Our entourage of 14 included seven kids: Ella, 10; Ned, nine; Susannah, "almost eight"; Meghan, three; Jack, also three; Grace (a.k.a. Jellybean), eight months; and my son Aidan, six months. My husband and I, both ex-Bostonians, had enlisted them to help determine what was fun, and what was not, in the city these days. Memories of my own childhood favorites couldn't be trusted—riding the subway barefoot, for one, was not going to make the list.
We were all related, somehow or other. The question of exactly how was uttered by Ella in her soft voice: "Are we all cousins?" This was one of those simple questions that can lead to a lesson in life's complication: among us were nieces, sisters, in-laws, cousins, second cousins, husbands, wives, children, mothers, fathers, even a former baby-sitter. But before we could begin to explain, the kids were off to play.
We'd gathered across the Charles River in Cambridge, at the Full Moon—a restaurant whose dining room contains a train set, a dollhouse, a blackboard, a toy kitchen, and a plethora of other playthings. A sign offers suggestions for the children, among them REMEMBER, YOU ARE AT A RESTAURANT. This may sound patronizing, but in fact it is hard to remember: What restaurant has a bucket of toys, some rather large, on each table?
Although the Full Moon was conceived specifically for families, the entrées—monkfish and clams in ginger-citrus fish broth, for example—are delicious, and beautifully presented. The child-size dishes are just as good. Imagine this: Your kids play with abandon, the waitresses are happy about it, the room is cheerfully bright but nicely lit, the artwork not at all tacky. And while the kids amuse themselves, you can feel as if you're out on a date—in our case, a triple date with a chaperone and two sleeping infants. But still.
Of course, in Boston it's no surprise to find a restaurant—or a museum, or a shop, or a hotel—that's perfect for kids. After all, this is a city devoted to bringing dusty historical sites and 300-year-old tales to life. As anyone with children knows, that takes a lot of imagination.
Newbury Street Susannah's appraisal of the Boston fashion scene: "You can wear whatever you want, and the fancy people won't mind." This is probably because the fancy people don't have a choice; Boston is not known for style. The trendy boutiques and restaurants on Newbury Street are as fashionable as the city gets. But any kid will immediately surmise that Newbury Street is not about Chanel or Burberry. It's about ice cream shops and—for teenagers—cafés. These are the arbiters of style for Boston's under-21 set.
Do not settle for Vermont's Ben & Jerry's! You'll find three brands of Boston-made ice cream within four blocks on Newbury: Herrell's (at No. 224; try the malted vanilla); J. P. Licks (No. 352; try ginger or crème brûlée); Emack & Bolio's (No. 290; try peppermint patty). Herrell's is the one that best understands kids. Its fresh whipped cream comes in two flavors, regular and chocolate.
If you're between the ages of 16 and 20 and you're on Newbury Street, where you drink your coffee is who you are. The two extremes are the same here as they are universally: beauty (Armani Café , at No. 214) and brains (Trident Booksellers & Café , at No. 338).
There are no terrible restaurants on Newbury, but none that are great for lunch with kids, either. If you want to save money for shopping and eat like the locals (even here there are still a few), stop in at the 60-year-old Riccotti's Sub Shop (154A Newbury St.; 617/247-9533), where the perfect New England submarine sandwich is served with absolutely no fanfare. Order the steak-and-cheese, or an Italian with everything (don't forget the "hots"). This is also a good place to hear a Boston accent.
Charles Street This stretch of shops at the foot of Beacon Hill looks pretty much the way it did in the 1800's, with brick sidewalks, bay-windowed storefronts, and gas streetlamps. Charles is dominated by antiques and specialty shops (the kind that lead kids to ask, "Can we leave now?"), but a few places are fun for all ages.
Black Ink (101 Charles St.; 617/723-3883) sells its own intricate rubber stamps, as well as paper, cards, photo albums, silk maps, and beautiful objects of all sorts. There's a small collection of inventive toys, as well as Tintin knapsacks, a steel Convert-O Bike tricycle/bicycle, and the hard-to-find German Lumibears—glowing bear-shaped lamps that stand as tall as four feet. Ares Shoe Repair (84 Charles St.; 617/720-1583) is like a living museum display: Look through the windows and you'll see what could be an early-19th-century shop, with a cobbler in a drab apron who will pay you no attention whatsoever.
An inexpensive lunch spot is the cafeteria-style Paramount (44 Charles St.; 617/720-1152; $20 for four), in business since the thirties. The food is what you'd expect at a diner—omelettes, pancakes, grilled cheese—but of a high caliber. For Italian ices and sandwiches, go to Caffè Bella Vita (30 Charles St.; 617/720-4505).
An excellent, if expensive, picnic can be gathered at the upscale market Deluca's (11 Charles St.; 617/523-4343). Take your food to the Public Garden down the street, where the kids will be delighted to find a sculpture of Mrs. Mallard (from Robert McCloskey's 1941 children's book Make Way for Ducklings ) leading her flock toward Beacon Street.