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Ingredients for a Family-Friendly Restaurants

We've talked family-friendly restaurants before.  Many times.  But we've never created the dream list, the list of everything a restaurant should do to score a 10, to keep us coming back (if they want us!), to win Metro Parent's annual reader's awards for who's the family friendliest of them all. 

I was at a coffee shop recently that had just opened, and since they clearly had no kids and I had two in tow, they asked me: Any ideas to make us more family-friendly?   So, I said, off the tippy top of my head (not sure there's more than that left!):

  • Stool under the bathroom sink for hand washing.
  • Changing table ... in the men's room!!
  • High chairs & booster seats.
  • (Healthy) kids menu.
  • Bring kid food fast or serve a quick snack to keep 'em busy (Old Wives' Tales delivers the apple sauce like immediately.  They know.)
  • A few toys (thinking Laughing Planet's ever-popular dinosaurs...).
  • Inoffensive art (much as I l-o-v-e Laughing Planet, Robert Crumb's artwork sure stirs the conversation at our table).

What am I missing?  What 'extras' have you seen that take the cake (free diapers works for me!)?  Help us finish this list - let's make it a resource for the (thankfully!) growing number of Pdx chow spots that actually like our kids! 


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This may just be a little pet peeve of mine, but friendly service sure sets the tone for an enjoyable meal. I think that it's especially important for a "kid-friendly" restaurant to have sociable "kid-friendly" waitstaff.

Staff that doesn't get terribly snotty and roll their eyes at you when your kids throws raisins on the floor, or you...ask for a high chair...*Gasp*. "What are talking about. I love kids" Not bitter here. :)

I was just at Laughing Planet on Woodstock for the first time a couple of weeks ago and they were playing very loud alternative rock music. Seemed to make the little kids more frantic and chaotic than normal. I have nothing against the music, I just wanted them to turn it down so the kids a) weren't so crazy and b) weren't trying to outshout each other to be heard over the music.

I do like bringing a little food fast, but there has to be a balance. The kids can't finish before me!

Another thought is to take care of the bill quickly, in case a quick departure becomes necessary. I like it when they bring my food and bill at the same time instead of waiting until I'm done. I can then pay right away and we can leave fast. Maybe also some self-service to-go containers would help in this area.

Sippy cups! I always forget to bring them with me, and let's face it: even though my kids CAN drink out of regular cups, that way always leads to a wet table.

kid friendly sippy cups (the kinds with straws are fine) and less exotic juice choices. It's often amazing to me how difficult it is to find a restaurant that serves just plain apple juice, or doesn't have to put my kid's drinks in a to-go cup. Also, maybe a "mini" portion. My 2 year old rarely eats as much as my 4 year old, but my 4 year old can finish a kids meal. I know the last one is a long shot, but it is a fantasy list....

Oh... one more for the "unlikely, but in a perfect world" list:
a space to breast feed. my little one is still feeding and is much too big for a discreet under the table feeding.

Soy milk as an alternative to dairy. (Hey, I'm dreaming!)

Wet wipes available

Bibs available

We love eateries w/ patios, especially those heated patios that can be used year-round. Gives children a place to stretch their legs, regardless of the weather. So: MORE RAIN-OR-SHINE OUTDOOR SEATING.

-Outdoor space to run around (a la Pause, on N. Interstate)
-Crayons & paper (a lot of places are great with this)
-bring kid food/appetizer fast

Gino's, in Sellwood, is one of my favorite examples of finding the a good adult/kid balance. The tables are covered in butcher paper that the kids can doodle all over, they immediately bring out a complimentary plate of cheese, apple slices and bread for the little ones (and will replenish it as often as you like). The ambiance and menu still feel very grown-up and sophisticated, but the kids have a great time, too.

I love the paper that covers the entire table so that your family can create a mural with crayons while waiting on the food.

Also, don't dim the lights before 8 p.m., sometimes my big kids bring their books to help with the wait and they need a little light to read by.

Accessibility is also important - it's nice to have doors/aisle space wide enough to negotiate with a stroller. I tend to avoid places where the tables are too close together for that and other reasons (more likely to annoy others).

