New York parents love the idea of taking their kids to restaurants. They think raising A Child Who Eats Everything -- an infant connoisseur of Vietnamese pho and ropa vieja and tarte Tatin -- is the true test of urban parenting. My own parents recall the moment I began using chopsticks more clearly than the moment I began walking. Like other New Yorkers, they believed that kids who taste okra and oysters will grow up adventurous and open-minded, that tolerance can be taught with squid salad.
It's a lovely fantasy, and typically ambitious, but for all their success at accomplishing the impossible (you try bringing up a sane child in Manhattan), most parents are still afraid to take their kids to a decent restaurant. Otherwise fearless New Yorkers dread nothing in the world more than the outbreak of a full-bore tantrum in some quiet little boîte. I've had fathers confess to breaking a nervous sweat just from wheeling the stroller through a restaurant's door, and all street-smart parents are attuned to those subtle signs of unwelcome: a dimly lit dining room, a cool, assessing gaze at your toddler, tables of suits. (And the not-so-subtle ones, like those NO STROLLERS signs.)
Parents take the easy way out, relying on openly "kid-friendly" restaurants, where plastic stands in for fine china and French fries stand in for everything else. They wind up traveling the safe, dull path from EJ's to Eli's to Annie's, with an occasional high-anxiety adventure at a theme restaurant like Mars 2112 or an over-priced sugarfest at Serendipity 3. Once they become parents, New Yorkers who used to spring for tuna tartare learn to live with tuna melts instead.
"I don't even think my kids actually believe it's really eel under all that barbecue sauce."
But don't give up just yet. Patroon will probably never install a changing table in the men's room, but more adult hangouts than you realize are prepared to meet parents halfway. If you follow three simple rules -- eat early, eat ethnic, eat expensive (at least more expensive than the greasy ghetto of the kiddie-menu joints) -- then taste-stretching meals are still very much within your grasp.
The wisest restaurateurs welcome the opportunity to fill empty tables at odd hours. And since parents are at the mercy of their kids' byzantine schedules -- what with school, after-school, Hebrew school, soccer, breast-feeding, whatever -- why not nip into restaurants at strange times? Cafés like Avenue (serving just the kind of food you'd make yourself if you had any time), Balthazar, Blue Ribbon Bakery (great bread and sweets), pierogi-pushing Veselka, and the ever-dependable French Roast and Time Café are actually more pleasant between mealtimes than during them. Mornings, long before the lunch frenzy, Pastis may be the best place in the city to eat with your child: quiet (not manic) French charm, peaceful (but not too). The wide-open spaces between tables offer an ideal comfort zone, and the morning cooks are not above scrambling an egg for your 2-year-old. Stagger into NoLIta's Café Habana in late afternoon; you'll find impossibly slim mothers sipping café con leche and watching their kids demolish plates of rice and beans.
Another way to increase the odds of having a decent meal is to choose places that offer ample room to maneuver. One Brooklyn father reveals his bottom line: "A bubble of your own space, where your stroller and your noise and your mess don't have to bother anyone else." Be grateful for the lofty spaces at the original Two Boots pizzeria on Avenue A; TriBeCa's surprisingly friendly Odeon and City Hall; Yura & Co on upper Third Avenue (downscale but with high-quality food); the Upper West Side branch of John's Pizzeria (where there's usually a clutch of kids watching the pizza-makers); the group-friendly Ernie's; and the dazzling Ruby Foo's -- all early-evening havens where families can comfortably spread out.
It's also a well-documented phenomenon among New York parents that the same kid who will ingest nothing but bananas and bologna at home will go mad for tofu with kimchi in a restaurant. It's just a matter of matching tastes. If your baby used to demand a daily pasta fix at home, start thinking about the city's Asian noodle shops. Uptown, Thai and Vietnamese traditions reign at Rain, Monsoon, River, and Lili's Noodle Shop. SoHo's bustling Kelley & Ping is always fun, and you can be in and out in minutes. When you're in Chinatown, New York Noodle Town more than lives up to its name.
Kids are suckers for food that comes wrapped up in its own edible packaging: dumplings, spring rolls, pierogi, quesadillas, cannoli, even edamame, the soybeans that Japanese restaurants serve in the pod. The best overall choices among Japanese restaurants are the places that don't even try to cultivate a Zen calm but bow to New York energy: Sushiya, Tatany, and Zutto are child-friendly enough, and Hasaki is suitably low-key in the early evening.
We're not pushing raw fish for the little ones -- that's asking too much -- but sushi bars also serve those delectable deep-fried and barbecue-sauced items. (We call it the McNugget Effect.) "I don't even think my kids actually believe it's really eel under all that barbecue sauce," one father ruminates, "and they definitely don't know that there's a soft-shell crab inside the tempura in the spider rolls." And why should they? Genki Sushi rolls out its dishes on a conveyor belt that perpetually circles the restaurant like a baggage carousel -- a spectacle that dazzles all children (and most adults).
If you're willing to throw logic to the winds and spend real money on dining with your kids, choose restaurants that truly pride themselves on service, especially those where the chef or owner is a parent. All over the high-end universe, it's become easier to get bottles warmed up and bowls of spaghetti with butter than it used to be, now that twentysomething chef-princes no longer rule New York's kitchens. Bobby Flay of Mesa Grill and Bolo ordered a dozen high chairs after he had a daughter.
"I have to admit I never gave a second thought to kids in the restaurants where I cooked until I had kids of my own," says chef Don Pintabona of Tribeca Grill, where you're likely to get friendlier service with children than without. Pintabona often steps out from behind the stove to show kids how his ice-cream machine works, and Sunday brunch there has the feeling of an indoor block party. Any server in the Union Square Cafe family (Gramercy Tavern, Tabla, Eleven Madison Park) is well trained to handle family psychodrama.
If those high-energy rooms are too much for your sensitive 5-year-old but you're set on a little luxury, there are still other choices. Christer's has a festive Pee-Wee's Playhouse décor, and city kids weaned on smoked salmon will be happy with the gravlax-heavy menu. Uptown, La Mirabelle is a friendly Gallic cocoon where you might introduce older kids to Old Guard French cooking. Beacon's two levels offer plenty of room to play hide-and-seek in, and the wood-burning grill in its open kitchen will fascinate miniature pyromaniacs. For special events, parents praise the service and views at Bryant Park Grill, and tout the simple food and magnificent setting of Michael Jordan's The Steak House NYC (but don't expect much in the way of sports paraphernalia: Steak is the star here).
The bottom line when it comes to dining with children is remembering that disaster can strike at any moment. "Get them in, get them fed, get them out," chants an Upper West Side father of three, which means you need servers who understand. Ruby Foo's owner Steve Hansen knows that when a kid's order says "no sauce," it means no sauce anywhere near the food, the plate, or the table. One place that continues to work best for parents, kids, and innocent bystanders alike is Bubby's in TriBeCa. Owner Seth Price's successful formula is to combine high-quality comfort food, a laid-back room, and plenty of distractions like crayons and balloons. His macaroni and cheese has become the great common denominator -- the universal solvent -- satisfying kids, parents, hipsters, and business-lunchers alike.