Excuse Me…Do You Have a Parents’ Menu?

A discerning mom-to-be seeks out eateries that cater to little ones while still offering dishes a parent can love.

By the time you read this, I should be a new mom.

When my husband, Bart, and I learned I was pregnant, like most couples we vacillated between excitement and terror. But beyond discussions about pediatricians, names and birth plans, another issue arose. I’d been writing about food, wine and spirits throughout our relationship, and nearly every week we explored new restaurants, food trucks, breweries and wineries together while I was on assignment.

It was our thing. It was a big thing. And we suddenly realized that in a few months it was all going to change.  

To prepare myself, I started talking to other parents about what it was like eating out with their kids. Most of their tips were practical: Amass an arsenal of distractions. Ask for the check early. Carry cash to ease any abrupt departures. Avoid wearing white.

But what scared me most weren’t the tales of meltdowns and messes, but rather the places they recommended, most of which involved dismal compromises in flavor and ambiance. Date nights called for grown-up restaurants, they said. Family nights were limited to chains and fast-food joints.

Really? I suddenly imagined myself sentenced to a 10-year road trip along I-95, where my only restaurant choices would be the symbols you see on exit signs.

I often cite the fact that my father never treated me like someone who couldn’t be in a nice restaurant as the reason why I never feared being in one. Granted, the restaurant options in the Maine of my youth paled in comparison to today’s bevy of fine establishments from Ogunquit to Bar Harbor. But my dad was blessed with an adventurous spirit and an eating gene from his Italian-German roots. And he was good enough to take me along on tasting expeditions.   

We frequented a Filipino restaurant called Lita’s in Lewiston that, for me, sparked a lifelong love for lumpia (spring rolls) and pancit (noodles). When I was 10, there was only one Indian restaurant in Portland, but you’d find us there ordering potato-stuffed samosas and naan slathered in chutney.

I even got to sit down at celebrated chef Sam Hayward’s first restaurant—22 Lincoln, in coastal Brunswick—more than a decade before I could order a glass of wine. I spent the first course quietly reading a book and eating platefuls of warm, chewy bread while the adults chatted away. The book closed when the farm-to-table entrées arrived.

Living in Arlington for the past 13 years has only heightened my curiosity about flavors and cooking styles from around the world. I want to expose my little one to the same culinary wonders my dad introduced to me. I am determined not to succumb to a life of cardboard pizza and Happy Meals.

Through my research, I was fortunate to encounter a fair number of fellow food-enthused parents in the area who are set on laying a similar foundation for their children. In surveying them, a host of unique eateries began to emerge—most of them family-run, affordable and authentic. Here are some of the places that got the thumbs-up in style and taste for both parents and kids.

Twisted Vines

Shortly after they opened Twisted Vines on Columbia Pike 2 ½ years ago, Josh and Sybil Robinson, who were new parents themselves, decided it would be fun to carve out time for other local families to meet up and share a glass of wine while their kids played beside them.

Once a month, the wine bar and bistro opens at 3 p.m. for a casual Stroller Happy Hour, offering guests discounts on its selection of more than 20 wines by the glass, plus juice boxes and snacks for the younger set.

Kids are invited to spread out on play mats with toys and games.

“Every parent deserves a good glass of wine,” says Sybil, who has two kids under 4 and knows how challenging it can be for parents to socialize. The kitchen’s selection of small plates includes a smoky macaroni-and-cheese, crispy flatbreads and “cows in a blanket”—a spicy beef twist on the classic pigs—all of which are popular with little eaters. Rich gorgonzola-packed meatballs and roasted chicken draped in cherry beer sauce tempt the parental set.

2803 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 571-482-8581; www.twisted-vines.com

 

Pie-tanza

After years of going to restaurants where kids and parents couldn’t both get a good meal at a fair price, Karen Waltman and co-owner Ed McKee opened Pie-tanza, which now has locations in Arlington (in the Lee Harrison Shopping Center) and Falls Church (in Falls Plaza).

Waltman and McKee each have three kids, so both understand how important dietary issues are for many families. The restaurant offers several dedicated gluten-free options, from pasta to pizza.

