UPPER WEST SIDE — When a six-year-old girl threw herself screaming onto the floor of his restaurant several years ago, Henry Rinehart knew it was time to reconsider his strategy for serving families.
Since that tantrum shook the walls of Rinehart's American bistro restaurant on West 105th Street and Broadway, he's thought a lot about how to accommodate kids without turning his eatery, Henry's, into a romper room.
His method doesn't involve putting out crayons on paper tablecloths.
"To me that really indicates a family that's looking to you to bail them out because they haven't prepared to have a successful meal," said Rinehart, the father of a 5-year-old son, Jules. "My dining room really doesn't want that family. If the parents haven't done the work before they arrive, there's not a lot a restaurant can do to recover that situation and that meal for that family."
Instead, Rinehart uses a different tool: positive reinforcement. He sometimes hands out T-shirts that say "Henry's" on the front and "friendly kid" on the back. They're a reference to the oft-asked question, "Is your restaurant kid-friendly?" Rinehart's answer: "If you have a friendly kid."
The T-shirts remind customers that it's a two-way street, Rinehart said, and the responsibility for a positive dining experience falls on both the family and the restaurant.
Rinehart recommends that parents do advance preparation to help the dining out experience go as smoothly as possible. His suggestions, posted on the parenting blog That's IT Mommy, include explaining to kids why you want to eat out, telling them how they're expected to behave, and even role playing.
When families arrive at Henry's, they can expect attentive service from a staff trained to handle pint-sized customers without sacrificing service for adults, Rinehart said.
Waiters approach quickly and take kids' meal orders at the same time as adult's beverage orders. Kids can choose from a prix fixe children's dinner menu ($14 for appetizer, entree and dessert, for kids under 12). The promise of a sweet reward at the end of the meal gives children an incentive to stay at the table and behave, Rinehart said.
There's also a "family menu" $20 prix fixe dinner for adults eating with children under 12. Kids' appetizers are inventive, including edamame (soy beans) and jicama fries.
"The toughest time as a parent of young kids is transitions, and there’s no transition like walking into a restaurant," Rinehart said. "If you've planned for that moment, and we've planned for that moment, we can ease that transition for you."
Henry's is one of many Upper West Side restaurants that have won a loyal following from family diners. OpenTable reviewers voted it one of the best Manhattan kid-friendly dining options, along with the Upper West Side's Sarabeth's, Sambuca, Carmine's and Landmarc at the Time Warner Center.
Here's a look at some other recommended child-amenable dining spots on the Upper West Side and why families rave about them.
Where: 366 Columbus Ave. at West 77th Street
Good for: Burgers and shakes that kids love, a trendy repuation that adults appreciate.
Restaurateur Danny Meyer hones his hospitality skills the way chefs sharpen knives, which means Shake Shack is designed to be an enjoyable fast food experience, even when you're waiting in a long line. The sleek burger joint sometimes even deploys "hospitality champs" — staffers who keep customers smiling as they're waiting to be served.
There are other family-friendly burger places on the Upper West Side — like 5 Napkin Burger on Broadway and West 84th Street and the newly opened Island Burgers and Shakes on Amsterdam Avenue and West 80th Street — but Shake Shack's prime spot across the street from the American Museum of Natural History makes it an ideal destination for families enjoying a day on the town.
Try the location-specific desserts like the $6 Upper West Slide (vanilla custard, strawberry puree, fresh banana and shortbread cookie) or the $6.50 Natural History Crunch-stellation (vanilla custard, malt, Valrhona chocolate crunchies and chocolate toffee).
Where: 100 W. 82nd St. at Columbus Avenue
Good for: Relaxed beachy vibe and seafood fare to match.
Chef Marc Murphy's Landmarc at the Time Warner Center is mobbed with strollers on weekends, and he brought the same family-friendly vibe to Ditch Plains, the oyster bar and fish shack he and his business partner wife Pamela Schein Murphy opened in March 2011.
"What makes our restaurants unique is that they're family-friendly, but it's not like eating at Chuck E. Cheese," Schein Murphy said. "Even at 5:30 p.m. when it's full of kids, you don't feel like you're at a kid restaurant."
That said, Murphy has put special effort into making kids feel welcome at Ditch Plains' Upper West Side branch. The restaurant's West Village location has video screens showing surf videos posted above the bar. On the Upper West Side, the concept doubles as a tool for distracting children. The screens are mounted at family-sized booths in the back of the restaurant; the programming can be switched from surfing to a kids' movie if parents request it, Schein Murphy said.
At all of Murphy's restaurants, the kids' menu goes beyond the standard chicken nuggets and french fries. Ditch Plains and the other Murphy eateries recently added kids' menu items that follow the USDA's MyPlate nutritional guidelines. There's a $12 whole wheat quesadilla, and a $12 sliced skirt steak with steamed broccoli and "cheesy" brown rice served with sliced apples and bananas.
Known to Food Network viewers as a judge on the cooking competition show "Chopped," Murphy is also the father of two children who inspire his culinary pursuits, Schein Murphy said.
"Marc started cooking because he thinks meal time is an important time for families, where you sit around and talk about your day," Schein Murphy said. "He really wanted to create (restaurants) that were open to that."
Good Enough to Eat
Where: 483 Amsterdam Ave. at West 83rd Street
Good for: Comfort food and passing on Upper West Side traditions to the next generation.
Chef and owner Carrie Levin was a single 23-year-old when she opened Good Enough to Eat in 1981. Since then, she's gotten married, had three kids and turned her restaurant into a neighborhood institution.
