My husband and I brought our first child out to dinner when she was a few days old--to a Thai restaurant in Noe Valley--and because she didn't complain about the food or make a fuss, we've been dragging her and her sister out regularly ever since. We take the kids to restaurants that we're interested in trying, without analyzing if they're "family-friendly." My expectation is that the majority of restaurants we choose to patronize will be delighted to see us. (I've been wrong, but only once.) When the girls were little, we'd cart along a portable chair that hooked onto the table for the youngest and use a booster seat or even telephone books, if that's all that was available, for the firstborn. I can't remember a time when there wasn't something on the menu for them to eat; during their pickiest stages, there was always noodles and butter to fall back on (although I do recall announcing at some point that I wasn't paying for one more plate of plain noodles and they'd better broaden their horizons). San Francisco is a food town, after all. You can't do it or yourself justice if you place too many limits on where you'll eat for the sake of the children. Of course, there are restaurants even now that I won't take my teenagers to, not because they aren't beautifully behaved and willing eaters, but because some restaurants obviously cater to couples out for a romantic meal and a respite from family life. I'm all for that. Special-occasion restaurants are also not on my list of must-dos with the kids, because they aren't at a place in their lives where they'd really appreciate a five-course tasting menu with wines to match. I also wouldn't expect them to patiently sit through a 3-hour dinner with only Mom and Dad to talk to. So, my favorite "family-friendly" restaurants, now that I think about it, are those that provide a delicious meal at a fair price, have attentive service, and put forth a welcoming attitude whether I am accompanied by my kids, my husband, or am dining alone. I see no logical reason to pay to eat in places serving generic food just because they have a children's menu, sell souvenirs on the way out, or pretend to like kids more than the diner down the street.
Vacationers with children in tow have other considerations, such as the bottom line. A meal for four can add up, especially if you're dining out two or three times a day as you would while out of town. Happily, you can eat well in San Francisco for a little or a lot. Ethnic restaurants are traditionally good value and the city is loaded with a huge variety. The latest trend to hit, however, is truly family-friendly, although not intentionally so. Described by food writers as the "small plates craze," all the new restaurants and lots of the old ones are offering small portions of wonderful dishes (like the Spanish, with tapas, have been doing forever). That means diners can choose many different items from the menu, and people with modest appetites, as well as kids, can order a meal made up of little bites. And if you order something that doesn't go over with finicky eaters, it's no big deal. You won't have spent very much and you won't have wasted a huge plate of food.
The other recent change in the dining scene is the surge in moderately priced restaurants. The restaurant pros enjoyed the excesses of the '90s, when newly minted millionaires ordered expensive bottles of wine and opulent meals and ate out constantly, but they were caught in a bind when the millionaires were suddenly holding worthless stock options. Some restaurants have filed Chapter 11, some have closed, and some have revamped their menus and lowered prices to coax us regular folk to come in more often. I haven't counted how many chefs have added a dish of macaroni and cheese to the menu, but that's a sure sign you've found one of these post-new economy, family-friendly eateries.
The days when you couldn't get a table without a reservation are also over, except at the most trendy and high-end places, although I do highly recommend reservations on the weekends. If you like to do things ahead of time using your computer, give www.opentable.com a try. This is a reliable website for information and reservations at many recommended establishments. Plus, it's easy to use and it's free. Otherwise, I like to have the hotel concierge phone for me when I'm on vacation.
Tips for Dining Out in Peace
These suggestions come from years of eating out with my kids in all manner of restaurants.
Bring pencils or pens and paper with you so the kids have something to do while waiting for their food. This is also a great time for them to write postcards, so keep some handy. If you get caught without even a crayon and the waiter won't lend you a pen, have a few word games at your disposal--I Spy, for example, or have someone choose a category (movies, actors, food, and so on) and in turn, each person must name something in the category. The catch is that the person with the next turn must name something that starts with the last letter of the previous answer. (For example: orange, eggplant, tomato, onion, and so on.)
- I'm sure your kids have lovely manners, but if you happen to be ferrying around a child who decides to make a ruckus at the table, try a trick that's worked for me. Promptly remove him or her from the premises for a supervised timeout. Don't yell, don't threaten, just quietly keep a beady eye on the tyke until he calms himself down. It's highly effective for the majority of kids and makes a lasting impression on siblings. After the third timeout on the pavement, I promise you that you won't have to do it again.