Young guests are offered crayons and dough (gluten-free or traditional) to play with while they wait for their dinner, or while they wait for Mom and Dad to polish off servings of fried green olives stuffed with sweet tomatoes and gorgonzola, or the restaurant’s signature sweet tomato cream penne with spinach and rosemary chicken.

2503-B North Harrison St. (Lee Harrison Center), Arlington; 703-237-0200; and 1216 W. Broad St. (Falls Plaza), Falls Church; 703-237-0977; www.pie-tanza.com

Clare and Don’s Beach Shack

Rebecca Tax, who owns Clare and Don’s Beach Shack with her brother David, has two kids, ages 5 and 7 (they attend Mount Daniel School and Thomas Jefferson Elementary in Falls Church). But it’s David whom guests refer to as the “baby whisperer.”

No wonder the beach-themed eatery, with its colorful flip-flops and tropical fish art cluttering the walls, is huge with local parents. David, who has raised two children of his own, often offers to take the kids while Mom and Dad tuck into fresh mahi tacos or smoked mackerel dip. He’ll walk around with a fussy baby, or bring the older ones into the kitchen to scoop their own ice cream.

“When we moved from Clarendon [in 2007]…we made the restaurant a place that kids would want to come to,” Tax says. “We figure if your kids are asking for it, they’ll probably be happy while they’re eating here.”

Another bonus: Clare and Don’s features live music, from jazz to funk, mainly in the warmer months when it has added room on the patio. Junior musicians are offered the opportunity to pick up a tambourine and jam with the band.

130 North Washington St., Falls Church City; 703-532-9283; clareanddons.com

El Paso Café

In Arlington’s Buckingham neighborhood, kids can sip virgin fruit daiquiris and cinnamon-laced fresh horchata (rice milk) in dinosaur cups while parents peruse the extensive margarita menu at El Paso Café. The walls are laden with colorful distractions, from holiday lights and drawings, to sparkly sombreros.

Launched by two families from El Savador in 1992, the Tex-Mex restaurant has remained close to its roots for two decades. Floor manager John Angel has been working at El Paso on and off since he was a teen—his father was one of the co-founders—and he and his sister Iris Jimenez (who has three children, ages 12, 6 and 1) make sure families come first. Kids are offered comic books and crayons and are treated to magic shows, mariachi music, special holiday parties and discounted meals on holiday weekends.   

“We’ve seen kids grow, graduate and come back with dates,” Angel says. These are the guests who will groom Arlington’s next generation of goat cheese enchilada aficionados.

4235 North Pershing Drive, Arlington; 703-243-9811; www.elpasocafeva.com

Coastal Flats

Located two levels down from the bustling movie theater in Tysons Corner Center, Coastal Flats is part of the family-run empire Great American Restaurants (which also owns Carlyle in Shirlington and Sweetwater Tavern in Merrifield, among other local favorites). Striking a nice balance between familiarity and sophistication, its kitchen offers a mature menu for younger patrons that includes grouper fingers, smoked salmon and beef tenderloin. Parents, meanwhile, can feast on dishes such as Hong Kong-style sea bass and rib-eye marinated in Great American’s signature pale ale.

“We know it takes a lot to get a family out to eat,” says GAR vice president Jill Norton. “We train our staff to help families so they have a great meal.”

Servers are careful to ask about food allergies and preferences. Strollers are kept out of the way of foot traffic in a secure parking spot up front. The hostess stand is stocked with Etch A Sketches. And even the men’s room has a changing station and long counters for overstuffed diaper bags.

7860-L Tysons Corner Center, McLean; 703-356-1440; www.greatamericanrestaurants.com/coastaltysons

Argia’s

Argia’s is another family spot that’s all about encouraging young foodies to try new things. Kids eat for free (choosing from their own menu) every day from 4 to 6 p.m., so they have plenty of opportunities to do so.

Co-owner Adam Roth, who has overseen the Falls Church City restaurant since its opening 13 years ago, now has two kids of his own, both under age 3. He introduced the free-under-12 promo several years back, although by then he had already seen many novices try their first steamed mussels and arancini (arborio rice balls stuffed with fontina and parmesan) as part of Argia’s family-style menu, their tastes growing bolder on each visit.

