August 16, 2006

Chicago restaurants that welcome kids

Hey, Stéphane, your mother who, as you know, covers the restaurant scene in Chicago for CHICAGO COLLECTION Magazine has compiled the following list for you. You'll see that most children's menus cater to the simple tastes of kids who don't like to wander far from burgers, chicken nuggets, mac and cheese and pizza. It's reassuring to know that they won't be any fussing and whining when you take them out to eat with you. A lot of restaurants also have activity placemats and crayons to keep their minds and hands busy before the food gets to the table or when the kids decide they've had enough to eat. In France when children eat at home with their families, they're expected to eat what's put on the table, like it or not, and often they learn to like it. Now in the U.S. I see a growing number of youngsters with more sophisticated palates who are willing to take risks and try new foods. Before these kids were born their parents were used to eating out regularly at casual and fine dining restaurants and ethnic spots and now they see no reason not to bring their little ones out to eat with them. These are children who are taken shopping at farmer's markets and health food stores. They are being nourished with organic produce and free-range chicken They are already watching the Food Network instead of Nickelodeon and taking cooking classes that go beyond the basics. These youngsters are happy to find menus for their age group that include such items as salmon, green vegetables and fresh fruits. They are the ones who will insist on sampling the dishes their parents order: the duck pate, the risotto, the souffle and the sushi, the baba ganooush and the avgolemeno soup. These are the kids who are in training to be our future chefs, food critics and demanding diners who will settle for nothing but the best. In the mean time here's the simple and more sophisticated fare they can expect to find on children's menus. Ambria, 2300 N. Lincoln Park West, 773-472-5959. Well-behaved youngsters (ages 5 and up) can learn a bit about fine dining and perhaps about the Art Deco style of the setting of this elegant place. First they will discover the art the amuse bouche when the waiter brings this small morsel of food that shows off the chef's creativity before the dinner gets under way. Youngsters can order a steak, a piece of fish or a grilled chicken breast perfumed with herbs all served with frites. They will eat their entree while the adults at their table enjoy appetizers. Then the children disappear into the kitchen where they don a chef's hat and make a dessert with a little advice from the pastry chef. Reservations for the Four Star Kids menu, which is $19.95, are a must. American Girl Place Cafe, 111 E. Chicago Ave., 877-247-5223. This is the girliest of girly-girl places. Young girls who don't bring their American Girl dolls and aren't dressed in outfits matching the ones worn by their playthings representing historic periods will probably feel out of place. The cafe has a beautiful view of the historic Water Tower but girls probably won't even notice because they'll be too busy playing with their dolls who have their own mini seat at the table. Items on the lunch, brunch, afternoon tea and dinner menus include some inspired by the dolls such as Felicity's egg salad sandwich and Molly's Victory Garden chocolate mousse served in a tiny flowerpot. Adults will find grown-up food including fish and chicken dishes. Since many young diners are more interested in playing make-believe than eating, this can be an expensive experience that's not very nourishing. Ben Pao, 52 W. Illinois St., 312-222-1888. Some of the Asian dishes on the kid's menu, such as crispy chicken bites and chicken noodle soup, sound familiar, but the flavors might be new. Griled chicken skewers and Beijing beef are other options. They are all served with fried wontons and sweet and sour sauce which are a bite like snack food and a good old American soft drink. You can print out a coloring page of a dragon from the restaurant's webpage ( that the child can color the dragon, which stands for good luck, at home and take it to show it off at the restaurant or simply take it there to work on it. Big Bowl, 60 E. Cedar St., 312-640-8888; 60 E. Ohio St., 312-951-1888; 215 Parkway Dr., 847-808-8880; 1950 E. Higgins Rd., Schaumburg; 847-517-8881. Most children today are used to eating Asian food so they'll feel right at home. The extensive menu for them offers easy to eat golden chicken nuggets that are a far cry from those from the familiar chain. They are served with red peppers and a sweet and sour orange sauce and jasmine rice. The combo of 2 chicken satays and 2 chicken pot stickers is great for nibbling and the teriyaki salmon is great for fish-eaters. They can eat with special chopsticks that are