Top 15 places to eat with kids in the Twin Cities

Beyond Happy Meals: The best places for kids <i>and</i> their parents

Beyond Happy Meals: The best places for kids and their parents

For parents who love good food, finding a restaurant that they and their kids will enjoy is like finding gold. The criteria can be formidable: The atmosphere should be fairly casual and noise-tolerant, so kids and adults can relax; the menu should offer simple and familiar food for kids but sophisticated dishes for their minders; prices should be reasonable, so a night out with the brood won't break the bank; and service should be friendly and, most important, quick, to keep the little ones from getting restless. If the kids menu is also reasonably healthy, that's a bonus.

With all those parameters in mind, here are our top choices for dining out with the progeny.

See also:
Top 10 macaroni & cheese dishes in the Twin Cities
Top 10 pizzerias in the Twin Cities
Top 10 hot dogs in the Twin Cities


15. Mickey's Diner

You never know what other parents you might run into on a bleary-eyed early weekend morning. Once we sat across from a father, whose spiky bed-head and unshaven face said, "Mom's out of town," while his kids happily colored and chattered away. That the boyish face belonged to our ex-governor made no difference -- this was the time for the kids. Diner food certainly can't be for every meal, but kids love a train car, and these are the moments when a lifetime of memories are formed. Roll in at the ungodly morning hours kept by those of us at the mercy of Phineas & Ferb fans and you can expect to find cheerful waitresses with crooked smiles. Juices are served promptly, and the food takes seconds to arrive from the nearby grill. There is a time for fighting for whole grains and kale, but there are precious few times when you can all happily eat in golden, satisfied silence before the chaos of the world descends again. (1950 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; 651.222.5633)

14. Big Bowl

When you're dragging children to a restaurant, you may think you're saving yourself dinnertime hassle. But that only happens if: 1) your children actually eat the food instead of turning their darling little noses up at it; and 2) the environment at the restaurant can comfortably absorb their noise and energy. Lucky for you, Asian chain Big Bowl has three metro locations, all in shopping malls, where bustle and ruckus are the order of the day. Children are catered to with fresh crayons and rubber-banded cheater chopsticks that can be easily maneuvered by curious little hands. For the picky eater who demands mono-colored food as plain and familiar as the exasperated look on mom's face, the kids' menu carries chicken skewers with jasmine rice. But for the budding adventurer, it also offers a dozen pint-sized portions of exotica: tender BBQ pork buns, slippery chow fun noodles, tangy pad thai, and succulent teriyaki ribs. Health-conscious moms and dads will be happy to know the restaurants rely on antibiotic-free chickens and Minnesota-raised Durac pork. Sit back, relax, and enjoy a Double Lucky Happiness meal. (various locations; Big Bowl website)


13. Day by Day Café

This sunny, cheerful, spacious St. Paul breakfast institution is so overrun with toys that we used to think a pack of overachieving preschoolers ran it. Toys occupy every nook. They're in the waiters' stations, the menu holders, the bookcases, window ledges, and myriad other crannies. Only fidgety little people understand that no one under the age of, say, seven, finds eating breakfast to be even a tenth the fun of racing from one stash to another amassing every Little Mermaid geegaw ever to come out of a drive-thru window. But lately we've been thinking that this can't be the case. I mean, we adore preschoolers, but we have yet to meet a three-year-old who could keep the fishpond on the sunny terrace stocked with big, healthy, orange koi. Or accurately record a telephone reservation for one of Day by Day's two meeting and party rooms. Or brew the veritable sea of Dunn Bros coffee while turning out stack after stack of perfectly browned, custardy French toast and remember to grace the plate with pecans, blueberries, and real maple syrup. (Or the biscuits and gravy, an occasional special we wish they'd put on the permanent menu.) Grownups might do all of those restauranty things faultlessly, but they would find a way to make it dull. And so we've concluded that this place must be managed by elves. And we defy you to prove otherwise. (477 Seventh St E., St. Paul; 651.227.0654 )

12. D'Amico & Sons

Let's be honest. You know, just between us parents. What makes a place great to eat with the kidlets isn't the number of servers dressed as large mascots, or the sturdiness of the toy included with the meal. It's whether mom and dad can eat and enjoy themselves as much as the tots do--a tall order at places like Chuck E. Cheese and McDonald's -- which is exactly what makes D'Amico the perfect pick. First, kids eat free every Sunday (win for the wallet). Second, the menu features kid-friendly pizzas and plenty of pasta dishes (win for the wee ones). And finally, there's the bottomless wine for parents (this is so full of win it isn't measurable on any modern scale). There's even a stack of coloring pages and crayon cups available right at the restaurant's entrance that families can grab as they walk in, which can easily diffuse everything from pre-meal tantrums to post-ordering boredom. Plus, parents get to eat food they actually like, too, because the array of gourmet salads and hot sandwiches means no one has to compromise for the sake of the kids. Even the desserts speak to specific audiences, as tots can chomp on snickerdoodles while parents split a decadent tiramisu (and, of course, more wine). (various locations; D'Amico website)

