The restaurant – a loungey, booze-centric place with a moderately expensive menu – prepared for the worst. A family with an infant and two toddlers came in and took “open seating” in the center of the lounge, a spot normally occupied by dating couples, happy hour pre-gamers and girls night groups. Servers and managers, bartenders and server assistants, all kept cutting glances toward the group, prepared for the impending explosion of chaos. One hour later, the family tabbed, tipped and left, with the children never making so much as an inappropriately loud squeak. They were either the luckiest parents alive, or the best.
“Every parent who takes their kid out to a restaurant deals with two fears: ‘My child is going to have a meltdown,’ or ‘My kid is not bothering me, but he may be a distraction to others,’” Jamie Winteroth says. Winteroth, along with her husband Jordan, owns Aurora and Social Deck and Dining. Both are industry veterans with decades of hospitality experience, and they are parents of a son.
“Moving from single status to married to parents, Jordan and I didn’t want to give up the things we loved about the local food scene,” Winteroth says. “I still want Mimosas at brunch. I still want a glass of wine with dinner. The difference now is that our choices are less food-related and more focused on local restaurants that have something for everyone.”
That “something for everyone” includes an environment where children are welcomed. Kristi Miller Griffith is a wine and spirits representative, and like Winteroth, she has gone from single to married to parent while working in the industry. She and her husband Brian take their two daughters out to eat occasionally, and they too want to go on what Winteroth calls “family dates,” those eating excursions where everyone gets something they love.
“We’ve never taken the girls to a kid-centric restaurant,” Miller Griffith says. “I don’t think I’ve been in one since I was a kid myself. We don’t want to sacrifice food quality, and we want to support local, so that means the kid-centric places aren’t an option.”
“The option” for them means a place with good food and commitment to conscientious sourcing of ingredients, and good local beers on tap are a must, as is a solid wine list. They represent a growing trend in families dining out: parents who want excellent local options where kids are welcome and adults can enjoy beer and wine, and food geared toward adult palates.
“Honestly, we tend toward places where we know other kids will be,” Miller Griffith says. “That usually means we get a kid-friendly menu in terms of price and quality.”
Flexibility is an important component for restaurants, too. Miller Griffith mentioned The Mule and The Press as two local favorites for their kitchens’ ability to adapt. “Our oldest is going through a no-meat phase, and most kids menus are burgers, hot dogs and chicken strips, with the occasional cheese pizza or mac ‘n’ cheese option. At The Press and The Mule, we can get her a grilled cheese or vegetables and they just say, ‘Of course,’ and then charge a reasonable price. That’s really important when kids are going through those food-based phases.”
Miller Griffith said the goal is to get her children to adapt to a place, rather than have the place adapt to children. “We want to teach our kids to be good diners, too. Obviously, it helps when the restaurant staff is good with children.” The family has the aforementioned Mule and Press in their rotation, but Scratch Norman, The Garage and Pizzeria Gusto are also favorites.
Pizzeria Gusto has two features critical for success as a kid-friendly (not kid-centric) restaurant: a spacious dining area that kids can navigate easily, and an excellent patio. Many parents we talked to cited a patio as one of the most important features, even before COVID.
“Outdoor space is more comfortable for the kids, and certainly for the parents’ ability to relax,” Winteroth says. “I’m pretty sure Aurora is popular with families because of our big ‘backyard.’ We get a ton of families who opt to sit out there, even in cold weather. We love Dust Bowl and Fassler, too – beer for the parents, and a huge outdoor space for our son to roam and play.”
Jones Assembly gets a lot of love for the same reason. Parents cited its expansive patio as a place where they can give their kids a little more freedom to be kids, and they get the benefit of cocktails, brunch, local beer and an environment that every age group seems to love.
As far as outdoor space goes, two of the city’s most kid-friendly are Bedlam Bar-B-Q and The Wedge on Western. Winteroth said the family often hits Bedlam for Friday family date night because of the huge outdoor space, live music, beer, wine and a solid children’s menu.
Cost came up more than any other factor, which makes sense. It’s simple math. All meals are times three or times four when you start adding kids, so the budget changes dramatically. Every parent who cited The Garage and Café 7 added that families are welcome, the food is good and the tab doesn’t destroy the food budget for the month. Both places are very intentional about beer and wine selection, as well.
Are there off-limits restaurants for children? Reflexively, we’d say yes, and parents have to decide the limits. As Winteroth puts it, “You know your kid. How mature is she? Are they going to disturb a business lunch, a first date? Is the menu kid-friendly at all? As restaurateurs, we know we can’t pick our demographic – we can build for one, but you ultimately can’t control who comes. At Social, we’re very kid-friendly during the day, but it switches to intimate dinners for couples at night. Knowing the restaurant matters.”
And when those moments of chaos do arrive, Winteroth suggested that compassion for the parents and tolerance for kids being kids goes a very long way.