a cinch to use and spend spare time using crayons to play Asian-inspired games on the kid's menu. Bistro 110, 110 E. Pearson St., 312-266-3110. Kids will feel at home at this bustling spot where murals line the walls. The menu for them includes simple fare such as angel hair pasta with marinara sauce, a small beef tenderloin served with french fries or vegetables and mini burgers. They might be more than willing to start their meal by trying the complementary oven-roasted garlic spread on a piece of French bread. Grown-ups can go for a classic steak au poivre or the signature lamb shank which has been cooked in its own juices for 18 hours. Brasserie Jo, 59 W. Hubbard St., 312-595-0800. Eating is fun and games for kids at this big, bustling 1940s-style place where the menu for youngsters is on the back of an Etch-a-Sketch. Parents can order robust Alsatian specialities from chef Jean Joho's creations such as tartes flambees and Riesling chicken, while children can choose from simple healthy fare such as chicken with mashed potatoes, salmon with asparagus, a grilled cheese with frites and followed by chocolate mousse for dessert. Chicago Diner, 3411 N. Halsted, 773-935-6696. Kids probably won't even know that this retro style diner is a meat-free zone. The kid's menu at this vegetarian spot has a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a grilled cheese and a so-called Not Dog. They all come with a choice of homestyle potatoes, the veggie option of coleslaw or brown rice which might look a little strange for those who have only eaten the white grains. Deleece, 4004 N. Southport Ave.; 773-325-1710. This friendly neighborhood spot draws people of all ages who feel right at home in the casual setting with natural brick walls and bouquets of flowers. Kid's can settle in and choose from simple fare such as a grilled cheese, chicken tenders or a cheeseburger, pasta or cheese ravioli, served with fresh fruit and a scoop of vanilla ice cream to finish the meal. At the popular Sunday brunch French toast or scramble egg served with potatoes and some toast. Frontera Grill, 445 N. Clark, 312-661-1434. The kid's fare here is a giant step above Mexican fast food. Chef/owner Rick Bayless is known for using fresh, local ingredients to make top-notch regional fare from south of the border. It's easy for little finger to dip chips into guacamole or salsa even if it can get a little messy or they can squeeze some lime juice onto slices of jicama. This is the place to introduce them to Mexico-City style quesadillas stuffed with Chihuahua cheese and a choice of black or pinto beans crispy taquitos filled with chicken topped with housemade sour cream and Mexican cheese. Greek Islands, 200 S. Halsted St., 312-782-9855. Young ones are more than welcome in this place which is like an open house where members of the oldest and youngest generations of Greek families and those in-between gather around the table for lively conversations and good food. Youngsters should be introduced early on to the pleasures of olive oil, garlic and lemon, the basics of Greek cuisine. Thin, crispy slices of fried zucchini are easy to eat one at a time and can be dipped in skordalia, made with mashed potatoes redolent of garlic. They can choose half orders of dishes such as chicken riganati with rice and potatoes or thin, flavorful slices of gyros which are perfect "baby" foods for those ready for herbs and spices. No meal should start without saganaki, a slice of Greek cheese dramatically set aflame tableside by waiters who theatrically shout "Opa." John's Place, 1220 W. Webster St., 773-525-6670. This casual place is a great success with the stroller set. The kids' menu has all the basics to keep little ones from getting fussy: a grilled cheese, a chicken hot dog , dino bites, mac & cheese and pasta with tomato sauce. They come with a choice of french fries, mac & cheese (parents can help kids make judicious pairings) or healthy seedless red grapes that are easy to pop into small mouths. Red Rage and Yellow Moon smoothies, chock full of fruit, make another healthy choice. The menu is written on a place mat full of fun and games and crayons are ready and waiting. Maggiano's Little Italy, What's not to like on the children's menu ? Kids can choose from a pizza, chicken fingers, spaghetti with just one manageable meatball. The cheese ravioli might be a little bit more unique but they're cute to look at and they topped with marinara sauce that they will recognize. A map of coloring map of Roma with some interesting facts about the Italian city is food for young brains. Marche, 833 W. Randolph St., 312-226-8399. Marche has always been popular with hip, young professionals, but now they're bringing their children along with them who feel right at home at a place that has the look and feel of a 3-ring circus with an open kitchen as part