Speaking as someone with an older kid: In the spirit of the mini-portion that Lisa mentions above, some sort of "junior portion" that is more substantial than most kid's meals, but not the size and/or price of an adult meal.

Some restaurants will do an adult lunch portion for at the dinner hour, if in fact their lunch menu has smaller portions of the dinner choices. But that's not always an option.

A junior portion would also accomodate the kids like mine who likes what's on the adult menu, and just can't be bothered to choose from the standard grilled cheese/buttered noodles/chicken nuggets that a lot of places offer.

For the toddler/preschool aged kid, we notice chairs. Sturdy chairs with solid or slatted backs are a big plus for us. Not good are the chairs that have an 'open' back, like a director's chair does, because our daughter's booty will just slip right out the back and dump her onto the floor.

The biggest issue for me is space. We love it when there's a comfortable amount of space for our daughter to walk between her chair and mine without bothering other customers,

Wow, for me, the biggest issue is the food! There seems to be a rule that if it's cool for your kids to be kids, if there's a play area and a menu for the tots, well, then the food is sub-par at best. Also, is there a rule that kids have to be served crappy food? Our daughter is like her parents, she wants her food to taste good! She is not a fan of soggy, unseasoned veggies, shocking, I know. We have the added challenge of our daughter being a non-red or white meat eater (she eats seafood) and lactose intolerant to boot. Find me a kids menu that doesn't consist of grilled cheese, mac and cheese, burgers, hot dogs, bean and cheese burritos and/or pizza, please! She usually ends up ordering off of the adult menu, which is either a rather expensive waste of a lot of food, or one of us has to share with her. I wish restaurants just offered half plates of the whole menu rather than having a separate kids' menu.

Our favorite places in town are Wild Abandon (fantastic vegan french toast and a super nice staff), Milos City Cafe, Halibuts fish and chips on Alberta and Koji sushi near Lloyd Center. None of these places have play areas, so we bring along some crayons or a small toy or two. We've found that we have less need for a play area when the food is good enough to keep her at the table! We also stress good behavior (quiet voices, nice manners, not running around) when we are in restaurants and she likes eating out enough that she's more than willing to be on her best behavior.

From the previous post, I'd like to check out Gino's too. Sound's like just our speed.

Oh, one last thing that my daughter really enjoys is open kitchens with eating bars. Milo's has one and she loves to watch the chefs at work and they always chat her up. She likes watching the sushi chef at Koji too.

I second the e's food comment. We just got back from Newport, and between the continental breakfast at the hotel and the kid's menus saturated with grilled cheese sandwiches, hamburgers, etc, I realized my kids barely ate a veggie or fruit. I wish it was commonplace for kids meals to automatically come with a fruit or veggie.

And while I love play areas, I somewhat dread them because some parents don't supervise their kids -- these kids sometimes end up pummeling/shoving/hitting my kids, causing a horrible time all around.

Oh, and a great place to take kids is the Vita Cafe -- they have great options for kids and an outdoor area where kids are welcome to run around...

I third the quality food comment. Luckily my kids will usually eat from the kids menu,but I almost always have to add some of my own food to make them happy. My husband generally dreads going to the kid centered restaurants because the food's not very good. A good balance is a good point.

another vote for the quality kids' food! if it weren't bad enough that school cafeteria food was terrible and unhealthy, it seems the standard throughout America's restaurants that children will only eat some greasy combination of white white bread & cheese or potatoes & chicken. in my family, the baby gets bites of my food, Truman gets something off the appetizer menu, and Everett gets a kids' meal (he was spoiled young by children's menus and we're unpacking that now). if you're working so hard at home to do something healthy -- like introduce whole grains, for instance -- it sucks to have zero options out that don't cost $17.95.