11. Mendoberri

Our biggest gripe against the kids menus at most places is that they're filled with the kind of nutritionally devoid, fat-packed options that we can't serve without a dose of parental guilt. Sure, they'll love the fries and chicken fingers, but we know better. Mendoberri makes it easy to offer the kids healthier options. Using local and organic foods, they create refreshing and highly flavorful dishes to please everyone in the family. The bright room is welcoming, and the friendly service never falters, even when the smaller members of the table might get a little vocal. It's also a great spot for takeout, and a great option for busy families. The rotisserie chicken, succulent under beautifully seasoned skin, is a fantastic speedy dinner option. (730 Main St., Mendota Heights; 651.209.3270 )

10. Blackbird Café

The Phoenix of neighborhood cafés continues to soar in its new location. Blackbird's charming mishmash of cultural cuisines is a melting pot of delectable flavors. Where better to rejoice in baby's first bahn mi? While their version of the sandwich may not be strictly traditional, it's packed with all those flavors --luscious pork, zesty peppers, cool veggies -- and results in an altogether succulent sandwich, easy for kids to identify as food. A favorite of kids is the spicy peanut noodles -- all familiar flavors, shapes, and textures, but amassed in a new combination. (3800 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis; 612.823.4790)

9. Yum! Kitchen and Bakery

The thing you're looking for most when you trundle the kids off for a meal is solidarity. Oh yeah, you may want high chairs or some certainty that mac and cheese will be on the menu. But mostly you want to know that when Junior dumps his fries on the floor the people at surrounding tables won't screw up their faces in disapproval. By that measure, Yum! is positively crawling with solidarity. When you go, however, make sure the kids are sufficiently distracted by their pasta. You're going to want a moment to concentrate on your own food: hearty tortilla soup that's all about the toppings; a crispy-juicy half chicken on lemony linguine; cunning mini tuna burgers; or rosy, flaky salmon. And most important, your wine. Think about that next time you're contemplating drive-thru Happy Meals. That famous red-haired clown never serves you wine. Yum!, run by longtime Twin Cities restaurateur Patti Soskin, also sells deli and bakery items (including the best challah in town). (4000 Minnetonka Blvd., Minneapolis; 952.922.4000)

8. Birchwood Café

Birchwood Café has its own Peace Coffee blend and a biking team, and it organizes crop mobs to help out the farmers they work with. The food is fresh, irreverent, and ordered via counter service -- an added bonus, since kids are not known for their patience. Owner Tracy Singleton is also the mother of a spritely young lass who can often be spotted flitting about the restaurant. Best of all, the food is nutritious and delicious. Not every kid will be into the black bean and quinoa burger (although it's seriously yummy), so there are also plenty of pizzas that still come packed with healthy, delicious toppings. Fast, friendly, bright, active, and wholesome, a meal with the kids at Birchwood bears more than a passing resemblance to the wonder that is childhood. (3311 E. 25th St., Minneapolis; 612.722.4474)

7. Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque & Pirate Bar

Arrr, mateys! Step inside Smalley's BBQ for some pirate-loving décor served alongside smoke-kissed barbecue. Let the little ones rummage through a treasure chest for a little distraction. The ample outdoor seating makes for easy cleanup for wee ones whose eating accuracy may still be in development. The food from La Belle Vie alum Shawn Smalley is a wallop to the tastebuds. The wings are available in all manner of heat level and consistently tasty no matter your bravery index. The crowd-pleasing stunner of a side dish is unquestionably the mac and cheese. The little elbow pasta of your youth is smothered in rich and creamy orange cheese sauce (but actually made with quality cheese) and topped with mild, smoky poblanos and a few crumbles of salty, pork-tastic bacon. When you're done, you can gaze out on the nearby St. Croix river with your kids and in your best Captain Jack voice cry, "Now, bring me that horizon! (423 Main St. S., Stillwater; 651.439.5375)

6. Blue Plate Restaurant Company (Edina Grill, Highland Grill, Longfellow Grill, Groveland Tap, the Lowry, and 3 Squares)


Stephanie Shimp and David Burley, the owners of the Blue Plate restaurant group, have a knack for reading what kind of restaurant will be best suited for a neighborhood. One thing all their restaurants have in common is an atmosphere and a menu to make kids comfortable. Any child can appreciate the mammoth waffles studded with bananas and walnuts, served with real maple syrup, thank you very much. Menus are tailored to its neighbors: oysters in Uptown, crinkle fries at the Tap, sweet potato fries in Longfellow, stunning salads in Edina, massive breakfast burritos in Highland, and a lovely selection of white wines at 3 Squares. No matter what part of town you're meeting the extended family in, if the kidlets are in tow, everyone will be happy at a Blue Plate eatery. (various locations; Blue Plate website)

