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Kid-Friendly Restaurants

Dining out with kids shouldn’t be restricted to burgers and pizza. Nor should parents have to tolerate a dumbed-down menu while trying to enjoy a decent meal. The good news is Dallas has real, grownup restaurants that cater to kids. And they may surprise
By D Magazine |

My daughter Anna was only 4 years old when she broke a sugar bowl at Actuelle, then rated one of the top five restaurants in Dallas.  I bring up this painful parenting moment not as an example of how graciously, unobtrusively, and efficiently a restaurant should be prepared to deal with an unexpected mess—though Clive Donoghue and his staff were all of that. Nor to point out that the lovely, shell-shaped glass bowl was a good indicator of the overall taste level of Actuelle—though the restaurant was top shelf in every respect. And certainly not as a peevish introduction to a complaint about how tacky it is for fine restaurants to present sugar packets on a white-clothed table, instead of a proper, though breakable, sugar bowl.

I mention the shattered sugar bowl as an example of the perils of taking children to restaurants. My career as a restaurant critic began about the same time my daughter was born, and the two grew not only simultaneously, but often in the same place.

I eat my peas with honey.

I’ve done it all my life.

It makes the peas taste funny.

But it keeps them on my knife.

My mother used to recite this verse to us at the dinner table when one of us children was attempting to juggle peas on a fork. Learning to eat properly, at home or in a restaurant, used to be part of a parentally prescribed education. (Of course, that was when parents were still generally regarded as being responsible for their children’s behavior.) Every so often, we would get dressed up in what were then known as “Sunday clothes,” and the whole family would go out to eat at a fine restaurant.

Why Fine Dine with Kids?

The same reason you sign them up for piano lessons and make sure they learn to read well. The better you can do something, the more you enjoy it. Dining is not all about etiquette and manners. There are places that can teach your children the technicalities of fine dining. But only you can teach them the thrill of tasting something new, the relaxation that comes from knowing how to be waited on, and the pleasure of politeness. You can lead by example and experience, one of the few sensual glories of civilization.

All this aims pretty high. But I assume my parents had this in mind as they guided us through continental menus, and it’s what I kept firmly in mind as the busboy swept up the sugar bowl. Because of my job as a dining critic, my kids ate out more than most. We ate dinner together every night, but the dinner was Thai, New American, seafood, sushi, global water cuisine, or whatever else our chef du jour had dreamed up.

HELPFUL LESSONS

1. You can find chicken and rice on any menu.

2. Several appetizers make an adequately nutritious meal.

3. Good dinner table conversation includes everyone, which means conversation topics need to be interesting to a 5-year-old and a 50-year-old.

Kids are eating out in restaurants more than ever, but mostly in restaurants that cater to kids. When paper tablecloths and crayons, dumbed-down menus, and unacceptable decibel levels are de rigueur in frankly adult restaurants, the line between kid-friendly restaurants and day care gets blurred. The idea that children’s restaurant experiences should be limited to burgers and pizza means that the parents will be eating burgers and pizza until the kids get their driver’s licenses. I protest. Following are some of D’s recommendations for dining out, family style.

The Show Always Goes On

If the kids are little, it’s hard to get them past the koi ponds out front and into their booster chairs. But once everyone is settled around the table-sized teppanyaki grill with their juice cocktails in the Buddha-shaped glasses (rum for some, soda for others), the curtain goes up and Benihana proves that there’s no show business like the restaurant business.

Chefs know that kitchen is theater, but at Benihana, they put the star in the spotlight and make cooking the entertainment. I’ve never seen a bored kid at Benihana, and even the coolest teens thaw before the kitchen kung fu on display at every table.

The menu is all recognizable food—prime sirloin, chicken, fresh seafood, and vegetables—cooked, says the legend on the menu, according to 1,000-year-old Japanese recipes. The ancient Japanese evidently preferred food simple and lightly seasoned enough to be as inoffensive as baby food. The piquancy in Benihana’s menu is all in the prep. The waiter bows and presents you with a steak knife drawn from his holster. The dazzling chef dashes his searing shrimp with soy sauce and black pepper, then playfully pirouettes and slices the tail off, flips the tail into his pocket, and tosses the cooked shrimp onto the dinner plate. The little ones, still puffy-eyed from saying goodbye to the koi, are hypnotized by the flash of the razor-sharp knives, slicing and dicing faster than a food processor. The 3-year-old has forgotten she doesn’t “like” shrimp and starts gnawing on it. She understands this show is for her, and eyeing the chicken dancing on the griddle, points to it and says defiantly, “My chicken.” She even eats vegetables (chopped into the rice). As the chef nods goodbye, the table breaks into applause. And there’s nothing but dry eyes at the table. Benihana, 7775 Banner Dr. 972-387-4404.

