Our Dinner With Junior

Munching with munchkins? Here are 15 kid-friendly eateries-and some tips on avoiding dinner disasters on the grilled-cheese circuit.

IT WAS A RECENT SUNDAY AND MY IN-LAWS were in town. My husband and I met them at church with our 5-year-old boy and aImost-2 girl and then decided to go for brunch, seeding on Kathleen’s Art Cafe on Lovers Lane because it was nearby and because I knew the food was great. And while that much was true, brunch was an unqualified disaster.

We waited in a narrow space at the front of the restaurant, next to several two-top tables peopled by nicely dressed couples and in close quarters with many other church-attired grown-ups. My son Jack chose to wait in the prone position, in the middle of the floor. I’m sure all those seemingly civilized patrons were appalled. My mother-in-law was appalled. I know this because she took pictures to document the moment. I was appalled, too, but at least Jack was quiet and not complaining, so I let the behavior continue. For 30 minutes.

When at last we were seated, Jack had to go to the bathroom. To get to the men’s room, which I think is about the size of a broom closet and holds one occupant, you have to go through the kitchen. Of course Jack thought this was the coolest thing in the world. He went to the bathroom at least 12 times during the course of a hour and ate exactly one bite of his French toast.

Eating Out with Kids, I’ve learned, should not be confused with its distant relative, Dining Out. The criteria for a good experience in the two cases differ dramatically. When Dining Out, we look for great food and an atmosphere conducive to conversation and digestion. When Eating Out with Kids, the formula changes as we re-establish some priorities. Number one, of course, is to limit the number of people your kids will bother. Other essentials include short wait times to be seated, to get your food, and to get your check; and of course a menu that includes kid-sized portions of food that children might even eat.

Beyond that we look for kid-focused amenities; things that help keep your child in place and entertained. These include booster chairs and high chairs, crayons on the table, some kind of snack food to munch on while you wait, waiters and waitresses who smile at your kids and may even make them laugh, a diverting decor with lots to look at or even a TV to watch. If you’re really lucky, you may even get balloons and a clown.

At a distant third in the equation for successful eating with kids are parent-focused amenities: a good menu with choices you’ll actually enjoy eating if you have time between wiping chins and grabbing for tumbling salt shakers; reasonable prices for the kids’ food; and, of course, a good house wine. These, unfortunately, seem to be inversely proportional to the number of kid-focused amenities in any given establishment.

With these thoughts in mind, we ate our way across town and found the best places to take the kids. Some lean toward the kid-crazy where food is an afterthought and the milk always comes in Styrofoam cups with lids; some actually enter the realm of a white-tablecloth Dining Out experience where milk is served in a glass, no straw. Most are family-friendly happy mediums, where kids have a great time, parents enjoy their meals, and no one goes home with a headache. One final note: We left big chains off this list-what could we tell you that you don’t know about Chili’s?-but a list of some lesser-known chains is on page 92.

Read, eat, enjoy. Here’s milk in your eye.

Baby Doe’s Matchless Mine

“I CAN’T WAIT TO EAT INSIDE A GIANT BRAIN,” said my 5-year-old on the way to dinner one night. it took me a few moments to realize that he had improperly tacked on a final consonant to the restaurant’s name. His disappointment was somewhat assuaged when we reached the driveway of the nearly-downtown establishment and had to drive up a steep hill, Hills are something to talk about when you’ re 5 and live in Dallas. Then he saw the mule that greets diners at the valet circle, wandered through the restaurant’s mine tunnel, and ogled at the

taxidermified snake in the gift shop. Things were definitely looking up. Baby Doe’s leans heavily toward the Dining Out side of the scale with white tablecloths, a quiet dining room, and many couples on dates, but its themed decor and view of the city {okay, it’s mainly a view of the highways) are appealing to kids of all ages, While my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed a soup, a fresh salad, filet mignon with grilled vegetables, and a fine bottle of Beaujolais, the children enthusiastically watched Stars game traffic pile up on 1-35 and nibbled on their fries. The children’s menu, at $5.95 to $7.95 a plate, includes munchkin faves like freshly prepared chicken fingers, fish sticks, ravioli, and a hot dog that is a spicy sausage, not the usual processed meat. All come with fries, soft drinks, and a scoop of ice cream. 3305 Harry times Blvd., 871-7310.


