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The Best Dining Bets For Families

Most Kid-Friendly Service: Kudos to these four family favorites, where every waiter and waitress I've ever encountered is friendly, uncloying, and unflappable: Trattoria Sambucca, on the West Side at 20 W. 72nd St. (tel. 212/787-5656); Bubby's, in TriBeCa at 120 Hudson St. (tel. 212/219-0666); Two Boots, in the East Village at 37 Ave. A (tel. 212/505-2276); and Ellen's Stardust Diner, just north of Times Square at 1650 Broadway (tel. 212/956-5151).

Best Kids' Menu: To most Manhattan restaurants, a kids' menu means burgers, chicken fingers, and spaghetti and meatballs, with maybe a hot dog or a grilled cheese sandwich thrown in. But Gabriela's, 685 Amsterdam Ave. (tel. 212/961-0574), makes kids' tacos and roast chicken that are wonderfully savory and free of spicy sauces; Friend of a Farmer, near Gramercy Park at 77 Irving Place (tel. 212/477-2188), adds some comfort foods like macaroni and cheese and chicken with pasta; and the publike Telephone Bar & Grill, at 149 Second Ave. (tel. 212/529-5000), includes such English-nanny favorites as shepherd's pie.

Best Views: The Rock Center Café, 20 W. 50th St. (tel. 212/332-7620), features a movie-perfect view of Rockefeller Plaza's lower plaza -- in winter you can watch ice-skaters through the windows, and in summer you can dine at tables set out on the plaza. Uptown, the Boat Basin Café, West 79th Street at the Hudson River in Riverside Park (tel. 212/496-5542), gives you much the same glorious horizon, along with houseboats bobbing charmingly in the foreground. Get a table by the windows at Café SFA in Saks Fifth Avenue, 611 Fifth Ave., 8th floor (tel. 212/940-4080), and you'll have a pigeon's-eye view of Rockefeller Center and the spires of St. Patrick's.

Prettiest Decor: The famous Tavern on the Green, in Central Park at West 67th Street (tel. 212/873-3200), looks positively enchanting day or night, with its lushly planted Garden Room, its many windows overlooking the park, and its surrounding thicket of tiny white lights. The two Ruby Foo's restaurants, 2182 Broadway (tel. 212/724-6700), and 1626 Broadway (tel. 212/489-5600), have stunning Asian-themed decor, with lots of precisely placed, spotlit art objects. For a dreamy sort of California casual look, Petaluma, 1356 First Ave. (tel. 212/772-8800), is very handsome indeed.

Funniest Decor: Among the theme restaurants, the standout is Mars 2112, 1633 Broadway (tel. 212/582-2112), with its Star Trek-meets-Star Wars space-station look. The East Village's funky Two Boots, 37 Ave. A (tel. 212/505-2276), litters the dining room with a goofy collection of cowboy boots in every shape, color, and size; the Western motif at Cowgirl Hall of Fame, 519 Hudson St. (tel. 212/633-1133), is lively too, though a little more packaged. The roadhouse/frat-house clutter of the three Brother Jimmy's restaurants, at 428 Amsterdam Ave. (tel. 212/501-7515), 1461 First Ave. (tel. 212/288-0999), and 1644 Third Ave. (tel. 212/426-2020), makes for lively fun as well.

Best Burgers: My top favorite just might be the perfectly grilled burgers at the Upper East Side's Luke's Bar & Grill, 1394 Third Ave. (tel. 212/249-7070), though a close runner-up would be the succulent O'Neal burger served not only at O'Neal's, 49 W. 64th St. (tel. 212/787-4663), but at its fair-weather park satellites including Boat Basin Café, West 79th Street at the Hudson River (tel. 212/496-5542). If you're partial to "sliders," those moist miniburgers steamed with onions, know that Sassy's Sliders, 1530 Third Ave. (tel. 212/828-6900), put the White Castle version to shame.

Best Retro Diners: The TV-era kitsch at Ellen's Stardust Diner, 1650 Broadway (tel. 212/956-5151), is a hoot. EJ's Luncheonette bustles at three locations -- on the Upper West Side at 447 Amsterdam Ave. (tel. 212/873-3444), on the Upper East Side at 1271 Third Ave. (tel. 212/472-0600), and in the Village at 432 Sixth Ave. (tel. 212/473-5555). Another winner is the chrome-trimmed Comfort Diner, in Midtown at 214 E. 45th St. (tel. 212/867-4555) and on the Upper East Side at 142 E. 86th St. (tel. 212/426-8600).

Best Breakfast: TriBeCa's Bubby's, 120 Hudson St. (tel. 212/219-0666), welcomes kids for breakfast until 4pm daily; the weekend brunches are especially popular. At NoHo Star, 330 Lafayette St. (tel. 212/925-0070), breakfasts are blissfully relaxed and uncrowded. If it's lox and bagels you're after, the place to go is the famous Barney Greengrass, 541 Amsterdam Ave. (tel. 212/724-4707).

