out a privilege.

              I may well change my mind once I have my own brood. :)

              1. re: Peter Flom
                Michele Cindy

                Crayola has a series of mess free markers and mess free finger paints. They are clear until the hit the special paper, that's when the color appears. They are perfect for travel, & dining.

          2. When I lived in the States, we definitely went for category 3. There were lots of places where my son was the only child in the restaurant, but we never worried about it, as long as he was on good behavior. Because we had our regular haunts, we were almost always well-received. For me, the key to a child-friendly spot was always that it was busy, but not too busy. Noisy, but not too noisy.

            Now that we live in Spain, 95% of the restaurants here fall into this third category (with the exception of providing unheard of high-chairs and boosters--though phonebooks are plentiful)... I feel a huge weight lifted, because kids are expected to accompany their parents and extended families to restaurants.

            They aren't catered to in any special way--like kids' menus or animatronic dolls--they are simply welcome, relentlessly doted on, and not expected to behave perfectly (though most are seasoned 'hounds, having dined out regularly their entire lives, and are pretty well-behaved).

            1. I can tell you what doesn't make a child-friendly restaurant.

              1. Do not presume that children's meals need to include dessert, and please do not announce that to my daughter at the beginning of the meal.

              1a. Do not presume that all parents want to feed their child overly processed chicken "nuggets" in the shape of dinosaurs or smiley faces. Children can and do eat non-deep fried foods and they do like things other than hot dogs.

              2. Do not presume that all children love French fries. My daughter does not like them and won't eat them. Do not try and convince me otherwise in front of her.

              3. Do not presume that we go out to eat to watch television, particularly at ear-splitting volumes. Likewise with the piped in music, some of which is highly inappropriate for children.

              4. Do not presume that, when we walk in the door, that our child will be as obnoxious as the booth of children in the corner that are throwing crayons and chasing each other around the restaurant. If the restaurant is empty, don't sit us directly adjacent to them just because we have a child. Nobody, with child or childless, enjoys eating in a daycare.

              And finally, my pet peeve:

              5. If we order a soda for our child, do not set down the super-deluxe 64-oz soda without a lid or a straw directly in front of our child and say, "We have free refills!" Have a truly "small" soda for children; the size of a bar cocktail glass is perfectly adequate.

              2 Replies
              1. re: MkeLaurie

                Another pet peeve:

                Don't assume we want the kids' food first. For us, that doesn't work. If we all get served at the same time, then we are all busy eating at the same time. If the kids get served first, they are done when we get served, and we can't eat at all peacefully.

                1. re: Peter Flom

                  I think the bottom line here is, don't assume.

                  Ask the parents (depending on age of child, the child) what they want. Give silent look to parent for approval. Perhaps ask parent if there are specific dietary restrictions the restaurant can help with.

                  But don't assume that what works with one child will work with any other, and that what one parent wants to do with their child (e.g. feed them the 64oz soda with multiple refills and then let them rampage throughout the restaurant burning off sugar high) is what the next parent wants to do with his/her child.


                  p.s. as to OP, I think the things that one looks for in child friendly really vary with age of child. The attention span of a child is totally different at different times (both of day and of life!). What I look for is a non-stressful experience. Any restaurant that acts put upon (perturbed waitstaff, total inability to be flexible about any aspect of experience (e.g. asking waitstaff to bring/not bring out food in a particular order)) is not family friendly. I think the OP hit on something bit in her post (and was echoed by Butterfly)--developing a cadre of restaurants at which one can be a regular with one's child. Similarly, there are some cultures where children are more integrated into every aspect of daily life, including dining out. Eating at restaurants that serve food from these cultures can mean eating at family friendly restaurants, even though they aren't McWendyKing. Oh, and definitely, not too quiet, not too loud.

              2. Great post. My answer to your question is to get mileage out of this post. When you offer somebody a suggestion, link to this post and tell them your recommendations are category three, or whatever the case may be.

                1. I am in a rare mood, so I'll say this. A child-friendly restaurant is one that doesn't whisk the offending tykes away and sell them into slavery.

                  Point being that horrible parents beget horrible children. Back to your house. No food for you.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: mod'ern

                    Oh, please. My husband is a working chef and we couldn't eat out for the first 3 years of our daughter's life cuz she was such a monster. Our older kid was an angel and still is an daring eater. The girl is better, now that she's past grade-school age, but she just could not, would not sit still, eat what was in front of her, etc. So, we just didn't go out with her.
                    Bad parents don't always beget bad kids and vice versa.

                    1. re: Kitchenette

                      Oh, that is so true! Our daughter is quite well behaved now, but there were a handful of times when mid-way through our order, we flagged down the waitress and asked her to bag everything for us and we ate it in the car or at home. Once our daughter realized we wouldn't indulge bad behavior in a restaurant, just as we wouldn't at home - going out for food is a treat for the entire family - she quickly stopped.

                      My pet peeve regarding parents and children in restaurants is that some of them have no consideration for the other diners and/or waitstaff. If your child is escalating into a full-blown tantrum, take him/her out of the room before the explosion happens. Sit in the car with him/her/them if you have to (I remember locking our unrational three-year-old in the car and sitting on the trunk until she calmed down and then, once she was reasonable again, going back into the restaurant and finishing our meal).

