Restaurants: Enter at your own risk
So, just because you have kids doesn’t mean you have to change anything about how you live your life, right?
I mean, all the stuff you used to do just needs to be done in a way that includes your little cherubs, who — by definition — do nothing but broaden and enrich the experiences you already enjoy.
This is especially true in restaurants: You can expect your toddler to sit docilely in her booster seat coloring until the food arrives, at which point she’ll daintily eat what’s on her plate with obvious relish while you and your spouse discuss political developments and the workplace gossip of the week.
LOL!! As if!! In reality, going out to eat with toddlers is more like reenacting one of the Saw movies. While being tortured in macabre, unforeseen ways, you watch in paralyzed horror as you lose complete control of the situation while lots of gloopy stuff flies around (mayonnaise, milk and mustard).
Many parents simply decide to forego dining out until their kids are 7, 10 or 21 years old.
But many others make a valiant effort to keep the tradition of over-spending on food consumption alive throughout the toddler years.
So how does one mitigate the risks of dining out with toddlers?
An insider’s guide
First and foremost, you must select the restaurant with care.
For example, we finally accepted that sushi places were a no-go for our toddlers — the food took too long to prepare, we didn’t yet know that gyoza were a kid-friendly appetizer, and rolls, maki and sashimi all looked weird. We’ve definitely had more than one sushi meal cut off at the seaweed salad course.
On the other hand, we noticed pretty early on that Quang (2719 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis), the Vietnamese pho mecca, seemed to have a calming effect on both of our kids. The food comes out quickly, there’s lots of white noise and the wait staff are adept at dealing with kids on the premises: “Hot soup coming through!” they holler, encouraging parents to secure their young ones.
Quang doesn’t have the usual trappings of a kid-friendly restaurant. You’ll find no children’s menu, no crayons, no play corner for feisty tots. We assumed that Quang was an unknown perfect place to take kids. Then we finally looked at the framed awards on the wall, which included one declaring Quang to be a “Best Restaurant for Kids.” (I guess the secret is out.)
Another great place to take kids is Amazing Thailand (3024 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis, across from Calhoun Square).
Their children’s menu is pretty amazing: For something like $4.99, kids get two cream cheese wontons and a mountain of stir-fried vegetables, chicken and rice. We always leave with enough leftovers for at least an additional meal or two. Also, the “umbrella room” ceiling can always be trusted to occupy the attention of our toddlers for almost a minute.
FIKA, meanwhile, at the American Swedish Institute (2600 Park Ave., Minneapolis) features indoor and outdoor spaces (including an enclosed courtyard with a little cart full of whimsical playthings), plus affordable “New Nordic” cuisine that’s earned the restaurant many awards, including “Best Lunch in Minnesota” (Star Tribune 2013).
Brunson’s Pub (956 Payne Ave., St. Paul) offers delicious, fancified bar food and a child-friendly patio (as well as a kid’s menu).
Food isn’t available at Flat Earth Brewery (688 Minnehaha Ave. E., St. Paul), but you’re welcome to bring your own and enjoy good local beer. You’ll find a large downscale patio, featuring what can best be described as “garbage can beer pong.”
Of course, as parents, you get to make the decisions. Therefore, it’s your prerogative to dine wherever you choose — including those establishments that are “too spicy” or otherwise deemed unacceptable by your toddlers.
For example, the jerk chicken at Pimento (2524 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis) is one of our favorite local meals, but the kids can never seem to find anything they want on the menu. Our solution is to talk up the other appealing features of the restaurant, such as the “fun” bathrooms there. (There are some lovely shells arranged on a plate near the sink — a toddler-pleasing feature if there ever was one.)
In short, dining with toddlers can be harrowing — but it can also be tolerable and sometimes even enjoyable. Remember: Pack some snacks, bring plenty of wipes and always order the food as soon as you can.
Shannon Keough lives in St. Paul with her husband, Nick (who contributed to this column) and their two children. Send questions or comments to email@example.com.