I'd love to see a kid's menu that wasn't an insult to children's intelligence and palates.

also, it's great when servers recognize that you have a grabby baby and don't set coffee and full glasses of water within reach, or remove the condiments. and make appropriate suggestions based on the age of the baby -- not offering a sippy cup of juice for a four-month-old, for instance, or a high chair for a newborn (or a three-year-old).

finally, if you have a child who's in the middle of a meltdown, a server who would recognize that and rush out with a to go container and a check is a godsend. one of the reasons I felt Peanut Butter & Ellie's failed was that their servers would often be slloooowww with the checks, and you'd be sitting around begging your child to wait just one more minute while you paid.

now i try to always bring cash when i'm out with the kids, just in case i need to make a run for it. and I'm trying to take my own to go containers on general green principles, which makes matters simpler.

i dream of the cafemama (tm ;) that i'll open one day. there will be high ledges for coffee mugs and soup, a section of the restaurant where everyone sits on the floor, and fresh, seasonal, local food cut up into bite-sized pieces (for parents too, who needs to use cutting instruments while holding a small wiggly child) with nary a french fry or cup of soda in sight. there will be plenty of trains to go around no matter HOW many little boys come to play, wooden toys and books adults like to read to their children. there will be good beer served in small quantities for breastfeeding mamas and plentiful bike parking (with room for trailers and xtracycles and tandems). there will be a drive/bike-through window for parents with sleeping kids. it will be paradise!

All of the above are good, especially the decent food options. My kid is basically vegetarian, and it's great when he can get a mini version of what we're eating. Usually I just share my meal with him, but he's getting big enough that he needs more than 1/3 of an adult plate.

Speaking of Laughing Planet's art, I mentioned this on my Yelp review of the location on Belmont: My three-year-old stared at the painting of the goldfish smoking a big 'ol joint (underwater!) and said, "The goldfish is coloring." Me: "What?" Kid: "He's holding a crayon in his mouth." Me: "Yes. That's how goldfish need to hold crayons."

Smoothies, whole grain options, and interesting, well prepared veggies. extra napkins on the table. quick with the bill and to go boxes.

I second the recommendation for Vita. They offer a decent kids menu (vegan-or not-nachos, brown rice and veggies, pasta and sauce, fruit smoothies, etc.), and, even better, between 5pm and 7pm everything on the kids menu is $1. I always hate when I spend money on food for the kids and they don't eat it, so the $1 menu takes some of the sting out of it.

I will agree with the stool in the bathroom and what Emily said and also reinforce the need of plenty of sturdy napkins (cloth or paper). We have been to Chez Jose, both NE and SW, a number of times and they are stingy with the napkins (as are other places). I went once with two mamas and two 3 year olds we asked for more, we got one each. hello?

I am not a fan of the play areas. Dinner should be a time for families to eat together and learn how to sit at the table.

I'm not a fan of play areas either, though for reasons other than L's comment above. My kid can be sufficiently entertained through a meal with crayons/paper, a stack of books I prudently bring from home and other at-table activities, including eating! But bring in a playroom and he's determined to hang out there, will eat barely a bite of food and--the worst part in my book--one parent will go to supervise, so the other parent ends up eating alone. I hate that.

I know many parents *don't* find it necessary to do more than check in on their kid from time to time, but I think that's the other problem with playareas in restaurants, parents get too complacent. Mamas of babies and small children do tend to watch their kids in playareas (though not always! I still shudder when I remember the 3 month old that was just left in the Sip n Kranz playroom for 30 minutes while mom was out of sight), but I find that moms of older kids often tend to forget that while their child is probably old enough not to get hurt by other kids, they're now old enough to be the aggressor and should still be watched. But that's my own pet peeve, for another topic, I guess.

Definately a clean, child-friendly bathroom! And not just diaper-changing friendly. I think it needs to be suited for all ages kids. Stool by the sink and also by the potty. There is a great product, a Flip N Flush Potty Seat, that gives a child a smaller seat. That would be nice. But, if a smaller toilet seat isn't provided then just a complete circle seat (no u-shaped toilet seats please!).

For table service, paper and crayons (love butcher paper as a table cloth), sippy cups, a little appetizer "snack" of raisens, fruit slices, etc. when we first sit down. And, it goes without saying but quick service is important.

Personally, I prefer tables and chairs to booths. My daughter doesn't sit as well when she is sharing a bench seat with me.

