The chefs we talked to bring adventure and wisdom to the American table—and they treat eating out en famille with equal parts passion and good sense. No, they don't feed the kids foie gras. But you won't (usually) catch them at Burger King, either. Whether for soup, spring rolls, or hot fudge sundaes, you can count on their picks to deliver sensitive service, fun food, and often a fabulous learning experience.
First, some general advice: Explore mom-and-pop ethnic restaurants, where families rule. Choose situations that offer plenty of action, such as sushi bars or dim sum parlors. Give kids a say on the food—they love to be in control. No crayons or coloring books?You can always play "I spy with my little eye."
Rick and Deann Bayless are the owners of Topolobampo and Frontera Grill (both at 445 N. Clark St.; 312/661-1434), where their daughter Lanie, eight, consulted on the children's menu—adding jicama slices served with a lime and a quesadilla oozing Chihuahua cheese.
Weiner Madness Demon Dogs 944 W. Fullerton Ave.; 773/281-2001. This place is a cultural icon in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. We go for the drippy stuff, like the chili dogs.
Pizza, Please Spago 520 N. Dearborn St.; 312/527-3700. Lanie's "favorite pizza ever," and ours, too. We like the plain one—just tomato and cheese. And the staff couldn't be sweeter to kids.
On a Roll Matsuya 3469 N. Clark St.; 773/248-2677. The sushi bar is a blessing for families—casual, interactive, and improvisational. The chefs make a great Mexican maki, and the waitresses have a wonderful way of explaining how to use chopsticks, tying them to the kids' fingers with a rubber band. We order kapamaki, gyoza, gomai (spinach), and green tea ice cream.
Dreamy Ice Cream Margie's Candies 1960 N. Western Ave.; 773/384-1035. A 1920's ice cream parlor—cozy booths, walls plastered with old photos, hot fudge sundaes served in scalloped bowls—that's pure nostalgia.
Tip Watch how the restaurant staff greets your child: we've been known to leave after a chilly welcome.
Nora Pouillon , of Restaurant Nora (2132 Florida Ave. NW; 202/462-5143) and Asia Nora (2213 M St. NW; 202/462-5143), has four children. Sometimes when they go out together, her daughters—Nina, 12, and Nadia, nine—dress up in capri pants and stylish sandals and play restaurant critics.
Comfort Food Cashion's Eat Place 1819 Columbia Rd. NW; 202/797-1819. This spot is low-key, with homey American food—pork chops, roast chicken, potatoes Anna—and terrific desserts, such as milk chocolate and raspberry mousse cake.
And It's Even Good for You Café Olé 4000 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202/244-1330. We like it because it's new and upscale but relaxed enough to bring kids. Part of the Middle Eastern fusion menu was designed by a chef who worked at Washington's Lespinasse. Mezes, grills, lentil soup—everything is healthy and fun.
Tea Time Teaism 2009 R St. NW; 202/667-3827. This beautiful, exotic Asian tearoom is a real adventure. We always get chai and the tandoori breads served with raita.
Pancake with a World Beat Meskerem 2434 18th St. NW; 202/462-4100. What's amusing for kids at this pretty place is learning to eat Ethiopian-style: they sit at basket-weave tables, wrap the huge porous pancakes (injera ) around various stews, and eat with their hands.
On the Go Firehook Bakery & Coffeehouse 1909 Q St. NW; 202/588-9296. Grab a muffin, a panino, or a focaccia—they even do a sweet cherry one. Everything is scrumptious.
Tips Reserve a corner table or banquette for more space and privacy. Ask the waiters to decorate the kids' beverages with umbrellas and fruit. When traveling, take along notebooks and crayons to make souvenir scrapbooks.
Kirk Webber owns Café Kati (1963 Sutter St.; 415/775-7313). His six-year-old son, Timothy, has known how to use chopsticks since he graduated from finger foods.
Some Dim Sum?Ton Kiang 5821 Geary Blvd.; 415/387-8273. Choosing their own dumplings and spring rolls empowers kids, plus you never have to wait for the food. Everything at this restaurant is impeccably fresh, from barbecued pork buns at a dim sum brunch to the bok choy with snow peas and tofu or the hakka roast chicken at dinner.
Oodles of Noodles Mifune Japan Center, 1737 Post St.; 415/922-0337. At a noisy, bustling Japanese place like this, we don't feel intimidated when we walk in with our kids. The food's awesome and cheap. Have the "bullet train" bento box plate (the plate is shaped like a bullet train), with tempura and soba. Want your kids to try shrimp tempura?Tell them they're french fries!
