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What makes a restaurant child-friendly?

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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
                m
                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.

                  Smokey

                  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.