One thing I love about Old Wives' Tales is that they try to sit parents with children on the side nearest the play area. People without kids are typically seated on the other side of the restaurant. I like to have people who *understand* when your child is yelping or making crazy noises that it's OK and it happens! You don't get the dirty looks from the non-parental patrons.

Plus a varied vegetarian kids menu is greatly appreciated. I've got the only (vegetarian) child who doesn't like grilled cheese!

a baby seat to put the baby in after you change them! I HATE how the changing tables are FAR away from the sink. You cant walk away from the changing table to wash your hands but you cant set baby down to wash your hands either?? How is one supposed to wash ones hands holding a baby? Is this just something I missed in all my baby classes? Currently I walk him back out to the table and then go back in and wash my hands... such a pain!

PLEASE have more than ONE bathroom! When a 3 y/o's gota go they gota go NOW! I once had to leave peanut butter and ellies because the line for the bathroom was to long. Thank Goodness grandma lives three blocks from there (we had PB&J at her house that day instead!)

Offer a vinyl mat to go under the high chair, so that I'm not there under the table trying to pick rice off a filthy restaurant carpet at the end of the meal. Please CLEAN and sanitize the high chairs (and boosters) in between uses and make sure the straps are in good working order. Nothing peeves me more than getting my wiggly baby finally into a high chair and discovering the straps are broken, twisted beyond repair, missing, etc. Offer me a tray stick-on plate and utensils so that I don't have to stress about flying porcelain injuries the second I look away from my baby. Give me warm wash rags with a little bit of (eco-safe) sanitizer when I sit down (like they do in Japanese restaurants) both before AND after our meal for easy clean-ups. Alcoves are our favorite dining spots so that kiddies can get out and move around if needed, without me or my husband chasing them all over the place. If they had waiter-accessible retractable baby gates, I'd be super psyched. Give us something to "visit" while waiting for our meal, like a really cool fish tank, or exhibit of some kind that's entertaining enough for 30 minutes, but not something so engrossing I'll never get them back to the table. Finally, Ikea has these kid seats in their bathroom stalls (lots of BIG stalls please) so that when a parent is changing a baby, the older kid can be kerplunked and buckled into the seat mounted on the wall. Also, I'd love a drive-through and motion sensitive doors with big entrances to get my double stroller through with ease (no stairs please, ramps okay). Phew... I think that's it, for now :)

Totally, totally agree about the music. I know the waitstaff probably needs to keep its groove on, but my child doesn't need to hear intentionally obnoxious screaming like "Walk this WAAAAAY, walk this WAAAAAY," in your otherwise calm and lovely bakery any more than I do. Not bizarrely orchestrated old Christmas carols, not the worst of the 80s. In fact, no matter how great your music is, could you please just turn it down?

Agree about outdoors - the most fun are outdoor areas that are secure. I love Pambiche, but haven't been there in ages, because it is too cramped indoors, and one false move outside and we'd be playing tag with cars on Glisan.

Agree about the clean bathrooms. And it would be great to have stalls large enough that a child could stand next to you when it is your turn. And although it would be nice to have someplace secure to park baby while washing hands. it seems like a lot to ask. This was something I must have missed in baby class as well - how do you wash your hands before you touch anything else, while at the same time securing your child?

But the single best thing a restaurant can do for me is to be a a little bit durable. My toddler pushed on a screen in a Chinese restaurant, not boisterously, basically just leaned on it, and broke it. We felt awful, and my husband spent several hours there repairing it, and while the staff was wonderfully understanding and we loved the food, we haven't been back since. It was just too worrying and time consuming.

This thread would probably be a great guide for restaurants that don't want children - just do the opposite.

Many great suggestions...The Country Cat has good food and is child friendly. On SE 78th? and Stark. Kids eat free on Sundays. And the kid menu isn't just carbs with cheese.

Clean highchairs is key. How many times I've held my child on my lap because I was horrified by the high chair they offered...

I also had an excellent experience at Gino's in Sellwood. Aside from my meal being awesome, my daughter had a great time at about 20 or 21 months of age. We also received a plate of cheese, bread, oranges, apples and some other goodies right away and our waiter was very friendly and kind. We had a really nice evening out and it wasn't stressful at all. Our daughter didn't want to get out of her high chair and run around--she was perfectly content to sit at our table and munch on snacks and people watch...pretty unusual! I really recommend Gino's.

