Dining out with kids can be an emotionally fraught experience.
When mine were babies, I had a theory: If I was enjoying myself, then they were miserable, crying and inconsolable. If we were at a forgettable restaurant with unremarkable food, well, they would be happy as the clams I didn’t even get a chance to taste at the first place.
Now that they are older, incongruities still abound, but mainly they have to do with food preferences. My son, Gabe, 10, is a cheeseburger-aholic, happy with almost any version, but with only meat and cheese. “Plain and dry” is his middle name.
Meanwhile, Maya, 7, has a increasingly inscrutable palate. One minute she loves the guacamole at Meso Maya — not her namesake — and the sesame chicken at Tokyo Cafe, the next, she’s plotting revenge against the mean parents who didn’t take the breading off her chicken sandwich at Woodshed Smokehouse.
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Kids menus can seem a virtual wasteland for restaurant kitchens, where many turn out pallid nuggets and inedible burger sliders with disturbing aplomb. So, I can’t help but applaud the places that offer stellar food for the younger set.
All of which means, at the following restaurants, I’m the one who’s upset when I can’t have some of their food.
East Hampton Sandwich Co.
The menu: Classic mac n’ cheese ($4.25), grilled cheese ($4.95), chicken strips (grilled or fried, $4.95), cheeseburger ($5.95)
Off the menu: Let’s say your picky eater requires a plain turkey sandwich on white bread. Not a problem: East Hampton will make it for you, and despite its bland potential, the sandwich, served on the restaurant’s white bread from Empire Baking Co., is a simple, clean marvel of fresh deli meat and fluffy bread.
The sides: I have yet to meet a kid that didn’t like EH’s housemade potato chips, kettle-like, crisp and addictively salty.
Why you’ll come back: Each meal comes with chips and a fountain drink, so the kids menu is a great deal and well-priced. Which means the grown-ups will have plenty of money left to order the lobster roll ($17.95): salty knuckle and claw meat bathed in a light aioli and served on a buttery bun. And when your kids don’t finish their chips, use them (the chips, not the kids) as a conduit for the lobster that runneth over.
Bread Winners Cafe
The menu: With more than five entrees to choose from at breakfast and at lunch, and more than 10 offerings at dinner, the kids menu at Bread Winners echoes its large adult counterpart. The kitchen-sink effect may render your table paralyzed with indecisiveness or it may promote excitement. Best bets include the fried chicken tenders and waffle ($6) at breakfast, and the mini sliders and fries ($6) at lunch.
Off the menu: With its plethora of baked goods at the ready — and on most routes to a table — you might have a hard time convincing the kids to focus on the meal at hand.
The sides: The shoestring fries are diner-worthy and the gratis coffee cake/other pastries dispatched pre-meal are irresistible.
Why you’ll come back: With the kids menu taking pride-of-place here — it actually is printed inside a children’s book — the youngest diners at the table feel special from the very beginning of the meal. And I’ve yet to meet a kid who didn’t want special attention.
Spiral Diner & Bakery
The menu: And then there’s the age-old industry adage: If a vegan restaurant can do a kids menu right, you know it’s a good restaurant. Because what kid can’t resist cashew-cheese and broccoli?
Kidding! Mine, of course, can, but they love coming here because of the kitchen’s creative take on classic fare. You hardly miss the meat and dairy, which is why Spiral Diner has found such success among the adult crowd, too.
With a healthy selection of kids entrees —tofu scramble or beans and quinoa, ahem, Maya? — more popular standbys do exist. The mac and cheese is perfectly cooked elbow macaroni with that cashew cheese — creamy and you can hardly taste the health! — and the cheese quesadilla exploits the melt-y qualities of the vegan “cheese” to good effect.
Meanwhile, the ’sketti — that’s what it’s called on the menu — with its soy meatballs, features so winsome a marinara that the kids will hardly blink from the missing meat.
Off the menu: The Standard Smoothie — bananas and strawberries — might be the easiest way to ease potassium into one’s child.
The sides: One brownie a la mode, please.
Why you’ll come back: Service is beyond laid back, plus the bright colors and comfy booths will soothe any potential anxiety about the influx of vitamins.
Fred’s Texas Cafe
The menu: A junior best-of version, the kids menu (for those 12 and under, the menu cautions) includes chicken strips, a corny dog, grilled cheese and a cheese quesadilla. Conspicuously missing is the burger, a Fred’s hallmark, and a potential issue.
The solution is easy but more expensive: Order your child a regular Fredburger. The kids chicken strips are fabulous, though, with the thick breaded planks sharing basket space with mountain of skin-on fries, a slice of Texas toast and a small bowl of pepper-flecked gravy. (At our table, the offending gravy and toast are removed quickly from the child’s line of sight and set in front of the adult who weighs the least at that moment. Your experience may vary.)
Off the menu: See the Fredburger, suitable for cheeseburger-loving 10-year-olds.
The sides: See fries. And if you’re feeling flush, order them as cheese fries.
Why you’ll come back: At the TCU location on Bluebonnet Circle, a stage, a jukebox and pool tables have an undeniable magnetic pull on anyone under 10. You’ll enjoy your meal because your kids are not at the table.
915 Currie St., Fort Worth, 817-332-0083; 2730 Western Center Blvd., Fort Worth, 817-232-0111; 3509 Bluebonnet Circle, Fort Worth, 817-916-4650; http://fredstexascafe.com
The menu: Seldom does the notion of “clean eating” conjure happy children, but Modern Market, a Colorado-based concept that succeeds in making healthy food craveable and delicious, offers some spot-on kids items.
From mac and cheese (with organic noodles, natch) to a grilled-cheese-and-tomato sandwich, the focus is on veggies and protein, with carbs of the complex variety.
There’s a build-your-own salad option and a half-pizza that features a three-cheese blend and organic red sauce. The chicken plate has flavorful rotisserie chicken slices alongside whipped mashed potatoes and a side salad. A juice or milk box completes what might be the most nutrient-dense meal your kids will ever eat.
Off the menu: If you come for breakfast, kids will have a hard time resisting the cinnamon waffles; they could be the most decadent item on either menu. Topped with cinnamon, butter and pecans, the waffle — whole wheat, so don’t tell the kids! — hits all the right notes, pillowy, crunchy and sweet.
The sides: The sweet potato rosemary mash might have more sugar, but you can be assured it’s good for you.
Why you’ll come back: Unreasonably tasty, the food at Modern Market makes you feel good. And by process of osmosis, your kids will feel good — even if they take only six bites of it.