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All children are not the same, and their behavior varies wildly according to age, size, and stage of development. For restaurant purposes, junior members of society fall into three distinct categories: babies, toddlers, and kids.
Babies — From birth until the age of one year, babies are like little swaddled footballs, durable and easily transportable, once you learn to pack a diaper bag with finesse. Both their requirements and their interactions with the outside world are limited. Typically, babies sleep more than half the time, with periods of wakefulness that rarely reach more than an hour or two; in fact, they’ve been known to sleep through an entire meal. A baby’s needs are simple: a few diapers and wipes, a change of clothes, a baby carrier, a handful of colorful toys, and a source of nourishment, which can be breast, bottle, or jar of baby food. The youngest babies can reside in carriers during most of the meal, but by four to six months they can often use high chairs.
Toddlers — Traditionally, a baby becomes a toddler when the first steps are taken, but for the purposes of this piece, we’ll include children between the ages of 1 and 4. This is a period of rapid development characterized by increasing mobility and inquisitiveness. The toddler’s needs are very different from those of the baby. A high chair or baby seat is necessary in the earlier years, either provided by the restaurant or the parents, then a simple booster seat may be enough. Other accoutrements of toddler dining include a favorite book or two, toys, a change of clothes, a stuffed animal, and possibly some food, depending on restaurant choice and the toddler’s preferences.
Kids — Aged 4 to 10, kids are well on their way to becoming adults. Their lifelong tastes are being established. Kids have needs far removed from the other two groups. Not only can parents cater to their food preferences, but kids can actively participate in restaurant choice. Kids require less care, but often benefit from more attention. They can interact more fully during a meal; at other times, they may be content to read a book or play a video game as a family and friends spend more time at the dining table than is strictly necessary. Parents have a duty to dine with kids as widely as possible. Restaurants, especially in New York City, can be an opportunity for them to interact with people from many cultural groups. For kids, the restaurant is one of the city’s greatest classrooms.
DINING WITH BABIES
Some restaurants love babies, while others actively dislike them. The reasons behind both attitudes are sometimes not obvious, nor is it possible to predict with complete accuracy what types of restaurants tolerate babies well. As a parent with a baby, or even two, it’s your duty to locate and identify restaurants that are baby friendly. And then tell other new parents about them. In general, cheap restaurants are better than expensive ones.
Remember that having a baby along with you means your party needs more space. Seek out places where the tables are not so tight, allowing a stroller to maneuver, or even remain set up during a meal. Or purchase a stroller that has a removable baby seat that can be strapped to a regular chair while the stroller is folded. Older babies can use high chairs, so begin making a list of restaurants that have them. Also, having high chairs or booster seats is an obvious sign that a restaurant is child friendly. Don’t forget to bring extra wipes (environmentally friendly, please!) to clean high chairs and booster seats before using them.
Better for at least two to go to dinner with a baby, be they parents, care givers, or friends. That way, in the event that a child is fussy for a spell, they can switch off taking the baby for a stroll, either inside or outside the restaurant, depending on weather and other factors. Don’t be embarrassed taking a fussy baby for a walk, it’s a chance to flaunt your parental pride and demonstrate your parental prowess.
A few more suggestions: Many parents with babies find it better to dine early, soon after a place opens. The staff of the restaurant will be less stressed and more willing to see to your particular needs, whether it be finding room to park a stroller, locating a suitable table, or even warming a bottle. Lunch is better than dinner, if you can manage it. Greek diners often have high chairs. One friend recommends eating in noisy restaurants, where a baby’s muted cries will be masked by other noises. Restaurants with sidewalk tables or back yards are particularly good for babies. Booths in restaurants may be suitable for organizing your baby things, but free-standing tables are often better for positioning and getting at the baby.