Bend the rules. I'm one of those moms who doesn't let her children drink soda pop, except as a treat when out for a meal (or behind my back--I'm a realist). And letting the kids order Shirley Temples or Roy Rogers (7Up or cola and grenadine with a cherry) always adds importance to a night out.
- Think ahead before venturing out for dinner. If your little ones have had a long day seeing the sites, make time for them to nap before you go out to eat. (You won't mind the chance to put your feet up either.) You're on vacation, so don't dine early. There is no joy in returning to a hotel room to watch TV. With everyone relaxed and happy, mealtime can be a leisurely and enjoyable way to recap the adventures of day. Encourage each of the children to tell what they enjoyed best that day and discuss the family's plans for tomorrow.
Chains, Chains, Chains and Fast Food--You don't find a lot of national chains or even fast-food restaurants in any but the most touristed neighborhoods, Fisherman's Wharf being the most likely spot, with Union Square coming in second. I've written up a few chains, but for the most part you'll find San Franciscans, with or without kids, prefer chef-driven restaurants with unique identities. As for fast food, you can't do much better than a burrito, but I understand the craving for a hamburger or a slice of pizza as well as the next carnivore. Instead of pointing you to the nearest McDonald's however, I have done my best to offer alternatives.
Frommer's Best Dining Bets
Best Diner: I don't know if the sight of chrome trim and waitresses in uniform are as subconsciously trust-inducing to everyone as they are to me, but there are a lot of diners in this town. The Fog City Diner (1300 Battery St.; tel. 415/982-2000), which does not pretend to be a '50s holdover, has the most appealing menu, coolest look, and benefits from outdoor seating near the bay. Of the Happy Days-style diners, Mel's Drive-In (2165 Lombard St.; tel. 415/921-2867, and three other locations) is the big favorite among kids and teens for a huge menu of soda fountain treats, good burgers, and late night hours.
Best Burger: Mo's Grill (772 Folsom St., tel. 415/957-3779; 1322 Grant Ave., tel. 415/788-3779) hand forms freshly ground chuck and after grilling, lays the patty on a chewy, flavorful bun with tomato, lettuce, and even caramelized onions, if you remember to ask. I just love these burgers.
Best for Breakfast: The extra-delicious pancakes and sausage du jour at Dottie's True Blue Cafe (522 Jones St.; tel. 415/885-2767) is worth the inevitable wait on a grimy but trafficked Tenderloin street. Over in the Richmond District, Q (225 Clement St.; tel. 415/752-2298) serves a breakfast burrito with steak and eggs that's filling, to say the least. In the Mission District, weekend brunch at Los Jarritos (901 S. Van Ness Ave.; tel. 415/648-8383), with families stopping by all day for pozole or huevos rancheros, is much more fulfilling than a quick muffin and coffee.
Best Children's Menu: Kids aren't limited to chicken fingers and fries at friendly Puccini and Pinetti (129 Ellis St.; tel. 415/392-5500; www.pucciniandpinetti.com). The children's menu includes a salad, fruit, soup, and spaghetti many ways along with the irresistible make-your-own-pizza option. I also applaud the mention of alternatives to soda.
Best Decor: I can't imagine where the owners of Q (225 Clement St.; tel. 415/752-2298) found half the stuff they've used to cobble together this mischievous diner, but kids will have a difficult time deciding where to sit and where to look.
Best Views: Phooey on all those restaurants at the wharf that inflate prices because of their location, but don't make much of an effort in the kitchen. The best views can be had at bargain prices either on the deck enjoying fish and chips at Kelly's Mission Rock (817 China Basin; tel. 415/626-5355) or in the cafe at the San Francisco Art Institute (800 Chestnut St.; tel. 415/771/7020; www.sanfranciscoart.edu).
Best If You Have a Sitter: Merenda (1809 Union St.; tel. 415/346-7373) is one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, even though I've never lived in the Marina. It just exemplifies what people make a fuss over when talking about dining out in San Francisco. Romantic and intimate, with great food, it's also well priced and relaxed. For special occasions (like, you got a sitter), Gary Danko (800 N. Point at Hyde St.; tel. 415/749-2060; www.garydanko.com) will wow you with smooth service, sublime food, and wines to match. If you can still pass for hipsters of a certain age, Foreign Cinema (2534 Mission St.; tel. 415/648-7600; www.foreigncinema.com) has the food and atmosphere to match.