Healthy natural foods, organic whenever possible, vegetable stir fry, salmon sandwiches, chicken meatballs, pasta, chicken, etc...sounds like New Seasons Market to me! There is always room with a great variety of food for kids. Great beverage selection and desserts too! Frankly, we never eat out anywhere else - plus, it's affordable. Every Naturopath in this town brings their kids to New Seasons to eat.

i posed this question to my husband recently and got the following rant:

"I found the perfect restaurant; you've just never been there. I've taken the kids when you've worked late. It's honestly even easier than when we both go with all three kids. There's bottomless chocolate milk and the kids are treated like royalty - immediate coloring paper and crayons and yummy veggie options with every meal. The waitresses (note gender specificity here) dote on them and ewan (our son) can't take his eyes off of them. I actually get to sit back and enjoy my meal with the kids. The bathrooms are spotless, too. It's the perfect place for dinner."

So I asked the kids where dad takes them for dinner when I work late....they said Hooters.

I work for a great family friendly cafe in Beaverton, Oregon called Me Too! I don't know if you've heard of us, but we are a cafe with a supervised kids play area! There's a small play fee ( flat fee/not per hour) for the play area and a great menu for the mommies and daddies! I'd love it if some of you moms would come out and visit us sometime! A lot of what I read had to do with cleanliness and kid friendly staff and we certainly are! Please come visit us sometime and make the decision for yourselves! =)

Claim Jumper by Bridgeport Village off I-5 has a complimentary kids platter that they offer (or sometimes you have to ask for it) which has turkey, cheese, applesauce and some veggies/fruits.

They have a plastic funky table plastic mat they give you, a dispoable bib, and it's loud there with everyone talking and eating good food so my toddler's noises are drowned out. That's the most child-friendly we have been to.

Also, I do always love the sippy cups with a take home straw. It is a life saver. So are crayons. Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill have some of these, but I dig Claim Jumper best. I wish more local cafes were this put-together. Any suggestion in Multnomah Village area?

These are all dreamy ideas. But unless you like a corporate restaurant bigger bathrooms or more bathrooms are not within reach of many of our wonderful owner run/managed/cooked restaurants. Portland is known worldwide for it's quirky, imaginative, and wonderful local food and many restaurants are carved out of available space. With rising food prices many are just scraping by.
I have purposely avoided restaurants with kids areas since my kids could walk: we go to eat, converse, and yes, draw a bit before the food comes, but I don't want them to think the world is catering towards them everywhere we go. We had to meet friends at the Laurelwood a few weeks ago and my kids (5&7) were aghast to see that kids could run around, play, run back to their food, eat one bite, and go back to play again.
While we allllll need our break and there are times we just need to get out and see other humans please please don't expect too much of every restaurant. Old Wives Tales is a great place for wiped out parents, I agree. And when Im alone--that's why it's been in business forever. But not everyone has the space or money or desire to become a haven for kids.
I feel strongly about this because I have put in a lot of work to get my kids to where they are. I move the condiments that seem to be in a perilous position. My kids are responsible for picking up what they drop on the floor (I did this until 4) and I always say "That's not the waitresses job to pickup after your accidents". I used to bring the right cup for them (water only--I don't see the point of juice with a meal) until they were old enough. If they start to act out they get one warning and then we WILL go. Do this twice and you'll see your kids respect you and the restaurant experience.
Now at 5 1/2 and 7 I can take my kids to almost any restaurant (or event) and they are expected to amuse themselves by looking around, observing, chatting, and enjoying new foods. I do mourn their passing on the kids menu now because it's expensive!!! When they do order off the adult menu I am sure it is something we can take home and have later or for school lunch.
This isn't meant to sound condescending but we realllly need to educate our kids from a young age on proper behaviour EVERYWHERE. Integration now will make them happy adults welcome in any country and society. It is work and sometimes I admit to the Burgerville Drive-thru or PB&Ellies when I know I need someplace my needs will be served and Im just too tired to deal.
Last note: TIPPING. Your server may be surly because families that order off the kids menu tend to tip the price of the kids meal. If you are dining somewhere that doesn't cater to families look around: you're taking up a four-top with your kids and highchair and the guys and gals next to you may be having 2 cocktails and an entree. The difference in tip could be $10 or more!
After our food arrives and we're asked if that is all I say "I'd like the check now please in case we need to make a fast break". They appreciate the forethought (you can't expect your server to bring the check before you are done ever--it's considered very bad manners and their bosses will be angry--they need to push more drinks and desserts--).
Then the secret: I pay the check on credit card and leave a cash tip that is generally 25% on the kids meals or more if they share mine. They see this before we go, service is nicer, everyone is happy. I hate that I have to do this but I do find unless we go to our regular spots, waiters see me and my kids and just expect a loss of income for a bit. Many are wonderful about it, but I certainly understand those that don't come to the table with great expectations.
I know times are tough and a big tip seems a lot to ask but the waiters are hurting too and if you reap from the low prices of the kids menu spread some of the wealth back to the staff (Obama style!).
How about just a list of places like Old Wives Tales that fit the bill instead of griping about what places don't have?
And an etiquette class? Meir and Frank had them when I was a kid. Does anyone know of any??