Here are restaurant suggestions from friends, colleagues, and personal experience. (Please help out and add more in the comments section below, or send them to the tipline):
Achilles Heel (improvisational cooking, cozy room), 180 West St, Brooklyn, 347-987-3666
Alice’s Tea Cup (tea room with multiple locations)
Artie’s Deli (Jewish deli), 2290 Broadway, 212-579-5959
Bamboo Garden (dim sum, lots of room), 6409 8th Ave, Brooklyn, 718-238-1122
Between the Bread (laid-back daytime sandwich shop), 609 W 27th St, 212-765-1687
Burger and Barrel(easy stroller parking), 25 W Houston St, 212-334-7320
DBGB Kitchen & Bar (ramp, plenty of space, dark), 299 Bowery, 212-933-5300
El Toro Blanco (baby friendly staff), 257 6th Ave, 212-645-0193
Ellary’s Greens (vegetable driven), 33 Carmine St, 212-920-5072
Friend of a Farmer (rural with fireplaces), 76 Montague St, Brooklyn, 718-643-6600
Gabriela’s (Mexican, nursing enclosure, changing table), 688 Columbus Ave, 212-961-9600
Ganso (high chairs, changing tables), 25 Bond St, Brooklyn, 718-403-0900
Gotham West Market (food court with cocktails), 600 11th Ave, 212-582-7940
Houdini Kitchen Laboratory (baby-friendly pizzeria), 1563 Decatur St, Queens, 718-456-3770
Island Express (Guyanese lunchroom), 998 Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, 718-469-9049
Joy Luck Palace (Cantonese, dim sum), 98 Mott St, 212-431-8383
Kafe Louverture (Haitian pastries, front deck), 392 Halsey St, Brooklyn, 347-305-3176
Lilia (wood-fired Italian with high chairs), 567 Union Ave, Brooklyn, 718-576-3095
Maialino (very baby friendly spot), 2 Lexington Ave, 212-777-2410
Maman (bakery café with stroller valet), 211 W Broadway, 646-882-8682
Momofuku Ssam Bar (especially at lunch), 207 2nd Ave, 212-254-3500
Patricia’s (family friendly Italian), 1082 Morris Park Ave, Bronx, 718-409-9069
Pier I Cafe (outdoors on the Hudson River), 500 W 70th St, 212-362-4450
Roberta’s Pizza (stroller central in the afternoon), 261 Moore St, Brooklyn, 718-417-1118
Sylvia’s (family soul food), 328 Malcolm X Blvd, 212-996-0660
Taverna Kyklades (Greek, Queens location, too), 228 1st Avenue, 212-432-0011
Torst (fun lunch menu, plenty of room, Danish), 615 Manhattan Ave, Brooklyn, 718-389-6034
Tortilleria Nixtamal(Mexican, spacious), 104-05 47th Ave, Queens, 718-699-2434
Totonno’s(ancient pizzeria), 1524 Neptune Ave, Brooklyn, 718-372-8606
Dining With Toddlers
In many ways, toddlers constitute the biggest challenge. Sometimes, they engage in frenetic activity, while other times they collapse in a heap. Their emotional state can go from calm to distraught in the blink of an eye, like a storm cloud passing in front of the sun. In many ways, this age group requires the most careful restaurant selection, and the most painstaking parent supervision. What a toddler needs that a baby doesn’t is excess space. Restaurants with more floor room allow a modest amount of perambulation on the part of the toddler – carefully supervised by adult companions, of course.
What to bring to a restaurant? The diaper bag is still a necessity for many, only the diapers are bigger and you can pack fewer. A change of clothes is always necessary. Toys and stuffed animals are of increasing importance, and the older toddler will be very particular about what toys and animals are selected. Favorite books are a necessity. In fact, picking out books and playthings can become part of a pre-restaurant ritual. A parent’s greatest ally is often a coloring book and set of crayons.
What kind of restaurant should you select? One with lots of room is ideal, or even a backyard space. Sidewalk cafes — unless encircled by a stout barrier — are not so great. Some franchise restaurants provide child play areas, which is a fine thing. The kiddie menus and cheap toys are less of a good idea, since you don’t want your toddler to get into the habit of eating in franchises or expecting a gift with a meal.
With toddlers, the menu at the restaurant becomes of increased importance, unless you want to truck in your own food. Predictably, tots like certain edibles, and they’re often based on blandness and scale. What kid doesn’t love rice? It’s partly because the size of the grains and the ease of eating it with the fingers accords well with the toddler’s world view. Ditto French fries, tater tots, and beans. Middle Eastern restaurants, with their skewered chicken kebabs and other miniature fare, can be great for toddlers, too, as are places that offer noodles, plain steamed vegetables, fruit salads, and green salads with the veggies cut small. Egg dishes are always popular. The best restaurants are willing to adapt their food to toddler needs, and fulfill special requests.