Comfort Food Park Chow 1240 Ninth Ave.; 415/665-9912. The chef here, Tony Gulisano, knows what kids like. The atmosphere is funky and warm, and the food—great homey pizzas, pastas, shakes—comes out really fast.
Dreamy Ice Cream Toy Boat Dessert Café 401 Clement St.; 415/751-7505. A retro ice cream parlor full of amazing collectible gadgets and toys—it even has a mechanical horse children can ride, with an antique saddle. Our favorite ice cream flavors?The chocolate-chip-cookie and the French vanilla.
It's All-American Ella's 500 Presidio Ave.; 415/441-5669. This friendly spot is simply the best for breakfast and lunch. Try the burgers on fresh-baked buns, chicken pot pie, and the sticky buns—they're phenomenal.
Food Talk Bizou 598 Fourth St.; 415/543-2222. One of Timothy's first words was Bizou! He'd always recognize the big yellow sign when we drove by. He thinks the flatbread is amazing—it's really thin, with caramelized onion and fresh thyme.
Tip Immediately grab the waiter and place your order: waiting is the kiss of death.
It's a wonder that Mary Sue Milliken finds time to eat, between running Ciudad in L.A. (445 S. Figueroa St.; 213/486-5171) and Border Grill in Santa Monica (1445 Fourth St.; 310/451-1655) and Vegas (3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/632-7403), and taping the Too Hot Tamales show with partner Susan Feniger for the Food Network. But she does, in L.A.'s ethnic restaurants with her sons Kier, one, and Declan, nine, who speaks Japanese (he's been taking immersion courses).
Oodles of Noodles Taiko 11677 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood; 310/207-7782. This is the place for udon and soba. And great tofu—the ultimate comfort food. Best of all, the food comes out in an instant.
Dreamy Ice Cream Al Gelato 806 S. Robertson Blvd.; 310/659-8069. Here's a treat: beautiful handmade Italian ice creams and pear sorbet. My baby was in heaven.
Cooking Class Soot Bull Jeep 3136 W. Eighth St.; 213/387-3865. I love places where children can participate in the cooking, like this Korean barbecue restaurant where you grill your own meat. We get ribs, and the kids like to try things like heart and tongue.
Pancakes and Punch Lines Tombo 2106 Artesia Blvd., Torrance; 310/324-5190. This is another cook-it-yourself experience. This time it's okomijaki, a delicious Japanese pancake. There's a huge library of Japanese comic books here—sometimes you walk in and everyone's reading.
Chicken Feed Zankou 5065 Sunset Blvd.; 323/665-7842. Delicious Armenian food: hummus, amazing spit-roasted chicken. We eat in, or take out for a picnic at La Cienega Park, on Olympic and La Cienega Boulevards.
Shake 'em Up Rincón Criollo 4361 Sepulveda Blvd.; 310/397-9295. Friendly mom-and-pop Latin restaurants like this Cuban one are great for kids—order tropical shakes while you wait for crab criollo and crispy pork roast.
Tips Treat ethnic restaurants as cultural lessons; teach your kids how to say hello in the appropriate language. You can have great interactive dining experiences with dishes like hot pot and shabu-shabu.
At Anne Rosenzweig 's Lobster Club in New York (24 E. 80th St.; 212/249-6500), her seven-year-old daughter, Lily, can often be seen leading a kids' tour of the kitchen. Here's what they do when they get a night off:
Oodles of Noodles Shanghai Cuisine 89 Bayard St.; 212/732-8988. Noodles and the dumplings that squirt broth when you puncture them—such a fun surprise. There's a cute cartoon on each table explaining how to eat them.
On a Roll Thanh Huong 271 Canal St.; 212/226-6935. We love the Vietnamese spring rolls, summer rolls, and other rice-paper dishes—all that wrapping and dipping is fun. And Lily likes the fake palm tree and the Buddha shrine.
The Mexican Way Gabriela's 685 Amsterdam Ave.; 212/961-0574. Tamales, enchiladas, and authentic moles and pozole.
Comfort Food City Bakery 22 E. 17th St.; 212/366-1414. Our Saturday ritual is to get breakfast here (Lily loves the oatmeal) before we all head to the Union Square Greenmarket to have little tastes from various stalls and drink apple cider.
Pizza, Please Lombardi's 32 Spring St.; 212/941-7994. This Little Italy institution has fantastic thin-crusted pizza, cooked in a coal-burning oven. Grab a seat in the kitchen, where you can watch the guys throw pies around!
Tip Don't just order pasta with butter! Explore the restaurant's menu—then ask the chef to mix and match dishes.