Recently, my 11-year-old son, Will, turned to me at breakfast and announced: "You're a foodie, Dad, and I'm a foodie, but I don't think Mom's a foodie." Having a child with sophisticated culinary tastes has its advantages when it comes to eating out en famille. But it doesn't mean we always feast on caviar, foie gras, and sweetbreads. Believe me, all three members of my family have logged many hours under the Golden Arches. But we're not limited to fast-food options and theme restaurants when we travel together.
What compels Will and his cronies to accompany me to eating spots that have never advertised on television? First, I tell them the place we're going to makes the best of something. Then I make sure a familiar item, such as hamburgers or pancakes, appears on the menu as a fallback. I also call ahead to make sure there are no white linen tablecloths, captains, or sommeliers--features that don't usually mix well with children. Lastly, I try to pick places that offer a theatrical aspect to the dining experience. If there's also a fun eating ritual or two thrown in, so much the better.
QUICK SERVICE. At Lombardi's Pizza in New York, which bills itself as the oldest pizzeria in America (it opened in 1905), owner John Brescio loves to show kids the huge coal-fired brick oven his delicious pies bake in (table). Since the oven heats up to 800F, a pie is finished in eight minutes, meaning I've heard precious few "When's the food going to be ready?" whines there. An added bonus is that in summer, Brescio puts tables, chairs, and umbrellas on the roof, above the well-insulated oven.
Chinese and Japanese food are also big with Will and his pals, and they can get them both prepared surprisingly well at Ruby Foo's Dim Sum & Sushi Palace on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Laid out by restaurant designer David Rockwell, this multilevel space with two sushi bars is filled with Asian artifacts ranging from oversize Chinese urns and hats to gongs and Mao posters.
As soon as he sits down, Will--already a frequent visitor in this recently opened eatery--declares: "I'll have the usual." The usual is tamarind-glazed ribs, one California roll (crab meat, avocado, and rice rolled in dried seaweed), and one New York roll (smoked and fresh salmon, cream cheese with chives, and Bermuda onion). He has never shown the slightest interest in the hand roll combination of tuna, raisins, boursin cheese, olives, and almonds. "Some foods are not meant to be mushed together," Will says.
Even Will recently noticed the paucity of Asian waiters at Ruby Foo's, so when he wants a more authentically ethnic eating experience, we head to Joe's Shanghai Restaurant in lower Manhattan's Chinatown. (Two branches are in Queens, and another is opening in midtown Manhattan.) There, we have both been introduced to the joys of soup dumplings. When the dumplings, filled with rich broth and minced crab and pork, arrive at your table, your waiter will show you the art of eating them. You place a dumpling on a wide ceramic spoon and poke a hole in it with your chopstick, allowing much of the soup inside to spurt out. You then sip the soup off the spoon before taking a bite of the dumpling.
On a recent trip to Southern California with Will and his friend Louisa, we found the only fine dining establishment--as defined by the white tablecloths--that they've ever thought was cool. Campanile is housed in a nifty bilevel space in Los Angeles in what were Charlie Chaplin's offices 50 years ago. Chefs and co-owners Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton adore children. They have three of their own, two of whom spent their first few years living above the restaurant. They have gone out of their way to make their restaurant elegant, unpretentious, and kid-friendly.
MESSY DOGS. On Monday nights, the restaurant serves up family-style meals on large communal platters featuring such comfort foods as brisket, fried chicken, and lasagna. On Thursday nights, Silverton presides over the making of grilled cheese sandwiches of every imaginable variety in the bar. At Saturday and Sunday brunch, you'll find wonderful fruit crisps, along with world-class French toast, pancakes, and egg dishes.
If the tablecloths throw your kids, head to the Apple Pan in Westwood. There, you'll find prepared-to-order, kid-size burgers and fresh-baked pies. For an even more authentic Los Angeles eating experience, head to Pink's chili-dog stand. Yes, the dogs are messy, but they are tasty. Plus, at a place like Pink's, you can be sure no children will accuse you of taking them to someplace too fancy.
Chicago has three quintessential family restaurants I know of. At Lou Mitchell's, a breakfast hash house, the double-yoke eggs arrive at your table in individual cast-iron pans. If the children want something more sugary, opt for the malted milk waffles or the French toast made with Greek sweet breAd. Even if your family ends up waiting for a table, the kids can content themselves with the Milk Duds and doughnut holes the restaurant hands out to the hungry folks on line.
At Gold Coast Dogs, kids get to top their boiled or chargrilled Vienna beef hot dog with their choice of raw onions, cheese, grilled onions, mustard, ketchup, hot peppers, relish, pickles, or celery salt. And the Italian beef sandwiches at Mr. Beef will please diners of any age. They consist of thin-sliced roast beef soaked in a garlic-infused gravy, piled just high enough on a soft roll.
I have fed Will a steady diet of blues, jazz, and soul music from the time he was 2 so I can't wait to take him to Beale Street and Graceland in Memphis. While in Memphis, we will certainly stop at Interstate Barbecue for spaghetti with smoked pork shards and barbeque sauce (2265 South Third St., 901 775-2304), and at Charlie Vergo's Rendezvous for dry-rubbed ribs coated with paprika and other spices (52 South Second St., 901 523-2746).
While New Orleans is known primarily as an adults-only convention city, it's also a fabulous place to take children to eat and listen to incredible American musicians like rhythm and blues singer Irma Thomas, and the funky instrumental group, the Meters. I've already got my Will itinerary mapped out. First, we sample the beignets, cloud-like pieces of fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar, at Cafe du Monde (800 Decatur St., 504 525-4544). Then come biscuits with "debris" (pan drippings with meat shards) at Mother's (401 Poydras, 504 523-9656); a fried oyster or shrimp loaf at the ornately tiled Casamento's (4330 Magazine, 50 895-9761); and pecan waffles at Camellia Grill (626 S. Carrollton, 504 866-9573).
Dining at places like these guarantees you won't shell out money on $20 T-shirts, $15 baseball caps, and $100 warmup jackets in themed restaurants. In fact, the only unifying theme for these child-friendly establishments is they all serve non-prefabricated food made from scratch by people right in the kitchen. "Did somebody say McDonald's?" No, at least not on the road.