It's a dilemma many food-loving parents face if they want to dine out with their children on the road: Should they head for the casual chain that may not offer the best food but where it will be easy and comfortable to bring their kids? Or should they put on their game faces and go to the restaurant with the hand-made cocktails and award-winning pastry chef but no crayons or sippy cups in sight?
Happily, they don't always have to choose. In addition to focusing on the use of local, (mostly) healthy ingredients, some higher-end restaurants are becoming inclusive when it comes to families. Whether that's because the chefs themselves have children or because welcoming kids is a savvy business move, this means families are no longer consigned to mediocre dining.
All of the following restaurants will warm the heart of any traveling foodie. They serve creative dishes prepared with seasonal ingredients. In fact, they'd all make great date-night destinations. But they also offer special touches in service, food and décor that make them worthy of the coveted family-friendly label.
Fine Dining for Families
7 Upscale Restaurants That Treat Kids Like Foodies
When you sit down with your children at this neighborhood hangout near Dupont Circle, the first thing the staff will do is bring over a plate containing cookie dough man and a saucer of candies to decorate him with. While you peruse the menu and sip an artisanal cocktail, your kids can customize their dessert, which will bake while you eat your meal.
In addition to tasty items on the regular children's menu like buttered noodles with parmesan and sauteed baby shrimp, Firefly also offers a gluten-free menu so that kids with wheat allergies don't feel deprived. The rest of the menu offers high-end comfort food with Southern flair like pimento cheese fritters with green tomato jam and bacon marmalade or shrimp and grits with rosemary.
The dining room is designed to delight kids; a usable swing hangs from a lantern-decorated tree. The back wall is made to look like a cottage, complete with a window that offers a view of the kitchen.
You can ask for a children's menu at the Greenhouse Tavern, but the staff would rather make one of the regular items on the menu kid-friendly by cutting the price and portion size in half and making reasonable substitutions for anything that might be too spicy for the younger set.
Maybe your children would enjoy trying a smaller serving of the Ohio black walnut soup with a duck meatball or a pan-fried pork chop with sage, country ham, pureed potatoes, scrapple and red-eye gravy. While you eat, check out the bicycles that hang from the restaurant's ceiling.
Chef/owner Jonathan Sawyer is on a mission to make sure that kids have access to delicious food that they have to use a fork and knife to eat, operating on the philosophy that if they are never offered the opportunity to eat in good restaurants, they won't do so as adults. Show up early in the evening, and you may even see his children there helping out in the dining room. He also offers special family events at his more casual Japanese restaurant, NoodleCat.
Sunday night is family night at this popular Russian Hill restaurant. That's because Luella chef/owner Ben DeVries was frustrated that he couldn't find a place to go for a nice family meal and a bottle of wine with his daughter Gemma and so he decided to start his own.
The special kids menu includes simple, comfortable options like homemade pizza and chicken nuggets with sauteed green beans and a buttermilk biscuit. Adults can also enjoy fried chicken and macaroni and cheese but also have choices like ahi tuna tartare tacos and beef Wellington with horseradish cream and bone marrow butter.
Located in New York's center for Scandinavian culture, Smörgås Chef serves what it calls "new Nordic" cuisine, a style of food dedicated to using hyper-local and sustainable ingredients. Open for lunch and dinner Monday to Saturday and brunch on Sunday, Smörgås Chef prides itself on serving pesticide- and hormone-free food from its own farm in the Catskills.
Nothing on the children's menu is cooked in a fryer; popular items include vanilla waffles with homemade strawberry sauce and Swedish meatballs made with grass-fed beef and pork. (And if that sounds good to you, larger portions of both are available on the grown-up menu as well.)
The dining room is open and airy, with live birch trees that make creates a feeling of dining in the park. On Saturday afternoons, a play center in the Scandinavia House is open to the public for a $15 fee.
Spiaggia, a high-end Italian restaurant on the Miracle Mile in Chicago, not only welcomes families for regular dining, it offers customized party menus for older kids celebrating milestone birthdays. Everyone – including American Girl dolls – has a seat at the table.
Make a reservation for your child's birthday, and the lead barman will mix a special nonalcoholic cocktail featuring his or her favorite flavors. The chefs will prepare everything from simple noodles with tomato sauce for pickier eaters to a six-course tasting menu.
The kitchen at Spiaggia is open and seats are placed nearby so that children can sit and watch the action between courses. Got a child who is interested in a career as a chef? Ask the staff to give a tour of the kitchen, explaining each of the stations and techniques.
Located at the Topnotch Resort and Spa, this local favorite dining spot offers a gorgeous view of Vermont's highest mountain, Mount Mansfield, from its dining room. In warmer weather, enjoy the view from the patio, where kids are welcome to get their wiggles out.
Norma's food is accessible, with some unusual and healthy twists on the children's menu, where even items like burgers and chicken fingers are prepared fresh with local ingredients. Smoothies are made with fresh fruit and yogurt, and raw veggies feature prominently on the kids' appetizer menu. The hand-cut French fries are served with a side of maple sugar for dipping. Adults can enjoy seasonal selections like duck breast served with a confit egg roll or diver scallops tossed with bacon and corkscrew pasta. Sides are especially creative and include Brussel sprouts with siracha aoli and foraged mushrooms prepared with Madeira and herbs.
Kids will love ending their meal with a Norma's specialty: s'mores made with marshmallows cooked at the fire pit. (Note: The dining room at Norma's is being renovated in the spring of 2013 and will close for five weeks between the beginning of April and the beginning of May.)
This stylish restaurant specializing in Pacific Northwest seafood like Dungeness crab is located in the Vancouver Four Seasons Hotels. The staff will buy you time before your food comes by immediately bringing your children packages of waxy Wiki stix to play with and a plate of fruit or veggies with dip.
Yew is committed to offering healthy options for children, and so in addition to more typical favorite like burgers and macaroni and cheese, the kids' menu includes edamame, chicken noodle soup, and salmon and tofu options. Desserts include fun treats like white-chocolate dipped strawberries made to look like faces. Also appealing: Children 5 and under eat for free.