Nothing makes me sadder than getting a message from a reader — or from a disgruntled friend — complaining about a disheartening dining experience with their kids. I’m not talking about slow service (places are short-staffed right now; it’s not the restaurant’s fault!). I’m talking about feeling like you overpaid just to get warmed-up chicken nuggets or being treated like an alien for daring to bring a well-behaved child somewhere that doesn’t serve frozen pizza.
The good news is: There are so many thoughtful, creative restaurants in the area that specialize in serving families with young kids, many of which are owned by parents themselves. Here’s a short list of current favorites, in alphabetical order (because it’s hard to rank). Keep it handy next time you don’t feel like hunting for a baby sitter.
A new arrival in the MarketStreet Lynnfield culinary fray, this place gets my vote for a few reasons. No. 1: You can bring your dog! No. 2: You can bring your kids! The patio is large and styled for roaming, and large windows open onto the sidewalk for the ventilation-sensitive. The menu is big-big-big, with everything from poutine to sushi to burgers to pastas to fried pickles. Props for putting a sushi offering or two on the kids’ menu too, as well as for music that drowns out whining.
1100 Market St., Lynnfield. www.alchemy-lynnfield.com
Tipsters rave about this Ethiopian restaurant’s kid-friendly service. And who can turn down the opportunity to eat with one’s hands, thanks to that gloriously stretchy injera bread designed for scooping? Outdoor seating is a pandemic-friendly bonus. 389 Centre St., Jamaica Plain. www.bluenileincjp.com
Evergreen Eatery + Café
Apparently I’m a gigantic buffoon for never discovering this cute cafe until now. Sources appreciate the speedy service, well-spaced and separated tables, food served in to-go boxes to facilitate hasty exits, and even a splash pad across the street. What more could one desire? Maybe all-day breakfast, because they’ve got that, too. 154 Green St., Jamaica Plain. www.evergreeneateryjp.com
Fried chicken and cornhole — need I say more? OK, I will: popcorn, potato chips, biscuits, waffles, muffins, Toscanini’s ice cream, and butterscotch pudding, all served mellowly on a nicely sized patio. Oh, and if you feel like throwing something sharp: There are darts. 50 Binney St., Cambridge. www.lilypschicken.com
The Lookout & The Greenhouse
Live music. The ability to move about the grounds freely while strolling with a beer. Hard cider mimosas. An apple orchard. Barbecue, deep-dish pizza, and cider doughnuts. Sprawling Lookout Farm is laid back — but not so laid back that they don’t take reservations to get you in and out on time. 89 Pleasant St., South Natick. www.lookoutfarm.com
Behold: Brazilian food with flair for grown-ups (get the salted cod seafood pie topped with eggs, olives, and onions with a tall, icy Mojito) and a separate kids’ menu with dignified offerings like $6.95 steak tips. It opens at noon on the weekends, and late afternoon is prime family time. 1008 Cambridge St., Cambridge. www.muquecarestaurant.com
Neighborhood Restaurant & Bakery
An umbrella-dotted patio, ebullient service, lunch complete with soup or salad and dessert, and a Portuguese-American menu stocked with the familiar (pancakes with real maple syrup, luscious homemade rolls) to the harder to find (fried bananas; porco à alentejana, clams and pork sauteed in white wine and garlic), with a kids’ section. Neighborhood Restaurant has been a walkable, family-run mainstay for almost 40 years, so chances are your kids can take their own here someday. Prices will probably be the same. 25 Bow St., Somerville. www.theneighborhoodrestaurant.com
I used to liken mall restaurants to dining in a concrete cruise ship, but times have changed. Shouting out Parm at the Burlington Mall because the service is just plain great. They treat kids well, their food comes out first and fast, and the patio is somehow never crowded. There’s a kids’ menu here, but mozzarella sticks, wings, and the Nutella brownie on the regular version go down smooth, too. 75 Middlesex Turnpike, Burlington. www.parmitalian.com
This gets a nod thanks to a very important feature: an authentic Slush Puppy machine. (Slushies are $3 apiece in a variety of fruit flavors, more when spiked.) There’s also a seasonal, themed Beach Club — maybe your vacation plans were canceled and this can make up for it? — with frozen drinks, seaside décor, and a lifeguard chair for climbing or posing. For the kids: cheeseburgers, hot dogs, cheese pizza, et cetera. 11 Dorchester St., Boston. www.publicoboston.com
OK, so it’s in Portland, Maine, but I have yet to meet a more verdant, shadier, kid-friendlier patio, and who doesn’t want a Vacationland jaunt? Plus, Terlingua is designed for the COVID-scarred among us: You’re far from your neighbors, shielded from the sun, and there’s even a pristine outdoor bathroom that appears ripped from the pages of Glamping International. As for the food: It’s fantastic! Soft tacos stuffed with all manner of succulent meats, barbecue boards, and paper-thin chips with creamy queso. 40 Washington Ave., Portland, Maine. www.terlingua.me