of the show.. Chef Paul Wildermuth has concocted a menu for the little ones that merges simplicity with sophistication; the grilled cheese is made with brioche bread, the hamburger is grilled over fruitwood and the macaroni and cheese is more than a cut above ordinary Kraft. Mon Ami Gabi, 2300 Lincoln Park West, 773-348-8886; 260 Oakbrook Center, Oak Brook, 630-472-1900. Kids can soak up the atmosphere of a Parisian bistro and savor a traditional steak frites from the Little Frites children's menu. Other choices for youngsters appeal more to American tastes even though they can now be found in fast food places in France. They include a hamburger, a cheeseburger, chicken fingers and a hot fudge sundae. But pint-sized sides of mashed potatoes, spinach and green beans are French classics. Before kids get a chance to squirm and whine when they arrive, they are served an amuse bouche of small bits of food arranged on a plate to look like a smiley face. The French would probably not approve. The children's menu doubles as a place mat with French-inspired activities to nourish the intellect. Prairie Grass Cafe, 601 Skokie Blvd., Northbrook; 847-205-4433. Co-chefs and partners Sarah Stegner and George Bumbaris, who created award-winning cuisine at the Ritz-Carlton, now bring their culinary talents to this casual place where you can almost hear the beat of the Heartland. Plasma screens show images of prairie plants and native flowers and the dishes are inspired by seasonal ingredients from local farmers. Kids can kick off their meal with the combo plate of raw sliced vegetables and fruits and chunks of cheese. Entrees range from mac and cheese and a mini pizza to a breaded chicken cutlet with mashed potatoes and a small filet mignon from free-range, prairie-grass fed beef raised on the Kansas ranch of TV news journalist Bill Kurtis. Scoozi!, 410 W. Huron St.; 312-943-5900. Kids feel at home in this boisterous place where they are invited into the kitchen on Sundays between 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. They get to wear a chef's apron and hat while they put together a complimentary pizza for themselves. While the pizza is in the oven they can delve into a big bag of toys to find something to play with before it's time to eat. While everyone might want to play chef-for-a-day, the pizza-making is limited to those age 12 and under. It's best to call ahead to make reservations. Sola, 3868 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-327-3868. Carol Wallack, a surfer who worked side by side with her sister at Deleece (which also has a children's menu) has now set sail on her own at this casually elegant spot where she adds a California/Hawaiian flare to her cuisine. Grown-ups can enjoy artichoke fritters with soy lime and white truffle honey sauces and miso black cod while their off-spring will be more than happy with the simplicity of a chicken breast (no nuggets here) served with easy-to-eat mashed potatoes and a few healthy peas and carrots, an up-scale version of the old stand-by mac cheese is made with three cheeses and a grilled cheese comes with fresh fruit and a choice of tomato soup or fries. All dishes come with some crayons to keep young hands and minds occupied. If the kids are too rambunctious, you can take advantage of the restaurant's curbside carry out. Just call ahead to order and someone will deliver the food-to-go when you drive up in front of the restaurant. Wishbone, 3300 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-549-2663. Let the good times roll could be the motto at this place that serves up down home Southern cooking with a good measure of noise. The menu offers blackened this and blackened that, grits, crawfish and Cajun spices. The kid's menu offers a traditional American burger made from hormone-free, locally raised beef but also Southern-style dishes such as a Midget John, a mini portion of Hoppin' John that combines black-eyed peas, rice and gooey cheddar cheese served with a corn muffin. Fussy eaters can order the Rabbit Patch includes a choice of three sides. There is a curfew on the children's menu which is retired after 7 p.m. Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe, 1701 Maple Ave., Evanston, 847-869-9653. Kids may not want to follow in the footsteps of Wolfgang Puck who launched the concept of gourmet pizzas (think glamorous ingredients such as smoked salmon and caviar) which were must-haves for Hollywood celebrities who flocked to in his restaurant, Spago, on Sunset Strip. But at his Evanston spot youngsters can become the chefs and use their own imaginations to pick toppings to put on their own pizzas. They can find a place at the counter to make their own pizzas during restaurant hours except on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays after 4 p.m.

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