High chairs and booster seats are easy to secure, and are soon dusted with fried ravioli crumbs and dribbles from toddlers’ first taste of Caesar salad.

124 North Washington St., Falls Church; 703-534-1033; www.argias.com

 

Present

Binh “Gene” Nguyen hopes the families that frequent Present, his Vietnamese-American establishment in the Jefferson Village Shopping Center, are laying the foundation for many return visits.

“In life, we move too fast,” explains Nguyen, a father of three who has lived in Annandale for more than 20 years. “When you dine together as a family, you can forget about the world for a while. It’s a gift.”

Present has several large tables located away from the bustling main dining room, where families can enjoy meals and easily share dishes via built-in lazy Susans. Kids are promptly served fresh shrimp crackers, and then drawn toward seafood salad sweetened with pineapple while their parents explore the expansive menu, which includes whimsically named dishes such as the Hard-Working Piglet (caramelized pork ribs cooked in a clay pot) and Pilgrim on the Beach (seafood-studded fried rice).

And if there’s room left at the end of the meal, a Baskin-Robbins beckons from six doors down.

6678 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-531-1881; www.presentcuisine.com

Mad Fox Brewing Company

Mad Fox Brewing Company in Falls Church has developed a cult following as a stroller-and-growler stop. Owner Bill Madden admits that a restaurant that brews more than a dozen beers on site and serves them at a 63-foot bar may not look like a family joint, but it was always part of his business plan to make it one.

Families crowd the large dining space early as staff members hustle to get grilled cheese (made on house-baked bread) and slices of truffled mac-and-cheese pizza served up quickly. The house-designed kid’s menu has games and puzzles and doubles as a coloring book.

Youngsters even have the opportunity to imbibe their own special drink. Mad Fox offers house-brewed root beer, made with cane sugar and local honey. Consider getting older kids their own growler of it to take home.

444 West Broad St., Falls Church; 703-942-6840; madfoxbrewing.com

Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot

Experimentation is encouraged at Uncle Liu’s Hot Pot, where dining is an interactive experience. Cooking and playing become one as youngsters get to mix their own sauces from an array of fresh green onions, cilantro, sesame oil, garlic and other savory goodies, and toss dumplings, meats and vegetables into bubbling soup in a traditional metal hot pot that’s safely secured to the tabletop.

The Merrifield eatery offers many variations of its potent broths, including a divided pot that’s swimming in red chilis on one side, but toned down with a mild, vegetable-based broth on the other.   

As a rule of thumb, Uncle Liu’s does not shy away from numbing spices. But Shirley Cheng, who manages the restaurant opened three years ago by Liu Chaosheng, assures guests that if they are worried about the heat, the kitchen will adjust the spices—especially for budding hot pot enthusiasts.

2972 Gallows Road, Falls Church; 703-560-6868

The Liberty Tavern

In Clarendon, The Liberty Tavern makes sure its young patrons get a regular dose of nostalgia with brunch.

The weekend menu changes regularly, but the buffet—which is discounted for the under-12 set and free for children under 4—always includes a selection of fresh pastries and vintage candy such as NECCO wafers and Pixy Stix.

Still, it’s not just about the sugar. The kid’s menu has no frozen or pre-made offerings. Pizzas are the same as the adult version—just smaller—and sides go beyond potatoes to include seasonal vegetables and fruit.

3195 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-465-9360; thelibertytavern.com

EatBar

How about a little Bugs Bunny with your mimosa? One of the most unique foodie-family-friendly events in the area happens every Sunday at EatBar.

As parts of Clarendon have grown up, the establishment has matured with its clientele. So while the bar still shows cult-classic movies on the projection screen on Sunday nights—flicks such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Ghostbusters—it’s also been running classic cartoons during brunch since 2009.

Kids can request half-orders of Belgian waffles, eggs and fresh sausage, or mini versions of sliders with fries. Seating is available on a first-come, first- served basis, and the small space fills up fast.

2761 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-778-9951; www.eat-bar.com

Jessica Strelitz is a food and beverage writer in Arlington.

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