Kids eat out

"Sit up; sit still; use your inside voice; no, you can’t run around the restaurant; please get up off the floor; I know this is not the butter noodles you eat six nights a week but can you please just taste it; be careful with this glass, it has no lid; oops, can we get some more napkins … please stop standing on the booth seat talking to the nice man behind us and touching his hair, he wants to talk to his friend; yes, your coloring page got some water drops on it and it’s ruined, can you calm down; oh, you’re starving because it’s dinnertime and you won’t eat any of this; waiter, check please.”

What’s it like to dine out with kids? That’s how Maggie Maddux, mother and owner-director of Santa Fe Sprouts preschool, describes it. If you ask other parents, depending on their current level of exhaustion, their response might well begin with a heavy sigh and become peppered with expletives.

“While we want to teach our kiddos how to be out in public and eating at restaurants,” Maddux said, “there’s only so much you can expect from wiggly little kids. … And for parents who are already overwhelmed, it can feel so defeating to be out trying to enjoy something and spending money, only to have it be ruined by the developmental inappropriateness of most restaurant situations for children. If there’s something else going on in a restaurant that can get kids’ attention and give them an outlet, it’s better for everyone involved.”

To varying degrees and in differing ways, the Santa Fe dining scene tries to accommodate wee ones and their folks. Cowgirl BBQ (319 S. Guadalupe St.) offers an AstroTurfed play area behind the main dining room. Kids can run, draw on large chalkboards, and generally get their ya-yas out in the wooden playhouse and jungle-gym set while parents relax and enjoy grown-up conversation, food cooked by someone else, and perhaps an adult beverage or two. Cowgirl’s kids menu consists of standards like burgers, mac and cheese, corn dogs, and quesadillas, but also offers chicken breast or salmon with veggies. For families farther afield, the beloved Café Fina (624 Old Las Vegas Highway) is favored for its friendly staff and a walled patio that includes an outdoor play area.

Cowgirl, Jinja (510 N. Guadalupe St.), and Harry’s Roadhouse (96-B Old Las Vegas Highway) are among the restaurants that provide distractions in the form of crayons or markers and coloring projects and games printed on paper placemats (the children’s menu is often printed here as well). On one recent visit to Harry’s — where short-stack selections include chicken fingers, a quesadilla, and a couple of sandwiches along with meatloaf, grilled chicken, and pasta with marinara sauce or Parmesan cheese, although their cheese pizza is also popular — my two young dining companions creatively saturated the fronts of their trippy menus and then flipped them over to embark on independent pursuits. In case your child shows signs of an early competitive streak, Harry’s posts some of their favorite submissions on the walls of the host station.

One mother noted that eating early or a little off-peak is a critical part of dining with kids. In an interview with Parenting magazine, blogger Jessica Ritz advises, “There’s no such thing as being too early to eat dinner in a restaurant with kids, especially if they are very young.” Eating dinner early or on time means staying on track with the rest of the evening’s routines, which makes places with wide-ranging hours — that are open between lunch and dinner, for example — ideal for families. One mother noted that while Harry’s is a family favorite (especially their cinnamon rolls), the dining rooms are often crowded and busy at peak times, so off hours (Harry’s is open from 7 a.m. ’til 9:30 p.m.) are generally better.

While many restaurants go out of their way to cater to young clientele, not all establishments are so eager to embrace them. By now, the story of Chicago’s Grant Achatz has become something of a restaurant legend. After two diners brought their eight-month-old to dinner at award-winning Alinea and other diners complained, the chef took to Twitter to ponder whether he should consider banning children from his dining room altogether — and many customers tweeted in assent.

With their carefully cultivated ambiences and painstakingly developed menus, Santa Fe’s high-end establishments aren’t designed with children in mind. The chef doesn’t necessarily expect to step off the line to whip up noodles with butter or something else off-menu, so savvy parents play it safe and call ahead, checking for a children’s menu or something on the regular menu that can be adapted or scaled down. Café Pasqual’s (121 Don Gaspar Ave.) has gladly curated a colorful but not overly simple plate for one friend’s daughter, combining small portions of items — chicken breast, fruits, and vegetables — that appear elsewhere on the menu.