5. Sea Salt

One of the keys to successful parenting is to run them ragged. Kids have the boundless energy of an attention-deficient chihuahua on Red Bull. It's easier to get them focused on a plate of food if they're tuckered out from running around. In the warmer months, just pack them up to Minnehaha Falls in south Minneapolis and set them loose. There's plenty of running-around areas in addition to swings, sand, and hiking trails, and when they're done, the incomparable Sea Salt is right there in the park. Our usual adult strategy is to have one grownup stand in line while the other keeps watch on the kids. The line at Sea Salt can sometimes be lengthy, but the reward at the end is delicious seafood and a great wine and beer list. Treat the kids to some fish tacos and a scoop of Sebastian Joe's ice cream. Eating great food on a patio near the rushing falls, watching ruddy little cheeks get gooped up with melting ice cream while you sip a Surly beer, it's easy to remember why you wanted to have those adorable little kids in the first place. (4825 Minnehaha Ave., Minneapolis; 612.721.8990)

4. Pizzeria Lola

Who wants pizza? It's a request met with more cheers than for ice cream. While the dish might be Italian in origin, nothing is more all-American and kid-beloved than a pizza party. Chef-owner Ann Kim, as the website says, is a Korean immigrant who quit her day job to open a pizza joint named after her dog. Kim and her crew at Pizzeria Lola are rocking it out like no one else with their universally loved restaurant. The exceptional pies are packed with fresh ingredients atop a perfectly crispy, chewy crust. And for those sadly banned from the ubiquitous slice by gluten intolerance, rejoice -- Lola has the best gluten-free crust in town. (5557 Xerxes Ave S., Minneapolis; 612.424.8338)

3. Tilia

This Linden Hills hotspot attracts more than just the fooderatti who flit from one well-reviewed restaurant to the next. Long after the new shine fades to comfortably worn-in, this joint will draw the loyal neighborhood people who Steven Brown is aiming to please. While the food is indeed noteworthy, it's also never pretentious. Kids menus arrive like little paper-folded fortunes, and kids' meals are only $3 for little kids or $6 for big kids. The menu is full of safe yet interesting options like tomato soup, shrimp, or grilled chicken. Grownups have the run of Tilia's fantastic menu, featuring everything from escargot to hot dogs. Save room for the dessert: The pastries change seasonally, and the perfectly balanced butterscotch pot de crème (luscious pudding topped with barely sweetened crème fraiche) is divine. (2726 W. 43rd St., Minneapolis; 612.354.2806)

2. Brasa


Every parent understands the cold-sweat terror that comes from trying to eat out with young, hungry children. The panic rises as their restlessness grows: Will the food come before their full-on freak-out? Will you be the object of scorn from other diners? Worse, can the kids order anything that isn't scraped from the bottom of the nutritional slop barrel? That's why it pays to have Brasa in your back pocket. With two locations, one in each city, it's easy to get to, and the concrete floors make kids easy to clean up after. The food is responsibly farmed, free of chemicals, and abounding in delicious vegetable options. The slow-cooked food is delectable, for kids and their parents (both restaurants are owned by James Beard Award-winning chef Alex Roberts). The staff is quick to serve the kiddies their drinks with lids and straws, and the kids' menu is full of cute distractions. (600 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612.379.3030. 777 Grand Ave, St. Paul; 651.224.1302)

1. Midtown Global Market

Contained within the Midtown Global Market is a veritable flavor wonderland. A melting pot of ethnic restaurants and small businesses allow for a quick cultural tour. Foodwise, you'll find a wealth of options -- everything from tacos (traditional and fusion) to camel burgers, fresh fruits and vegetables to burgers and fries -- all in a wide-open, welcoming space that's great for letting kids run free. Besides food, there are scads of entertainment options for little ones. They have Wee Wednesdays with musical and educational entertainment. Kitchen in the Market has cooking classes for kids -- an especially fun session includes Manny from nearby Manny's Tortas and a little lesson in espanol. Have a special dinner at the counter of the Left Handed Cook, under the chandelier, of a bok-bok chicken bowl with a Korean soda pop that has whole grapes inside. It's all easy on the pocketbook (even parking -- the lot across the street can be validated for three hours free). End your day with a mammoth cookie from the Salty Tart. Owner and renowned pastry chef Michelle Gayer is a mom herself and knows the way straight into a kid's heart. It's an entire building filled with fantastic food experiences, all waiting to be shared with small eaters. (920 E. Lake St., Minneapolis; 612.872.4041 )

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