                      I hate it when parents threaten-threaten-threaten, the kid(s) explode and the diners/waitstaff deal with the shrapnel.

                      1. re: MkeLaurie

                        Great post! I totally agree with you--you gotta call their bluff. Makes everything better for other diners and clarifies for the child that your bark has bite.

                        And I'm totally with the other poster--terrible children are not, de facto, the result of terrible parents. Yes, there is a correlation there. But children are their own beings. My child came into this world with a personality; he's not molded out of clay and animated.


                        1. re: Smokey

                          Amen to that (terrible kids not result of terrible parents).

                          We have two kids. They are night and day different.
                          In regard to restaurant behavior in particular - with the older one, if he was 'utchy' the best thing to do was to take him into the bathroom, go into a stall, and sit with him on my lap 'til he calmed down.

                          With the little one, the best thing to do is to stimulate him (usually). He loves to interact with others, and, at most of the places we go, others (usually) like to interact with him.

                          Also, like adults, they have good days and bad; and good moments and bad.

                  2. when I read post for "child friendly" places I think of someplace that isn't filled with parents out for a night without their kids...I know when we go out without the kids, which isn't often, we don't want the distraction of small ones running around the restaurant. We want to enjoy the quite, adult conversation, food, drinks, romantic atmosphere...

                    1. p


                      As you said, and as you can see from the variety of responses below, "child friendly" means different things to different people. Unfortunately, there are no magical "code words" to convey the nuances you described. If you are asked about "child-friendly" restaurants, you have to specify what YOU mean by that, i.e., this place does not have a children's menu, but they will accomodate a request for non-spicy, etc.

                      FWIW, things I look for if I'm eating with my 4-year-old twin boys, who are pretty well behaved:

                      Do they have high-chairs, booster chairs or comfortable booths, so my kids can reach the table without kneeling and tumbling off their chairs?

                      Do they have a kids' menu, or at least some items that my kids will want to eat (e.g., cheese quesadillas at a Mexican restaurant)? Also, do they serve milk?

                      If we go early-ish, is the restaurant empty enough that we can be seated unobtrusively, i.e., not too close to other tables who may not want kids nearby?

                      MOST IMPORTANT: How is the attitude there? You can usually tell pretty quickly whether the place is tolerant or clueless or downright hostile to children. I've been to some unbelievable places, like one that put open flames (candles), sharp knives and breakable glasses within reach of infants!

                      I try to do my part in making the experience pleasant for everyone by (1) bringing crayons or whatever to amuse the kids; (2) take them for a little walk around the block if the food is taking a long time and they are getting restless; (3) making sure they don't make too much noise or mess and (4) cleaning up the mess if they happen to make one.

                      1. While one of my friends might say, "a place to hang the leashes!" (or reins?).

                        My older neighbor might say, "A place to park the stroller." and I might agree with her.

                        We always had incredible service at The Gardens Cafe and Lounge in the Newport Beach Four Seasons. There aren't too many places like that, but why it worked was :

                        (1) Had lower tables and double sized lower seating (cocktail tables, actually, but Angela was comfortable standing or sitting.) And, they have couches with coffee tables. And, they have adult-size cafe tables with chairs. Booster seats for the chairs.

                        (2) Never a waiting line for a table

                        (3) Interested staff and piano player (or was that for me??) (Angela was allowed to take the tip money up and hand it to him when we left - or get the valet ticket validated)

                        (4) and so forth and so on - a place to walk that was outside, but only separated from the Gardens Cafe and by floor to ceiling windows graced by wide garden plantings. Good place for cell phone users, too.

                        I think the more often a child visits a restaurant, the more comfortable they are going there.

                        Crayons are a good idea, but then there's the "get ready" period right before the dinner is served.

                        Here's a hoot! What about having a Nanny Dining Room for kids so they can sit in bean bag chairs and watch a video or paint or read or log on to a computer, errrr, I'm not talking Chucky Cheese, but a special Nanny Room without a naughty corner or chair, you know, after their 15 minutes of dining.

                        Angela most often enjoyed staying at the table and talking with all of us after the age of 5, but you know girls!

                        1. I think it depends on the child. My children are very well behaved, and have dined in many better restaurants. But just because my quiet, adventerously palatted children can eat in a "fancy" place, doesn't mean most can. I'd even say my children are the exception. They do not talk to other diners, they don't get out of their seats, they don't need to be entertained with crayons, gameboys, dolls, or otherwise while waiting for their food, they're not screamers, hitters, or food throwers.

                          I like to think I'm raising good little chowettes, but I know most children aren't in taht category.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: ElBee

                            "I like to think I'm raising good little chowettes, but I know most children aren't in taht category."


                            I think you are giving yourself way too much credit.

                            Don't raise freaks! Raise people.

                          2. Well, it looks as though Category 3 is it for me, with appropriate caveats. The family needs to be restaurant friendly to go to a Category 3 restaurant.

                            I think we're all in agreement as to what makes a family restaurant-friendly, which was the topic of a lot of the comments.

                            A restaurant-friendly family knows their children, does not create situations where the kids are not likely to behave, and removes their kids from the restaurant if they cannot behave. And of course, they tip generously if the kids create a mess.

                            1. The patrons.

                              Some folks are just kid-haters, and think dining out should be their own little private affair.

                              Boo those folks!