These were the rules: No chicken tenders. No mac ’n’ cheese. And definitely no French fries.
My husband and I have no illusions about our child’s eating habits. Our 22-month-old daughter, Lydia, goes for the same boring food as every toddler — buttered noodles, starchy pancakes, sometimes just toast and jelly. But we like to push her palate when dining out, introducing flavors she won’t find in her parents’ kitchen. If the food is good, we also like stealing a few bites from her plate.
We prefer ordering off kids’ menus for her because of the cost. So our family of three set out to find an assortment of made-for-children restaurant dishes with both affordability and flair. Our daughter sampled Korean barbecue, slurped pulled pork and, perhaps most impressive, demolished an order of fresh zucchini slices. All with a smile on her face. Here’s where we found the best restaurant fare especially made — and priced — for kids:
This is a great option for passionate carnivores like our pork-crazed daughter. Lydia was seated with a paper place mat and some extra-fat crayons, a hit for the novelty factor. Soon she was gulping pieces of pork drizzled with cilantro-ginger-lime mayo. For just $7, she also got a side of plantains, a generous glass of organic milk and a chocolate chip cookie. Other options on the kids’ menu include sweet-and-spicy beef and roasted or pulled chicken. My family chose to dine at the St. Paul location with its more spacious dining room. Sure, the high ceilings made for a constant din, but we didn’t mind. More to the point: Other diners didn’t mind, or even notice, when our daughter dropped her half-eaten cookie and proceeded to howl.
Brasa, 777 Grand Av., St. Paul; 651-224-1302; 600 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls., 612-379-3030. www.brasa.us
The long waits for tables are definitely not toddler-friendly. My family avoided the problem by visiting this popular Linden Hills restaurant for an off-peak brunch on a weekend. The dining room was still buzzing as our friendly, kid-crazed waiter delivered a lunchbox filled with distractions — toy trucks and dinosaurs, sketch pads and crayons, even a pair of googly eyes (perfect for daddy’s nose, or so decided the toddler). Still, the best part was watching Lydia have a transcendent food experience. She devoured her acorn squash purée with brown butter and maple syrup ($4), even using her spoon to scrape the bowl clean. Kids’ dinner options include stir-fried shrimp and chicken-and-numbers soup as well as gourmet takes on the classics — pasta with Cedar Summit Farm cream, anyone?
Tilia, 2726 W. 43rd St., Mpls.; 612-354-2806. www.tiliampls.com
World Street Kitchen
Lydia was sleep-deprived and fitful one Thursday evening. Let’s be clear: So was her mother. What a relief to learn this street cart-inspired restaurant will motor meals to our neighborhood in south Minneapolis. I simply hopped online for a peek at the kids’ menu. I was tempted by the crispy marinated tofu and the grilled chicken with shiitake mushrooms, Chinese broccoli and herbs. Given Lydia’s meat obsession, I went for the Korean BBQ beef short ribs and rice ($6), a generous dish that fed our picky eater for two whole nights.
World Street Kitchen, 2743 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.; 612-424-8855. www.eatwsk.com
Half Pint offers kid-oriented, grab-and-go service in the lobby of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. We dropped by for lunch one recent Saturday, wheeling our stroller past Roman and Greek antiquities before ordering up a $6 meal for the overstimulated kiddo. Her bento box-style spread featured a teensy ham-and-red cabbage sandwich on crispy bread, which went down easy. Lydia needed to be coaxed into eating the fresh zucchini slices served with a thick, sloppy black bean dip, but she eventually devoured the whole thing. Half Pint also makes a vegetarian version of the lunchbox — it was packed with a cheese sandwich, veggie slices and bright beet hummus on the day we visited. Bonus: Half Pint sells cookies from Rustica Bakery for just $1 apiece.
Half Pint, 2400 3rd Av. S., Mpls.; 612-870-3000. www.artsmia.org
Sen Yai Sen Lek
Servers distribute neither toys nor coloring crayons — nor even milk at this northeast Minneapolis restaurant (we ran to nearby Subway for Lydia’s nightly fix). The place was still hopping with preschoolers when we visited one recent Tuesday evening. Sen Yai Sen Lek translates as “Big Noodle Little Noodle” so, fittingly, the kitchen serves up an assortment of traditional Thai dishes for big and little people alike. We went for the kids’ fried rice with peas, carrots and chicken, which Lydia happily shoveled into her mouth. Other options include stir-fry, sticky rice and Thai noodles. All come with veggies and mild Thai sauces, plus a scoop of Izzy’s ice cream. Everything is just $6.50.
Sen Yai Sen Lek, 2422 Central Av. NE., Mpls.; 612-781-3046. www.senyai-senlek.com
Lake & Irving
Take a look at the bustling playgrounds near Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles and you’ll see that oodles of families, like ours, live in the neighborhoods surrounding Uptown. Yet few Uptown eateries have, historically, bothered to offer a kids’ menu. Thankfully, a few newcomers are reversing this trend. Our tiny food critic likes the protein plates from Agra Culture, the sausage and biscuits from BoneYard. But her favorite is Lake & Irving, with its gourmet bacon cheeseburger ($7) and creamy tomato-basil soup ($5 with a grilled-cheese sandwich). Other highlights include plastic cups, bendy straws, crayons and paper place mats, plus a spacious dining room with a good amount of background noise to mask any meltdowns.
Lake & Irving, 1513 W. Lake St., Mpls.; 612-354-2453. www.lakeandirving.com
Health-minded parents will love this kids’ menu, with its turkey burger, black bean quinoa burger and rice and veggies plate (all $6). Breakfast is equally virtuous with house-made granola and “egg in a nest” (i.e., protein planted in a slice of birdseed toast). Our family visited on an idyllic July evening and opted to sit outside. While waiting for our food, we enjoyed the views of residential gardens and dogs prancing by. Lydia especially liked watching the cyclists come and go from this biking hot spot. And she wolfed down her turkey dog (from Ferndale Market in Cannon Falls, Minn.), served on a fluffy bun with delicious house-made ketchup so tasty that Lydia ate it with a spoon.
Birchwood Cafe, 3311 E. 25th St., Mpls.; 612-722-4474. www.birchwoodcafe.com
We checked out the Edina location of this small national chain (with additional outposts in Roseville and Minnetonka). The place doesn’t look like a children’s haven, with its disco lighting and pulsing soundtrack. But sure enough, we spotted many a tot as we walked through the dark dining room. Like us, they had come for a kids’ menu filled with favorites from China and Thailand. Think satays, potstickers, beef stir-fry with choice of vegetables (all in the $4.95-$7.95 range). We ordered the chicken pad Thai with a spicier-than-usual sauce ($6.95) and Lydia managed it just fine. Toy chopsticks, crayons and organic milk are included.
Big Bowl, 3669 Galleria, Edina, 952-928-7888; Ridgedale, 12649 Wayzata Blvd., Minnetonka, 952-797-9888; Rosedale, 1705 Hwy. 36, Roseville, 651-636-7173. www.bigbowl.com