EATING HERE IS LIKE VISITING YOUR GRANDmother’s ranch, The restaurant even looks like a house and boasts wood paneling, fireplaces, and cozy furnishings. Waiters and waitresses are exceptionally friendly and chatty and put you, your kids, and the other customers-a cross-generational group-right at home as you munch on melba toast, sesame bread-sticks, and other packaged treats on the table, The menu features homecooking, naturally- treats like chicken and dumplings, and turkey and dressing. While portions are generous, save room for the freshly baked rolls and muffins. Children’s plates are $3.95 and include chicken-fried steak, fried catfish, baked chicken, and spaghetti, as well as the ubiquitous grilled cheese and chicken fingers. But don’t expect any tries here. Instead you’ll get a bowl of fresh seasonal fruit. Yum. 4503 W. Lovers Ln., 351-5681.

Mac’s Bar & Grill

A PLANO FAVORITE, THIS IS A GOOD SPOT TO meet with friends who want to eat well. With oak furnishings, white tablecloths, hunter green fabrics, and white-aproned waiters and waitresses, this bright, clean restaurant has a clubby feel. The menu is New Orleans- and Southern-influenced with starters including filé gumbo and Cajun chicken wings, and main selections such as oyster po’ boys, étouffée, and shrimp espanola, Prices range from $2.95 for a burger to $12.95 for a ribeye steak or gulf red snapper. The weekday lunch crowd is almost all business people, with a couple tables of moms and kids (on their best behavior}. While this is mainly an adult restaurant, as signaled by the nice wine list, children have their own menu including a not particularly noteworthy pizza ($2.95 for plain cheese), spaghetti (also $2.95), and of course chicken strips ($3.95), and a grilled cheese ($2.95). The fresh Goldbrick of bread brought before each meal is a winner. My 2-year-old waited patiently for lunch, slathering the bread with butter, and then smearing the mess across her face. 2301 N. Central Expwy., Piano (on the west side between Park and Parker roads), 881-2804.


IF YOU HAVE A FEW HOURS FOR A LEISURELY lunch, the best seats in town are in the middle of The Dallas World Aquarium in the West End. The small restaurant, owned by well-known caterer Daryl Richardson, is peopled on weekdays with business types and on weekends with the family crowd. It features a superb, aquatically inspired menu that is divided into four parts, reflecting the geographic regions from which the aquarium’s fish hail. Choose delicacies such as snapper vera cruz (Mexico, $10.50), coconut shrimp (The Bahamas, $8.50), saté of the day {Indonesia, $7.95), or shrimp on the barbie (Australia, $8.50 -and be sure to explain to your daughter that it’s not that kind of Barbie). Start with warm bread and a cup of Daryl’s famous corn chowder, a spicy, warming blend of fresh corn, peppers, and chunks of potatoes in a creamy base. The children’s menu boasts grilled cheese, a burger, and fish and chips-moist, fish-shaped morsels baked with a breaded crust. While you’re waiting, and then again after you top it all off with ice cream and a homemade brownie, tour the small but spectacular aquarium; the tanks are filled with such wonders as sea dragons, sting rays, and penguins. One warning: You’ll have to pay the admission tee first to enter the museum. It’s $5 for adults, $3 for children 3-18, and free for those under 3. 1801 N. Griffin St., 720-1801 (aquarium); 720-2224 (restaurant).

Mi Casa

IT’S FUNNY HOW SOME PLACES DRAW THE family crowd from Day One. While this Preston Center eatery looks like a lot of Tex-Mex restau rant-bars with bright colors, crates of beer as decorations, and a bar up front, the emphasis here is on family fun. I know because this has been one of our regular spots since it opened several years ago. At that time my son balked at a menu that didn’t feature his beloved grilled cheese; they made one for him anyway and a few months later we were pleased and amused to find it on the menu for ninos. My daughter, a little more adventurous, likes the hot dog rolled in a flour tortilla and smothered in melted cheese. I like the flame-grilled chicken salad with a dressing of honey, lime juice, and cilantro, while mi esposo loves all of the many moderately priced combination platters. Kid-friendly amenities include large, hand-painted snakes weaving their way through the ceiling rafters, lots of salty chips, and a big bowl of candy to sift through and choose from on the way out. 8305 Westchester Dr., 890-9939.

The Dream Cafe

LOOKING AT THE CHILDREN’S MENU HERE, the admonition to Indiana Jones raced through my mind: Choose wisely. No, the menu is not riddled with disastrous, avalanche-inducing choices; rather, each dish was a wise choice, from the peanut butter and jelly with baked corn chips for S2.50 to the grilled chicken with rice and veggies for four bucks. My miniature dining companions true genius, chose the turkey hot dog (hold the sweet pickle relish and mustard, please), which turned out to be a four-course meal for her, hot dog first, then whole-wheat bun, then the small tub of ketchup eaten finger-food style as we waited for the check, and finally the corn chips, wrapped to go in a neat white box. Grown-ups have lots of healthy, yummy choices, too, including salads-Southwestern. Thai noodles, Greek-and thick sandwiches served on homemade toasted sourdough (my personal favorite is the California Dreamin’, with tomato and sprouts layered with melted cheese and pesto). Service is kid-friendly- our waitress stopped to help my daughter decide between coloring her menu with Tickle Me Pink or Purple Mountain’s Majesty Crayolas, and this is the perfect kid-spot when the weather’s nice, as it will be soon. Sit outside for a weekend brunch or early in the evening and relax as your children scamper across the green lawn; bring your own toys or grab a ball from the restaurant’s own toy box. 2800 Routh St. in the Quadrangle, 954-0486.