Toddlerhood is also an important time for children to develop their idiosyncratic tastes. You can offer nearly anything that adults are eating (with obvious exceptions like fish with bones, hot liquids, and very spicy fare). Above all, don’t prejudge food preferences, or try to make them the same as your own. I’ve seem parents amazed when their toddlers tried and liked such diverse fare as caviar, anchovy pizza, and pig-blood soup. As toddlers try something for the first time, try to keep your face blank and don’t wrinkle up your nose or give any other cues that you think the tot won’t like it.
If a combination of parents, care-givers, or child-admiring friends take a toddler to dinner, they can take turns walking the toddler outside or around the premises, which is inevitable at some point in the meal. One of the greatest challenges of being a parent is improvising distractions for a toddler who has become restive. Pick restaurants where dining is a quicker affair; plan on spending an hour eating, rather than two or more.
Here are some random suggestions for toddler dining. Once again, please let us know places you prefer in the comments.
Beyti Turkish (kebabs near the beach), 414 Brighton Beach Ave, Brooklyn, 718-332-7900
Brass Monkey (roof deck), 55 Little W 12th St, 212-675-6686
Bricolage (rustic Vietnamese), 162 5th Ave, Brooklyn, 718-230-1835
Bubby’s (high chairs, booster seats, changing table), 120 Hudson St, 212-219-0666
Buttermilk Channel (brunch, go early), 524 Court St, Brooklyn, 718-852-8490
Café Al Mercato (Sicilian in Arthur Ave Market), 2331 Hughes Ave, Bronx, 718-364-7681
Curry In A Hurry (Indian, informal upstairs dining), 119 Lexington Ave, 212-683-0900
Egg (spotlighting ova, with strollers), 109 N 3rd St, Brooklyn, 718-302-5151
El Atoradero (rice and beans, back yard), 708 Washington Ave, Brooklyn, 718-399-8226
Elizabeth’s Neighborhood Table (farmhouse décor), 680 Columbus Ave, 212-280-6500
Essex (brunch, high chairs), 120 Essex St, 212-533-9616
Franny’s (family friendly pizzeria), 348 Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, 718-230-0221
Fred’s (American bistro with dog photos), 476 Amsterdam Ave, 212-579-3076
Greenwood Park (indoor/outdoor family beer garden), 555 7th Ave, Brooklyn, 718-499-7999
Gregory’s 26 Corner Taverna (Greek, booster seats), 26-02 23rd Ave, Queens, 718-777-5511
Gruppo (wood-oven pizza, laid back atmosphere), 98 Avenue B, 212-995-2100
Hometown Bar-B-Que (smoked meats, noisy), 454 Van Brunt St, Brooklyn, 347-294-4644
Il Buco Alimentari (high chairs, short dishes, and sandwiches), 53 Great Jones St, 212-837-2622
John’s Pizza (old-time pizzeria), 278 Bleecker St, 212-243-1680
L & B Spumoni Gardens (outdoor dining, ice cream), 2725 86th St, Brooklyn, 718-449-1230
Landmarc (child-friendly steakhouse, New American), 10 Columbus Cir #3, 212-823-6123
Marumi Sushi (high chairs), 546 LaGuardia Pl, 212-979-7055
Nick’s Lobster (outdoor deck, crustaceans), 2777 Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, 718-253-7117
Otto (pizza, crayons for kids), 1 5th Ave, 212-995-9559
Queens Comfort (trashy comfort food, BYOB), 40-09 30th Ave, Queens, 718-728-2350
Tanoreen (spacious Palestinian, toddler-friendly food), 7523 3rd Ave, Brooklyn, 718-748-5600
Taste of Lahore (roomy Pakistani), 73-10 Northern Blvd, Queens, 718-779-6700
Dining With Kids
Doubtlessly, with nearly unlimited access to books and video games, you can induce a kid (especially those over 6) to while away an hour or even two contentedly in a restaurant. But by this age, you’ve revised your objectives to desire more than detached forbearance. In short, you’d love to have a kid’s wholehearted meal participation as a full-fledged member of the group. One way to do this is to encourage his or her taking part in the selection of a restaurant, and allowing unfettered freedom of ordering once the waiter appears with a note pad. Throw your food and health fetishes aside, because kids will develop their own.
