If you ask me, one of the best things about living in Manhattan is the excellent selection of local restaurants. For a long time, I rarely went to a chain; I was probably a bit of a snob about it. It’s great to find a perch at cozy, busy spots like Taco Lucha, Coco Bolo’s or Bourbon and Baker and know that whatever your order, you can’t get a dish quite like it anywhere else.
Parenthood changes your priorities. I still love those restaurants, but some are more conducive to eating with young children than others.
My husband and I have taken our kids to certain eateries only to find there’s no changing table in the bathroom — either one! It’s bad enough if there’s only a changing table in one restroom (and you know which one it’ll be in), but a few have none. That leaves us to change the baby on the floor or take him out and change him in the car.
There are other factors: If there’s a wait, will the kids be in the way? Do we have to sit at a high-top table, and if so, will the high chair be tall enough to reach? We also would avoid any restaurant that’s too quiet, because our kids might disturb other patrons.
As you can see, there’s a lot to consider. And in some cases, chains are better equipped to handle those needs. So for those who have small kids or are around kids, I’m sharing what my personal favorites are and why. All of the places have the following:
• Kids menu with at least some healthy and budget-friendly choices. I don’t want to pay $8 for a hot dog. And I’d like at least the option of a vegetable.
• Coloring sheet with crayons. Often these are also the menu, which is just fine. Pictures of the food also expedites the ordering process sometimes.
• Changing table in both restrooms. Obviously.
• Plenty of high chairs and booster seats.
Here are my top three:
It’s handy to have those hot rolls (and the peanuts, if that’s your thing) to tide the kids over while you wait for food. Texas Roadhouse also has a solid kids menu with choices starting at $3.99 and many side options. I also like that it has more substantial “Ranger meals” for older kids.
Bonus points for: Triangle-shaped crayons! They are a revelation. The edges keep them from rolling off the table.
As above, Olive Garden brings bread first, which is helpful. It also has a number of kids choices, including almost any combo of pasta and sauce. Meals start at $5.99. Sides are broccoli, french fries and grapes.
Bonus points for: Bendy straws. Holy cow, let me tell you. Regular straws are too long and can be awkward for babies/toddlers. Bendy straws help get the drink to their mouth without a spill.
Ah, Cracker Barrel. It’s hard to compete with its retail area, which my 4-year-old calls a toy store. But in addition to that little diversion, Cracker Barrel wins points for having both breakfast and dinner-type meals starting at $3.49, and lots of choices of sides.
Bonus points for: Not just a fold-down changing table, but a dedicated changing area in both bathrooms.
There are many more great places to take kids, of course. And the individual server makes a difference, too. For instance, do they offer to bring the kids’ food early? Do they bring extra napkins without asking? But in any case, it’s the little things that make a difference when dining with children.