Yikes. For at least 2 meals a day at home, every day, we have etiquette lessons at our table. I like this discussion because it allows us harried mothers to dream of the perfect family restaurant -- a semi-haven where we get to eat and not feel guilty trying to please the types of folks who make us think twice about going to a restuarant at all. To be able to say "go ahead and play in the kid area while mama has a glass of wine" is a treat for all of us in this family. I am more uncomfortable listening to a parent loudly criticize their child in public about table manners than I am hearing a crying or out-of-control child. We have all been there!

That said, I love the idea of the kid area being open, visible and accessible -- Hopworks is a great example. In fact, Hopworks wins in my book for organic food, cool atmosphere, great kid area and good service (btw my kids are 5, 3, 2, and 1). The only thing I would add is to have the child area be a bit larger, and the family tables encircle it. I have seen some fine acts of community parenting with children who who disagree in this "open" arena.

I do love Portland and the creative spaces we have. Entrepreneurial spirits, keep listening to the needs of us moms and you will be rewarded. Thanks Urban Mamas!

regarding this comment:

"a baby seat to put the baby in after you change them! I HATE how the changing tables are FAR away from the sink. You cant walk away from the changing table to wash your hands but you cant set baby down to wash your hands either?? How is one supposed to wash ones hands holding a baby? Is this just something I missed in all my baby classes? Currently I walk him back out to the table and then go back in and wash my hands... such a pain!"

You could just wash your hands with a baby wipe, or use a baby sling. It's quite easy to wash ones hands while babe is securely in a sling or carrier.

Lots of great comments, suggestions and feedback on this... can you stand one more? An ingredient list. That way we can manage the food allergies without having to send the poor waitstaff back to the kitchen to quiz the busy cook, retrieve labels on packaging (for example, what's the mayo made with?), etc only to have to reconsult the menu if it turns out the desired item is a no-go. The more folks I talk to, the more have allergies or other food issues to deal with and we're happy to read labels/navigate it ourselves if we have the info!

We love Anna Bananas in St Johns. There's a kids play area, books, and games. They are mainly a coffee shop, but also have great snacks like the hummus plate that my 4 year old enjoys. The staff is always friendly and positive, none of the attitude we sometimes get when we walk in the door with a child.

My 2 y.o. son and I enjoy Cup & Saucer on NE 30th and NE Fremont once a week for a breakfast date. Everything folks seem to desire, they do. Granted we are "regulars", but they are very open to your requests and have a bookshelf filled with infant toys, books for all ages plus crayons and paper. A sippy cup is provided with water unless you request juice (natural apple juice... awesome) right away, you are given your bill with your meal (they'll even take it up to the register for you if you need them to), and they bring any food you request out first for the child. The service is spectacular! One of the servers recently had a child and is working on a very healthy children's menu for their store. She asks alot of moms for suggestions. They do need a stool in the bathroom, but I am always cared for so well I can't imagine going anywhere else for our dates.

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