Best for Celebrations: Tickets are pricey, but the only time you won't be laughing during the show at Teatro Zinzanni (Piers 27-29, Embarcadero at Battery; tel. 415/438-2668; love.zinzanni.org/T_info.html) is when you're chewing.
Best for a Nice Dinner with Older Kids: I like the atmosphere at Globe (290 Pacific Ave.; tel. 415/391-4132), with its tiny kitchen at one end of the narrow room and modern art on the walls. The food is tasty and good-looking, with dishes that don't present a challenge to kids, but that raise the taste bar. Restaurant Lulu (816 Folsom St.; tel. 415/495-5775; www.lulu.citysearch.com) is louder, bigger, and higher energy. The rustic dishes include ingredients that kids may eye with suspicion, but they'll be won over by their senses. Le Petit Robert (2300 Polk St.; tel. 415/922-8100) is actually delightful for any age kids you care to treat, with country French food to oh la la over.
Best for a Nice Dinner with the Grandparents: Only determined cranks will object to the Grand Café (501 Geary St.; tel. 415/292-0101; grandcafe.citysearch.com), an elegant and expensive brasserie with enough choices to content a range of ages and tastes. The in-laws should also be pleased with the Hayes Street Grill (320 Hayes St.; tel. 415/863-5545). The fish-heavy menu lowers cholesterol while the skinny french fries add a hint of drama. If Grandpa's treating and you don't want to take advantage, Bistro Aix (3340 Steiner St.; tel. 415/202-0100) puts out a simple and delicious three-course meal for $15 and it's food the kids will be happy to eat.
Best Hideout: The enclosed wooden booths at Sam's Grill (374 Bush St.; tel. 415/421-0594; samsgrill.citysearch.com) add an air of mystery to lunch or dinner and the privacy helps everyone relax.
Best Pizza: I love the cornmeal-crusted pizza at Vicolo's (150 Ivy Alley; tel. 415/863-2382), but most kids and teens prefer slices from Blondie's Pizza (63 Powell St.; tel. 415/982-6168) that they can slurp down while walking around Union Square. The best place to sit down and really enjoy a pizza is Tommaso's (1042 Kearny St.; tel. 415/398-9696), patronized by devotees and savvy tourists both.
Best Barbecue: No whining and no deconstructing the barbecue sauce: You're not in Kansas City, Dorothy. In San Francisco we think Memphis Minnie's (576 Haight St.; tel. 415/864-8461) does a fine job of smoking brisket and ribs, and the slaw is good, too.
Best Chinese: This is not an easy pick, but I'm going with Lichee Garden (1416 Powell St.; tel. 415/397-2290; licheegarden.citysearch.com) because it's familiar, comfortable, fast, has an extensive menu, and is just overall a good place for families.
Best Dim Sum: For dim sum fans, Y. Ben House (835 Pacific Ave.; tel. 415/397-3168) provides a good range of dumplings for cheap. If dim sum seems too foreign to your family, your best introduction will be at Yank Sing (101 Spear St., in the Rincon Center; tel. 415/957-9300). For a little background on the cuisine, read our dim sum primer by clicking here.
Best Chinese Outside Chinatown: I only listed one Chinese Restaurant in this category, Mayflower (6255 Geary Blvd.; tel. 415/387-8338), which is consistently excellent, serves yummy dim sum from a menu every day, and offers fresh fish and special banquets.
Best Ethnic Restaurant for Kids: No shoes, no service is not the policy at Khan Toke (5937 Geary Blvd.; tel. 415/668-6654). In fact, the first thing you do upon entering this pretty Thai restaurant is remove your shoes. If that's not enough to start the evening off happily, the charming waiters and typical Southeast Asian dishes will keep your party smiling.
Best for Feeding Large Families: For authenticity in a peculiarly Italian-American genre, Original Joe's (144 Taylor St.; tel. 415/775-4877) delivers huge portions with a side of pasta at low prices. Buca di Beppo (855 Howard St.; tel. 415/543-7673; www.bucadibeppo.com) was invented for parties, family reunions, and hefty appetites--every course is served on platter-size dishes.
