If you're the parent of a young child, you've likely filed away "pleasures of dining out" somewhere between "patience" and "privacy" in the archive of other things you've enjoyed but long ago sacrificed. But before you trade your Open Table membership for a Chuck E-Club card, I'm here to tell you that it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, in a city with so many excellent casual restaurants, there are actually very few limitations for families.
On the top of my personal list is In Riva, which chef-owner Arthur Cavaliere proudly refers to as a "family-oriented place." The servers at this East Falls pizzeria offer bread when kids are around. Sippy cups appear magically. Swift pacing ensures smooth sailing for everyone. Never, ever will a server set a mug of coffee or a hot cast-iron dish in front of your child. There's even an outdoor area for puppies that makes an ideal spot for summer dining or a nonpunitive timeout. The house meatballs, ravioli, and many of the pies all pass the kid test, and the olive-oil potatoes with fonduta and bacon jam may very well be your child's new favorite thing. There's no official kids menu here, and no need for one.
"Though we do have kids who come for the pea soup or duck, we know that most kids will want pasta with red sauce or butter or pizza," Cavaliere says.
With the Philly pizza renaissance in full swing, there has never been a better time to introduce your child to buffalo mozzarella. (Or maybe just a good marinara). Not only is the food amenable to most little palates, but many of these places (including In Riva) have open cooking areas, the perfect distraction when your little Saucy Hands gets fidgety. While the open kitchen is downstairs, diners seated in Nomad's upstairs room can zone out in front of black-and-white movies on Sunday nights - a welcome break from Frozen. Nomad Roman, the Midtown Village incarnation; Pizzeria Stella; Zavino University City; and Bufad also get high marks from discerning parents.
Mexican restaurants, with their insta-chips and festive atmospheres, are another safe bet. There are a lot of taquerias in the city, of course, but on the higher end, few are as accommodating as those in the Feliz family (Cantina Feliz; La Calaca Feliz; Taqueria Feliz).
"My business partner and I both have kids and we wanted to create an environment that was approachable for everybody," says co-owner Brian Sirhal.
That means a thoughtful kids menu, fast service, crayons and coloring sheets. Families are usually seated in the same area of the restaurant, for the sake of diners without kids. Bonus: The restaurants' servers always promptly ask adults with kids if they'd like a second drink, recognizing that meals with kids run short, and so do parents' nerves.
Percy Street BBQ is another great choice for families, providing chef-quality food at a good price in a rustic-chic atmosphere that can withstand lots of spillage. On arrival, kids are given crayons and carrot sticks with homemade buttermilk ranch dressing. The kids menu includes an entrée, a side, and a dessert - all for $5 to $7.
"We want parents to feel comfortable here," says general manager Justin Hughes. "But we also try to treat children like any other diner. We ask them what they want, instead of just asking the parents to order for them, and they appreciate that."
Naturally, the "regulars" Hughes sees also appreciate chef/owner Erin O'Shea's culinary wizardry, even if they don't know the difference between a glaze and a mop.
In other words, don't give up on deliciousness. To be sure, no one is recommending that you take your kid to a four-beller (unless it's the Fountain at the Four Seasons hotel, because it's actually family-friendly and no one will blink an eye. The restaurant is now open only for breakfast and lunch).
But why not visit Alla Spina for a little bit of Vetri magic? It's big; it's loud; and if your kid doesn't go for pig tails with fennel agrodolce, there are versions of fried chicken, grilled cheese, soft pretzels, and French fries that will probably fly. (Friends have suggested that Osteria is equally kid-friendly, though I have not personally ventured there with a stroller.)
You want Jose Garces? Try Rosa Blanca, where the Latin comfort food is extremely affordable, the vibe is low-key, and the all-day menu features French toast with guava syrup, milkshakes, and corn cakes. The Stephen Starr pantheon overflows with kid-friendly options: Parc and the Dandelion are roomy and bustling, with accessible fare; Frankford Hall and Fette Sau's outdoor seating can accommodate even the fieriest meltdowns.
Which brings us to the reality of dining with kids. The more you do it, the easier it gets, for everyone involved. But there are some basic rules that parents can observe to make for an easier experience. In a nutshell: Go early, stay seated, and tip well.
The truth is, no matter what your kid is doing, the restaurant has probably seen it before, and servers at kid-friendly places don't expect much more from parents. "We know how hard it is to get your family out the door and to get your kids to sit nicely at a table, so we'd never demand parents do anything more," Cavaliere says.
And on the flip side, parents certainly don't need every restaurant to welcome offspring with open arms. Because then where would we go on date nights?
How not to be the table your server hates
Be flexible: If the host wants to seat you at a specific table or fold up your stroller, go with it.
Make sure your child stays seated and doesn't block aisles between tables.
Ask the server to take away any food your child is playing with, to avoid a mess. If your child makes an excessive mess, tip generously.
If things are taking a turn for the worse, ask your server to box up your food and beat a retreat before disrupting everyone else's meals.
Planning a meal out
Opt for brunch or lunch if possible to ensure your kid won't be tired - but avoid trendy brunch places with long lines at peak hours. For dinner, get an early reservation (5 to 6 p.m.)
If your kid is iffy in restaurant situations, try an off-night like Monday.
Practice manners at home: kids who sit nicely at home are more likely to do so at a restaurant.
If the place doesn't have a high chair, it's usually a tipoff that they don't encourage children.
Skip the stroller if possible - it saves everyone time and trouble.
In season, outdoor seating is a safe bet.
Bring a few small toys, crayons, sticker books, bibs and extra napkins; for babies and young toddlers, bring a snack cup with something to munch on, and always bring your own sippy cup, just in case.
- Elisa Ludwig
1410 Mount Vernon St. 215-600-0017, www.allaspinaphilly.com
1240 Spring Garden St. 215-238-9311, www.bufadpizza.com
424 Bethlehem Pike, Fort Washington, 215-646-1320, www.cantinafeliz.com
124 S. 18th St., 215-558-2500, www.thedandelionpub.com
1208 Frankford Ave. 215-391-4888, www.fettesauphilly.com
1210 Frankford Ave., 215-634-3338, www.frankfordhall.com
120 Market St., 215-925-7691, www.thegaslightphilly.com
4116 Ridge Ave., 215-438-4848, www.in-riva.com
La Calaca Feliz
2321 Fairmount Ave., 215-787-9930, www.lacalacafeliz.com
611 S. Seventh St., 215-238-0900, www.nomadpizzaco.com
1305 Locust St., 215-644-9287, www.nomadpizzaco.com
227 S. 18th St., 215-545-2262, www.parc-restaurant.com
Percy St. BBQ
900 South St., 215-625-8510, www.percystreet.com
420 S. Second St., 215-320-8000, www.pizzeriastella.net
707 Chestnut St., 215-925-5555, www.rosablancadiner.com
4410 Main St., Manayunk 267-331-5874, www.taqueriafeliz.com
3200 Chestnut St., 215-823-6897, www.zavinohospitalitygroup.com