It’s a given that the most obvious venues for this age group will be pizzerias, theme restaurants, diners, and fried-food emporia. Try to push the envelope with cuisines. Malaysian? French? Bolivian? Why not? This is also the age of finickiness for many children, sometimes out of real personal preference; sometimes as a way to get revenge on their foodie parents. I know one famous restaurant critic whose son would only eat soup from the age of 4 through 6, and then switched to high-end sushi. Another critic’s daughter for a time demanded that — as a condition of eating out — she be guaranteed a whole lobster. If you can afford it, be indulgent.
During the kid years, real or imagined dietary restrictions are often followed. A period of vegetarianism is common (which may turn into a lifelong passion), as is the pursuit of a glutton-free or fat-free diet, or an imagined intolerance for lactose or tree nuts. These must be permitted at all costs! Unless you want the contemplation of a dining-out experience or the meal itself to dissolve into discord. Be thankful that today’s restaurants are so diet-flexible. And keep track of those that treat your kid as a consumer coequal with the adults at the table. Those restaurants know that kids are the dining-out adults of the future.
Here is a list of kid-friendly restaurants. Be sure to tell us your own favorites in the comments or via the tipline — we'll put the best ones together in a map later this year.
American Girl Café (lunch with your dollies), 609 5th Ave, 877-247-5223
Berg’n (beer hall food court, open early), 899 Bergen St, Brooklyn, 718-857-2337
Chalk Point Kitchen (farmhouse décor), 527 Broome St, 212-390-0327
Cowgirl Hall of Fame (feminist Southwestern with toys), 519 Hudson St, 212-633-113
Dos Caminos (crudité, kids’ menu), several locations
Hill Country (Texas BBQ with room for kids to roam), 345 Adams St, Brooklyn, 718-885-4608
HinoMaru Ramen (noodles, monkey fish cakes), 33-18 Ditmars Blvd, Queens, 718-777-0228
Insa (Korean with karaoke rooms), 328 Douglass St, Brooklyn, 718-855-2620
Jackson Diner (Indian buffet), 37-47 74th Street, Queens, 646-902-6010
Joe’s of Avenue U (Sicilian, pastas, lots of veggies), 287 Avenue U, Brooklyn, 718-449-9285
Killmeyer’s, (antique German beer hall), 4254 Arthur Kill Rd, Staten Island, 718-984-1202
Lobster House Joe’s (casual seafooder), 1898 Hylan Blvd, Staten Island, 718-667-0003
Mable’s Smokehouse (Oklahoma BBQ), 44 Berry St, Brooklyn, 718-218-6655
Makana (Japanese-Hawaiian), 161 W 106th St, 212-678-4569
Malecon (Dominican comfort food), 4141 Broadway, 212-927-3812
Mill Basin Deli (pastrami, hot dogs, and art), 5823 Avenue T, Brooklyn, 718-241-4910
Minca (Japanese noodles), 536 E 5th St, 212-505-8001
Mitchell’s Soul Food (family run), 617A Vanderbilt Ave, Brooklyn, 718-789-3212
The Odeon (family friendly brasserie), 145 W Broadway, 212-233-0507
Otto (Roman pizzeria with veggies and wine), 1 5th Ave, 212-995-9559
Schnitzel Haus (family-style German), 7319 5th Ave, Brooklyn, 718-836-5600
Sharaku (budget Japanese), 14 Stuyvesant St, 212-598-0403
Talde (Pan-Asian from Top Chef alum), 369 7th Ave, 347-916-0031
Temple Canteen (vegetarian Indian), 45-57 Bowne St, Queens, 718-460-8484
Tortilla Flats (theme Tex-Mex), 767 Washington St, 212-243-1053
Wilma Jean (Southern comfort), 345 Smith St, Brooklyn, 718-422-0444
Zum Stammtisch (old-time German), 69-46 Myrtle Ave, Queens, 718-386-3014