Izanami Restaurant (21 Ten Thousand Waves Way), the impeccably designed space at Ten Thousand Waves, does not offer a children’s menu, but the bite-size and finger-friendly nature of many of their dishes — the list of kushiyaki skewers, for example — appeals to children big and small. Establishments like Izanami are also particularly appealing for parents who want to introduce their children to new flavors and combinations — or for kids whose preferences already extend to a broader range than mac and cheese and chicken tenders. One mother cited her son’s enjoyment of the yaki onigiri grilled rice ball; the grilled avocado; and the smoked ribs with sweet chile glaze. Another raved that her kids “love the little fried-chicken drumsticks ... the wagyu hot-rock thing [Wagyu beef ishiyaki] ... and the shimeji mushrooms.” At a recent dinner, her children fought over the last of the tori no karaage, fried chicken with spicy mayo and lemon. I watched from across the table as her daughter put away most of a six-ounce nami burger topped with yakitori sauce, caramelized onions, asadero cheese, and Beeler’s bacon.

Jinja makes some gentle forays in that direction as well, with dishes like tempura and chicken soba. That’s not exactly what an adult gourmand would consider adventurous, but it’s daring for much of the under-seven set. On the regular menu, veggie-and-pork-stuffed pot stickers and hoisin-glazed pork ribs have kid appeal. Youngster-friendly beverages like Shirley Temples can be given the tiki treatment, arriving garnished with fruit, edible flowers, and festive paper umbrellas. Our server on a recent weeknight was particularly attentive to our wee companion, complimenting her on the tabletop tableau she had constructed for her L.O.L. Surprise doll.

Of course, New Mexico favorites like The Shed (113 E. Palace Ave.), Tomasita’s (500 S. Guadalupe St.), Atrisco Café & Bar (193 Paseo de Peralta, in DeVargas Center), and La Choza (905 Alarid St.) — which one mother singled out as being “very welcoming” to families — can give parents their chile fix while offering little ones heat-free tacos, quesadillas, burgers, sandwiches, burritos, and cups of beans. At the Shed and La Choza, children’s dishes are served with a nod toward nutrition in the form of carrot sticks or applesauce. Tia Sophia’s (210 San Francisco St.) serves special breakfast and lunch selections geared toward the short set.

Tune-Up Café (1115 Hickox St.) is noted for serving a variety of things kids love, particularly the quesadillas and the breakfast trio, with its “huge pancake,” egg, and strip of bacon. The easy picnic-style seating and casual open-air environment, where you can use your “outside voice,” contribute to the popularity of Shake Foundation (631 Cerrillos Road) — to say nothing of the rich milkshakes, fries, and moderately sized burgers. Both the downtown and the Southside locations of Plaza Café (54 Lincoln Ave. and 3466 Zafarano Drive) have diverse menus, comfortable environments, and kid-friendly staff; they will often create smaller versions of adult dishes. El Parasol’s (1833 Cerrillos Road and 298 Dinosaur Trail) addictively delicious crispy tacos are an eternal favorite — especially when a half-dozen will only set you back around $15. Another mom cited Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen (1512-B Pacheco St.) for its pleasant staff members and brunch food that kids are keen on. One family mentioned afternoon crêpe snacks at the French Pastry Shop at La Fonda (100 E. San Francisco St.), while another reminded us all that Chocolate Maven (821 W. San Mateo Road) is highly entertaining — for kids and adults alike — if you can nab a seat by the window that offers a view of the bakery in action. On Rio Chama’s (414 Old Santa Fe Trail) fun kids menu, the choices aren’t especially creative, but some of the names (like “What’s the big quesadilla?”) are. Other parents singled out Santa Fe Bite (311 Old Santa Fe Trail), Counter Culture (930 Baca St. #1) (“The play area is genius”), Il Vicino (321 W. San Francisco St.), and Back Road Pizza (1807 2nd St., #1) — I can’t help but think that the tabletop Ms. Pac-Man game helps.

On the horizon, Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery — the brainchild of Jason Fitzpatrick and Jason Kirkman, formerly of Los Alamos’ Bathtub Row Brewing — is on track to open this spring, in the space long ago occupied by Club Alegria on Agua Fría. In addition to a sandwich menu and food trucks with kid-friendly offerings, they’ve created an impressive layout that includes both an indoor and an outdoor play area for children.

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