Admittedly, it takes easygoing people to think that dining out with children is fun. Walking into a restaurant with preteens often draws the same apprehensive gazes (not to say outright animosity) that greet infants on airplanes. The main ingredient is picking a restaurant where the parents can relax because all of the adults (or a significant majority of them) in the joint are hanging with kids. Once you realize that, eating out con niños no longer has to end in hasty, head-bowed exits and astronomical, apologetic tips. Children can sense tension in adults like dogs can smell fear, so contentment for everyone in the party is key.
The trend for the past decade or so has been to segregate families with children from the rest of the restaurant-going population by enticing them to "family-friendly" environs featuring intrusive video games (Peter Piper Pizza and a migraine anyone?), sandboxes (that surely must be the provenance of every stray cat in the 'hood), and mediocre food. And, of course, there's always McDonald's.
But suppose you want to have a dining experience that is truly satisfying for the entire family. A number of chains are trying their hand at this difficult task, notably among them Red Robin at the Forum, whose vibrant plastic façade conceals a full bar, a somewhat slapdash, eclectic menu, and tolerable pseudo-Americana decor. Better yet is local franchise Sea Island Shrimp House, which combines the easygoing, devil-may-care-about-the-upholstery ethos of fast food with crispy fried shrimp and a few grown-up fish dishes. The new location at Bandera Road and Loop 1604 is big and loud and lacks the circa 1965 charm of the Rector shack, but it's also informal and cheerful.
I've found that taking kids to down-home places inexplicably improves their behavior, in much the same way that camping will bring out whatever innate angelic nature they possess. To that end, Specht's Store & Restaurant, off Blanco Road in Bulverde, makes a wonderful field trip. Parents can enjoy cold beer, chicken fried steak, and live music, while the kids dismember a hamburger and check out the livestock that roams next door. Specht's falls into the "If nominated I will not run," category, however. They declined to be photographed for this article, saying that they are tired of folks letting their kids wander around unsupervised. Behavior, I might add, that will earn you dirty looks and cold shoulders anywhere.
Chatman's Chicken (which has been praised extensively in these pages for their scrumptious fried fryers), appreciates your best efforts at crowd control. I dined there once with a crowd of children that outnumbered the adults by a 2-1 margin. We were noisy; we were messy; we had a hard time accepting that the self-serve soda machine did not mean endless refills. But the staff smiled just as warmly 45 minutes into our dinner as they did when we walked through the door (it no doubt helped that we cleaned up our trash). And you can feed a passel of kids at Chatman's for $20.
For those who took the old David Bowie song about parenting, "Hunky Dory," to heart ("And if the homework gets you down/we'll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown"), Texas Stock Yards Café, located in the old stock yards business building southwest of downtown, is perfect for a day of hooky. The restaurant's roots reach way back to 1889, so think of it as an educational supplement. It's certainly not a dietary one: The owners of the Pig Stand chain recently purchased the café, and they've added their famous pig sandwich to the pro-meat menu of ribs, burgers, and pork loin. The wood-paneled interior is suitable to a small-town sheriff's office; you expect to look across the way and see the mayor playing dominoes with the judge. Sometimes the french fries are soggy, but the onion rings are light, crisp, and flavorful. Most interesting, though, are the old stock yards across the way, a faded cast iron steer perched way atop the canopy. Just down the road is a little farmer's produce market, as well as a place to buy deer corn. If it's somewhat finer dining you have in mind, a reasonable facsimile can be had at La Fonda on Main, where most nights bring in families ranging in age from 2 to 92, and nary a soul blinks at a little refried beans on the carpet or the occasional disgruntled wail. The Shrimp Veracruzana and the Carne Asada a la Tampiqueña are dependably flavorful, especially when consumed on the peaceful, verdant patio with a Negra Modelo or a margarita (sodas for the minors, please). The children's plates are more than an afterthought, with beans and rice accompanying tacos or enchiladas.
A well-chosen venue, combined with table manners and an ounce of discipline should guarantee a good time for big and small - a theory we'll put to the test at Bistro Vatel next. •