When it comes to luring parents to your restaurant with their little ones in tow, it really is the little things that matter. We talked to both the Serious Eats community and SE's own kid-friendly restaurant columnist, Aya Tanaka ("Kids Welcome"), about the things they look for in kid-friendly restaurants. Here are 11 things you can do to bring in the parent-and-child demographic.
Provide high chairs: "High chairs are very telling," Tanaka says. "If they don't have a high chair—or only have one—it's because they don't want children in the restaurant. I leave in that case."
Why are high chairs important? "It's not just to elevate the child to table level," Tanaka says. "It's like a little prison—it helps them sit still. There's the little belt there, keeping them in place. That's good for everyone, the parents, the restaurant, and other diners."
Crayons and paper tablecloths or activity placemats: If you've ever been to a kid-friendly restaurant, you already know one of the hallmarks of such establishments are the cup of crayons and the large swaths of paper used in place of, or in addition to, traditional tablecloths. This keeps children busy during the first 10 minutes at the table, a period that's crucial for reasons we'll get to a bit later.
Make your menu available online: If you've followed our advice on restaurant websites, you've already put your menu on your site. "I do a lot of research online before I go," Tanaka says. "I look at the menu and see what type of meals I can assemble."
Hold events during earlybird hours: The Perch Cafe in Brooklyn, a neighborhood place that does a fine job of balancing the needs of parents and children with those of its kid-free patrons, holds special singalongs and family dining events during nonpeak hours. The owners have found a way to appeal to the stroller set that fills the cafe with people during otherwise slow periods.
Offer kid-proof cups, and don't fill them to the brim: Have on hand smaller, stout glasses or plastic cups to serve children water in. Toddlers will be less likely to tip over these kid-friendly vessels. And only fill them halfway. As Tanaka says, "The rule with kids is, 'It's easier to refill than clean the spill.'"
Beyond the obvious
Don't treat the child as an afterthought: If you're hosting two parents and a child, don't try to squeeze them all into a two-top table. "You really need that space for the child," Tanaka says. "Try as you might to control them, they'll grab things and throw them and that's bad for everyone." The extra space—putting this party of three at a four-top, for instance—allows the parents to remove unnecessary items from the child's reach.
Offer kid-friendly appetizers that can stand in for entrees: When Tanaka is looking at those online menus, she often looks not for a dedicated children's menu (though they are nice to offer) but at the appetizers, sides and any sides that may come with entrees. "You can usually find something less complicated on the appetizer menu—smaller portions, maybe less spicy, since children often have milder palates than adults." At Kefi in NYC, for instance, Tanaka assembled a meal for her 2 1/2-year-old daughter from a meatball appetizer and a mashed potato side, augmenting it with the sheep's milk dumplings from a dumpling and lamb sausage main course.
Have kid-friendly suggestions at the ready for your waitstaff: As in the example above at Kefi, you might already have the makings of a kid-friendly meal on your menu. Arm your staff with suggestions they can give parents for combining existing menu items into meals for their children.
Bring food out fast: Remember we mentioned the first 10 minutes as being crucial? "It's all in how the parents and the restaurant manage that first bit of time," Tanaka says. Little ones get hungry and bored quickly. The crayons can keep them occupied only so long before they're done with them. "If there's a bread basket, that's great. It cuts the hunger. The speed of service is always something that parents greatly appreciate."
Don't leave too much time between courses. "During the meal, each new round is very interesting to a child—especially if you're having appetizers, main course, dessert— each new item keeps them entertained. The hard parts are the beginning and the end."
Consider a kid-customized serving order: Echoing Tanaka's advice on speed of service, Serious Eats community member NWcajun mentioned that Southpark Seafood in Portland, Oregon, has a unique way of dealing with children:
Round one comes fast: drinks for the parents and appetizers for the kids. Second round: main course for kids, appetizers for parents. Third round: kids get dessert while parents have main course. This works very well and the only sacrifice is no dessert for the grownups (that may be considered another benefit). Every year, since they were 5 and 7, we take our kids into Portland for a fancy dinner and the theater. The children's behavior is our responsibility as parents, and we are very careful not to affect the meals of the diners around us. That job is made much easier at a restaurant that gets it. Once again, Southpark does not present itself as kid-friendly, but they do a great job.
Changing stations in all restrooms: When we asked parents what they looked for in a kid-friendly restaurant on Serious Eats and on our Facebook page, an overwhelming amount of them said both women's and men's restrooms should have changing stations— or at least have a flat expanse next to the sink to accommodate a changing mat.
The bottom line
We'll be honest with you: for every parent who appreciates a kid-friendly restaurant, there's someone who runs for the exit. The advice above doesn't ask you to radically reinvent your place and slap "Kid-Friendly" signs on your front door. Just altering some things you might already be doing or offering can help you draw in parents with their children—and may gain a new generation of loyal customers.