Slider & Blues

AT THE KID-CRAZY END OF THE SPECTRUM lies this popular spot on Hillcrest Avenue and Northwest Highway. Families flood in each night. (I’ve eaten here at least 40 or 50 times, and each time there’s been at least one group of kids in matching jerseys fresh from a game somewhere.) The noise level is sky-high: Combine a large game room with air hockey. TVs in every corner, and a clown and magician on weekend nights with the cacophony of kids’ voices. The menu features burgers and pizza and sandwiches, none of which, except maybe the thin-slice pizza, is especially good. I’ve bad several friends tell me they stopped going to Slider & Blues because they just couldn’t find anything on the menu worth eating. But you don’t really go here for the food, anyway. You go because your kids love it and because you know that they won’t be bothering anyone here no matter how loud they are. And the prices are right-it’s hard to find anything over $5 on the menu. 8517 Hillcrest Ave, 696-8632.


OLDER KIDS WHO SIT GLUED ON WEDNESDAY nights to the antics of Brandon, Kelly, and the other 90210ers will love this place, with its surrealistic walls painted by local artists, its CD jukebox, its cool crowd, and its ultra-hip young waiters and waitresses draped in monotone black and sporting the latest shade of Bobbi Brown lipstick. The menu is pretty pre-teen-attractive, too, with delicious burgers (the 8.0 being the classic, served, as they say, with “mayo, mustard, and all the other junk that is supposed to go on a proper burger”), and greasy, fatty starters like crispy zucchini, nachos, fried purple worms (onions), and quesadillas (yucky, said my child, and sure enough they were soggy). The more health-conscious will find chicken salad, sliced fresh tomatoes, a Larry North plate (grilled chicken breast, what a surprise), and a Green Plate special featuring grilled vegetable tacos with wheat tortillas. There’s a kid’s menu, too, with meals under $4 such as Peter Pan, Ban, and Pooh (peanut butter, banana, and honey), turkey burgers, and a 4.0 burger. 2800 Routh St. in the Quadrangle, 979-0880.


ONE SERVING OF THE SIGNATURE FRIED chicken here probably carries enough fat grams to satisfy a platoon of Marines for a week. But it’s worth every bite, as are the vegetable sides (mashed potatoes and gravy, fried okra, green beans, and French fries among others) and the massive yeasty rolls. Bubba’s counter service is extremely efficient and helpful; one woman held my checkbook steady while I juggled a toddler in my other arm, and another woman carried my tray through the sea of red Naugahyde booths filled with SMU students, other moms and kids, and a handful of assorted locals. There’s no kids’ menu, per se, so you may want to share. 6617 Hillcrest Ave,, 373-6527.

Royal China

UH-OH. HERE WE HAVE A WHITE-TABLECLOTH establishment that does not offer booster seats and doesn’t even have milk on the menu. Sounds dangerous to those with tots in tow. But thanks to owner Buck Kao, Royal China restaurant is truly a neighborhood gathering place. Buck tours the room, giving history lessons about China if you ask and welcoming new visitors with a handshake and a smile. My picky son, who finds rice and fortune cookies the only worthwhile items on a Chinese menu, loves this place because of the place mats that explain the Chinese astrological signs, because they gave him two sets of chopsticks to take home and practice with, because he got to drink Coke instead of milk, because of the big tank of goldfish in the entryway, and because when he knocked off a door on the cabinet underneath the goldfish tank, no one yelled at him. The friendly and efficient hostess simply walked over and put it back in place. Children’s plates range from $3.95 for egg noodles with brown or white sauce to $5.95 for fried shrimp. Mine chose the chicken nuggets, crunchy deep-fried morsels of fresh poultry that bore no resemblance to the ones they often eat under the golden arches. I had the cashew chicken with steamed rice and an egg roll-MSG free, delicious, and enough for two at just $7.95. 201 Preston Royal Village (northeast corner of Preston Road and RoyalLane), 361-1771.