Best Brunches: Brunch is a popular time for kids at Ernie's, 2150 Broadway (tel. 212/496-1588) -- try to snag a table in the garden room in the back. Elephant and Castle, 68 Greenwich Ave. (tel. 212/243-1400), is a longtime Village favorite for leisurely weekend brunches that won't break the bank.

Best Milkshakes: The Barking Dog Luncheonette, 1678 Third Ave. (tel. 212/831-1800), way up on the Upper East Side, has a great retro soda fountain, and the sodas, sundaes, and shakes to go with it. The Lexington Candy Shop, 1226 Lexington Ave. (tel. 212/288-0057), has shakes that are nearly as good, in an authentic vintage coffee-shop setting.

Best Chinese: Chinatown's New York Noodletown, 28 1/2 Bowery (tel. 212/349-0923), is supremely authentic, as is Lin's Dumpling House, 25 Pell St. (tel. 212/577-2777). While many Chinatowners roll out the dim sum carts only on Sunday, HSF, at 46 Bowery (tel. 212/374-1319), makes every day a dim sum day, offering small servings of dumplings, skewers, rolls, and other delectables right at your table. My kids are great fans of the noodle dishes and roast meats at the East Side's Lili's, 1500 Third Ave. (tel. 212/639-1313).

Best Pizzas: I'm treading on controversial ground here, in this pizza-loving city, but I'll have to give the nod to John's Pizza; the original Greenwich Village location, at 278 Bleecker St. (tel. 212/243-1680), is still the best, but the three other branches at 408 E. 64th St. (tel. 212/935-2895), 48 W. 65th St. (tel. 212/721-7001), and 260 W. 44th St. (tel. 212/391-7560) serve up thin-crust brick-oven pies that are pretty darn close to perfection. I'm also partial to Midtown's Angelo's Coal Oven Pizza, 117 W. 57th St. (tel. 212/333-4333).

Best Pastas: Forget Little Italy: The best Italian pastas I've found, outside of a couple of expensive places I could never take kids, are at Presto's, up near Columbia University at 2770 Broadway (tel. 212/222-1760), and Mangia e Bevi, 800 Ninth Ave. (tel. 212/956-3976). Pizza at both places is also superb. Sleek Bella Luna, 584 Columbus Ave. (tel. 212/877-2267), is in a more sophisticated class, but, for friendliness to kids, it beats all other designer pasta restaurants hands-down.

Best Mexican: Gabriela's, 685 Amsterdam Ave. (tel. 212/961-0574), has to be tasted to be believed, and the staff is lovely to kids. If you like Mexican, pick a time when you can beat the weekend-night lines.

Grandma's Favorites: For a very dressed-up special meal, linen and china and all, I'd pick Petaluma, 1356 First Ave. (tel. 212/772-8800); if you want to go more casual, Miss Elle's Homesick Bar & Grill, 226 W. 79th St. (tel. 212/595-4350), has a sort of Fried Green Tomatoes ambience that grandmothers tend to adore. Or do afternoon tea, either in the Flatiron District at the T Salon, 11 E. 20th St. (tel. 212/358-0506) or Midtown at Café SFA at Saks Fifth Avenue, 611 Fifth Ave. (tel. 212/940-4080).

Grandpa's Favorite: At 42 Central Park South, Mickey Mantle's (tel. 212/688-7777) celebrates the sports stars Granddad has actually heard of -- plus, it's handsome, the food's pretty darn good, and there are lots of big TVs so you won't miss the big game. Granddads also get a kick out of burgers and pig-out ice-cream sundaes at fun and friendly Serendipity 3, 225 E. 60th St. (tel. 212/838-3531).

Jock Heaven: While some kids, especially collectors of vintage baseball cards, may get a kick out of the sports lore at Mickey Mantle's, 42 Central Park South (tel. 212/688-7777), young fans and wannabe athletes are more likely to fall for the ESPN Zone, at 1472 Broadway (tel. 212/921-3776).

Most Fun Menu: At America, 9 E. 18th St. (tel. 212/505-2110), you'll find a gargantuan menu that links every one of its regional dishes with a different town in the U.S.A. Mars 2112, 1633 Broadway (tel. 212/582-2112), has a big and very amusing menu; every dish has a spaced-out name that packs a pun.

Best Floor Show: If most waiters in Manhattan are really actors waiting for their break, the guys and gals at Ellen's Stardust Diner, 1650 Broadway (tel. 212/956-5151), at least get to belt out their favorites to a karaoke machine in this Times Square cafe's weekend dinner shows. The flying knives of the teppanyaki chefs at Benihana, 47 W. 56th St. (tel. 212/581-0930), are pretty hard to beat.