The Father-Daughter Date 

There she is: the former 4-year-old sugar-bowl breaker in velvet spaghetti straps and a carefully made-up face. Of course the makeup is a little heavy—she’s 15 and learns about style from MTV.

The maitre d’ bends over to kiss her hand and tells her how lovely she looks this evening. The dining room is dark, sparkling with crystal chandeliers, and upholstered in flattering peach flowers. Fresh roses and tall tapers (not votives) decorate every table. This is Old Warsaw, apparently eternal, and the perfect setting for a dress-up date with Dad.

The table is close to the grand piano. The valet who takes the car wears a coat and tie; the waiter wears white gloves. Anna is given a menu with no prices listed. The fairy-tale formality inspires her to sit up very straight. For at least half the meal.

She’s had years of practice. She knows exactly which fork to use when. Even better, she knows what kind of food she likes and recognizes good cooking and good service. Old Warsaw’s menu is full of dishes prepared à deux, and Anna, the family’s Caesar salad connoisseur, orders one to precede the shared chateaubriand. The waiter prepares it properly, tableside, separating the eggs, swirling the anchovies and Worcestershire in a wooden bowl, and presenting the salad on chilled plates. “Good, but not as good as Sevy’s,” says our critic after one bite. Still, the lady scrapes the last of the dressing off with her third roll, her school cafeteria manners breaking through the evening’s polite veneer.

She doesn’t care for the palate-cleansing sorbet (“I hate ice cream with fruit”) and forgoes the flaming cherries jubilee for a white chocolate soufflé. When the violinists approach, Anna requests—what else?—the theme from Titanic and sings along softly, swaying in her chair.

She is astonished when they present her with a long-stemmed rose as she leaves but, ever the helpful critic, comments, “They should make sure they get all the thorns off,” after one pricks her hand. The Old Warsaw, 2610 Maple Ave. 214-528-0032.

Parents Night Out

Monday evenings at the Quadrangle’s Dream Cafe, which owner Mary O’Brien has dubbed Lollipopalooza, are part of the regular weekly schedule for many families, along with soccer practice, piano lessons, and Malcolm in the Middle. Yes, Monday is a school night—often, it’s the hardest school night of all. No matter how many Sundays you think you’re sufficiently psyched up for the work week, Monday hits hard every time. What a relief to know that the end of the day offers a respite.

The food at Dream tends toward wholesome—so there’s no parental guilt—and fun. The kids’ menu lists butterfly noodles, little pizzas, broccoli, and big ranch fries. The vegetarian sausage and burgers are excellent, pastas are inventive, there is always a special salmon, and the wine list is good.

So while parents sit sipping wine at their patio table by the fountain, the kids come and go, meeting other regulars on what has become for many a weekly play date. The easygoing service, which can be irritating at the Dream Cafe’s legendary breakfasts, accommodates families comfortably and is unfazed by a certain amount of kid-induced confusion. Dream Cafe, The Quadrangle, 2800 Routh St. 214-954-0486.

Where Kids Can Be Kids

Food doesn’t make eating out difficult for kids—sitting still does. So it’s no surprise that Magic Time Machine is the longest-running show on the Addison strip. Kids here are actually encouraged to wander around the restaurant and even to be rude without reproach.

All the servers at Magic Time Machine are dressed in costumes (from Tarzan to Catwoman), the tables are disguised as teepees and school buses, and every meal is a party. Grownups can get a decent thick slice of Eve’s rib (created “as it was in the beginning,” the menu jests) cooked to a perfect medium rare. Kids can choose from chopped steak or fried shrimp for $5.99 or barbeque ribs or chicken Alfredo for $7.99. But the biggest hit with the littlest kids are the bubbly Magic Time Machine potions colored red, yellow, green, or ugly and served with a cool mist spilling over the glass. Just watch out for the dry ice at the bottom.

But here’s the great touch: the kids’ menus are also autograph books. So after ordering, the kids disappear to gather autographs from the various characters while the adults sit back and enjoy, say, a glass of Zinfandel. From a bottle with a cork. Magic Time Machine, 5003 Belt Line Rd., Addison. 972-980-1903.

Mary Malouf, former executive editor of D Magazine, has written about the Dallas restaurant scene for more than 15 years.

 

 

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