The Magic Time Machine

MY FRIENDS WHO GREW UP IN Dallas remember this venerable theme restaurant as a special place for special occasions. Waiters and waitresses dress as storybook characters, and the interior of the restaurant is a maze of crazily designed booths including a giant jack o’ lantern, a dunce cap, a school bus, and an old-fashioned lunchbox in the shape of a mailbox, lined with brown fur and painted with the quirky little zip code man you may remember from the early ’60s. Our nerdy waiter (the Mad Hatter) told the same jokes over and over to each table, but my kids did not seem to notice or care, and they loved it when he sliced the loaf of bread to make it look like the whale in Free Willy (or so he and my kids believe). The only problem here is the food is pretty bad, and it’s pretty expensive. Appearances, as they say, aren’t everything. The salad bar is a red convertible, which my kids thought was exciting, but the iceberg lettuce and other cut, aging veggies were definitely dull. My $18 filet mignon (most of which ended up in my cat’s bowl the next day) was served with a leathery baked potato. The children ate one bite each of their $5.99 dinners, which took 45 minutes to get to the table; the chopped steak was a bad-tasting hamburger patty, the tater tots were greasy, and I couldn’t even bring myself to try the chicken fingers. The kids’ chocolate chip cookies never made it to the table, but my little ones didn’t care. They were there to have fun-not eat-and they did. 5003 Belt Line Rd., Addison, 980-1903.

Highland Park Pharmacy

WHEN MY SPIRIT CRIES OUT FOR SIMPLER times, I take the kids to the lunch counter where all remains right with the world. High ceilings boast lazily spinning fans, and the menu offers simple but true comfort food like a grilled cheese (hold the mayo and lettuce, please) and a rich, thick shake. (“You can’t come in here and not have a shake,” noted my server on a recent visit, nodding his head in understanding.) This is an interesting crossroads for mommies and their kids, the tennis-playing set, business men and women, and the older crowd. Service is efficient and always friendly. Who says Dallas is a big, impersonal city? 3229 Knox St., 521-2126.

Ball’s Hamburgers

NOW HERE’S A CLASSIC: RED-AND-WHITE checked tablecloths, televisions in the background (tuned to ballgames, natch), and a straightforward burgers-salads-and-sand-wiches menu. Kids gravitate to baskets of the Little Leaguers, three plain, silver-dollar-sized burgers tucked inside mounds of fries ($2.25), while braver stomachs head for the spicier items in the Mexican League category, such as deep-fried jalapenos ($4.95), This is a stomping ground for the Park Cities crowd- at lunch, men in suits mix with moms and their progeny and with the SMU Greek scene, While it’s order-at-the-counter service, the staff is friendly and accommodating-they brought my lunch to me when I visited with my toddler. There’s a game room, but its video games don’t produce the cacophony found in some places. That means the kids stay busy- but you won’t need your bottle of Excedrin. 3404 Rankin St., 3734717.

Chelsea Corner

WHILE THE YOUNG AND THE CHILDLESS MAY know this place only as a bar, during the day and early evenings it is a cozy neighborhood establishment with a burgers, pizza, and rnunchies menu that has loads of kid-appeal. The moderately priced portions are more than generous, so you may want to chink about sharing dishes. My kids like the Cheese and Fruit Plate (fresh apples, pineapple, grapes, and orange slices with triangles of Cheddar on a recent visit, but a disappointing loaf of bread that tasted like it was warmed from the freezer} and the curly fries dusted with cheese. Top your meal off with The Un-Called-For, a chocolate ice cream pie made with coffee liqueur, and let the kids have some homemade fruit cobbler and ice cream. 4830 McKinney Ave. at Monticello Ave. 521-8780.


EVERY SO OFTEN SOMEONE PUBLISHES THE number of fat grams in a serving of Snuffer’s cheese fries, and we all pretend to be shocked and swear never again to let those straight- from-Satan munchies pass our lips. But inevitably, our resolve weakens, and we drag our children along that road paved with good intentions and right into one of the big, comfy Snuffer’s booths. This casual restaurant has a limited menu, but it’s hard to go wrong with burgers, the chicken sandwich, or the chicken Caesar salad. Go early on weekend nights, as the crowds build quickly. 14910 Midway Rd., Addison, 991-8811 and 3526 Greenville Ave., 826-6850.

“CAN WE GO BACK TO ROYAL CHINA?” BACK at home, our travels on the grilled-cheese circuit are still fresh on my son Jack’s mind. He and I have just been re-reading the paper place mat from said restaurant that details the Chinese astrological signs. He’s enthralled by the fact that he was born in the Year of the Horse. “Yes,” I assured him. “We’ll go back soon.” Family dining, I’ve learned, isn’t what it used to be when we were kids and our parents took us for the Birthday Meal at the Steak Place of Choice. Eating Out with Kids is much more. It’s a family adventure. “And mommy,” adds Jack, “I should never marry a Rat.” See? You never know what you might learn.


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