Best Italian: There's simple Italian, like Pazzia (337 Third St.; tel. 415/512-1693; pazzia.citysearch.com) for roasts and pasta, and there's more upmarket Italian such as Rose Pistola (532 Columbus Ave.; tel. 415/399-0499), with fancy antipasti, whole braised fish, and high prices. Both work.
Best Fish: At Great Eastern (649 Jackson St.; tel. 415/986-2500) your dinner gets plucked from the fish tanks in the back of the dining room, so there's no question the fish is fresh. The longtime favorite of city hall movers and shakers, Hayes Street Grill (320 Hayes St.; tel. 415/863-5545) uses the Bay Area's finest purveyors of fish, meat, and produce, and puts out bright, simple plates of recognizable food.
Best Mexican: For Mexican cuisine, Cafe Marimba (2317 Chestnut St.; tel. 415/776-1506) serves authentic recipes and makes corn tortillas on the premises. For something even more humble, Los Jarritos (901 S. Van Ness Ave.; tel. 415/648-8383) makes a tasty mole sauce that goes great over enchiladas and offers a welcome change from the burrito joints.
Best for Aspiring Gourmands: Let them check out the small-plates trend at Andalu (3198 16th St.; tel. 415/621-2211; www.andalusf.com), where budding epicures can sample palm-size ahi tuna tacos and black truffle and scallop ravioli. For presentation, flavor, and exceptional value, Watergate (1152 Valencia St.; tel. 415/648-6000; watergate.citysearch.com) stands as an impressive example.
Best Ice Cream: I'm a gelato lover, so Gelato Classico (576 Union St.; tel. 415/391-6667) is my favorite and I actually do think it's the best ice cream, but the rest of my family and half the city prefers Mitchell's (688 San Jose Ave.; tel. 415/648-2300).
Best Afternoon Tea: For formal affairs, the Fairmont Hotel's Laurel Court (Fairmont Hotel, California and Mason sts.; tel. 415/772-5259; www.fairmont.com) gets my vote because the children's tea menu is a bit out of the ordinary, the service is gracious, and the place is beautiful. Closer in tone to an English village tea shop is Lovejoy's Tea Room (1351 Church St.; tel. 415/648-5895), often filled with ladies having a little tête-à-tête and little girls practicing to be big girls.
Best Patio: The walled-in, heated patio filled with umbrella tables at Houston's (1800 Montgomery St.; tel. 415/392-9285) has a view of the water to one side, pleasant if there's no wind. Palamino (345 Spear St.; tel. 415/512-7400; www.palominosf.com) has a heated patio as well (who knows what we did in the days before heating lamps) that's a singles magnet after work. For lunch or brunch outside, Kelly's Mission Rock (817 China Basin; tel. 415/626-5355) has the best weather and views.
Best Delivery: For basic Italian at terrific prices delivered to your hotel or home, Pasta Pomodoro (1875 Union St., tel. 415/771-7900, and other locations) is a godsend. Their salads and fresh vegetables really round out a meal.
Best for Taking on the Plane or in the Car: A nice pastrami on rye with mustard for the trip home courtesy of East Coast West Delicatessen (1725 Polk St.; tel. 415/563-3542) is almost better than getting bumped up to business class. Tied for this hallowed crown is a salami sandwich on a roll with everything from Molinari Delicatessen in North Beach (373 Columbus Ave.; tel. 415/421-2541).
A Note About Prices--The restaurants in my reviews in Frommer's San Francisco with Kids are categorized as Very Expensive, Expensive, Moderate, and Inexpensive, based on an approximation of what a family of four would spend for nonalcoholic drinks and four main courses. If this family would have to pay $120 or more for a meal, I consider that restaurant Very Expensive; from $75 to $120 Expensive; between $40 and $75, Moderate; under $40, Inexpensive. I've included cafes, pizzerias, and casual, order-at-the-counter places under the Inexpensive header, and restaurants that have positioned themselves as combining high-quality ingredients and value in the Moderate column. Very Expensive restaurants are for the evenings you've hired a babysitter, unless you're rearing a future Julia Child or Jacques Pepin and wish to inspire her or him. The Expensive category includes afternoon tea in hotels, usually costly, but delightful if you like that sort of thing. Tax in San Francisco is 8.5%. Tips are 15% for good service; more for exemplary service; and at your discretion for poor service.