"We're onto our third generation of people that have grown up in here," Levin, now 53, said.
Levin grew up in Belgium but serves American comfort classics like meatloaf and turkey dinners with mashed potatoes in a homey settting. Breakfast and weekend brunch are popular; Time Out Kids singled out the orange butter waffles and chocolate coconut pancakes.
Levin's own children created the kids' menu, which features plain pizza ($5.50); mac and cheese ($7.00); chicken fingers ($6.25), pasta with butter ($5.00) and mini burgers ($7.50).
"It's just basic food that they can recognize," Levin said. "Our mac and cheese is very famous, with kids and adults. The kids love it, but it's intense. It’s got four really strong cheeses in it, which is very different from Kraft macaroni and cheese."
Levin created bonds with the neighborhood with regular community-oriented events. Good Enough to Eat hosts a Monday night Fried Chicken Night, theme menu nights on Tuesdays, a Halloween party, and a holiday contest where customers submit their favorite family recipes for possible use in the restaurant. Levin's outeach also extends to at-home cooking classes for kids aged 8 and older, teens and adults.
"It's the quintessential family restaurant," Levin said. "We're like Cheers. There's a cast of characters, the wait staff has been here forever, everybody knows your name. The families feel comfortable here. We know where they want to sit."
Where: 505 Columbus Ave. at West 85th Street
Good for: Tasty Greek food for both kids and adults at reasonable prices.
Chef Michael Psilakis says "kefi" doesn't translate directly into English, but he describes it as embodying the feeling created by a combination of food, drink, music, family and friends.
"The moments you create during those instances are really what life is all about," Psilakis said. "Those moments are more important than the material things we work to achieve."
Kefi revolves around that concept, and Psilakis says he wants his food to make lasting, positive memories for the children that visit the bustling 200-seat restaurant. Psilakis said he used to see cooking as art, but since his father's death, it's become a vehicle for creating memories and relationships.
The most expensive items on Kefi's menu are the grilled branzino and braised lamb shank, both $17.95. Psilakis said the moderate prices are meant to attract repeat customers who will make Kefi's Greek cuisine a part of their weekly dining line-up, the way Italian and Chinese are for some diners.
Psilakis, who grew up and still lives on Long Island, calls the Upper West Side "the suburbia of Manhattan" and says he felt instantly at home in the neighborhood. He knew the stroller crowd would be a big part of his clientele, and he's worked to accommodate them.
"We made a conscious effort," Psilakis said. "As a parent, I know that when I go out it's almost more important for my children to be happy because then I know I can enjoy my meal as well."
Kids get crayons and paper placemats with word searches and other games to disract them while their food is cooked. The critically-acclaimed Psilakis, whose former restaurant Anthos was awarded a Michelin star, shares his talents on the kids' menu. It includes a $7.95 chicken skewer instead of the usual chicken nuggets, the same meatballs that are on the adult menu, and a $6.95 pita pizza with manouri, the Greek cheese.
Psilakis' family-focused efforts have paid off. Foodie blog Serious Eats said the "clean flavors and fresh ingredients" add up to a well-priced menu that "can please not only food-loving parents but also their little ones."
Where: 2170 Broadway at West 77th Street
Good for: Introducing young palates to Asian flavors while satisfying adults.
Fatty Crab's West Village outpost may appeal to the party crowd, but its Upper West Side location is a hotspot for kid diners, according to Jake Brumer, assistant manager at Fatty Crab's Upper West Side location, which opened in February 2009.
"(The West Village) is more of a party crowd," Brumer said. "Up here, we still have fun, but families can bring their children and not feel out of place."
The Malaysian restaurant's Broadway and West 77th Street outpost is the most family-friendly of the Fatty Crew mini-chain, which also includes two Fatty 'Cue barbecue restaurants and several Fatty Snack kiosks. It stocks four high chairs and three booster seats, and it's the only one of Chef Zak Pelaccio's restaurants with crayons and a kids' menu.
Kids eat free at lunch time Monday through Friday and the restaurant is offering a special $11 prix fixe kids' menu with appetizer, entree and dessert until Jan. 31, 2012.
The portions on the kids' menu are child-sized, but the flavors are grown-up, allowing parents to gently introduce exotic flavors to young palates. The peanut butter sandwich has "soy sauce jelly" and cilantro, chicken fritters are paired with teriyaki dipping sauce, and the kids' hamburger comes with tamarind ketchup.
"It gives it a little bit of spice, but nothing kids are going to be turned off by," Brumer said.
Where: 2454 Broadway and West 91st Street
Good for: Kid-centric environment with '80's music and colorful decor that strives for a fun atmosphere.
Food isn't really the focus at Big Daddy's. Yes, Big Daddy's serves super-sized burgers, shakes and tater tots, but the restaurant's primary mission is to create fun.
That means servers "bop around" to 80's music "in the glow of colored lights," said spokeswoman Julie Orchier. Waitresses will apply temporary tattoos to children who get their parents' persmission, and a balloon artist visits the restaurant every Saturday to create balloon animals.
The restaurant specializes in hosting birthday parties and bar and bat mitzah luncheons, and regularly puts on special events like cupcake decorating parties and kids' trivia dinners.
"We are always coming up with ideas to engage the community and welcome everyone who steps in the door into the Big Daddy’s family. We love our customers," Orchier said in an email.
Gabriela's Mexican Restaurant & Tequila Bar
Where: 688 Columbus Ave. at West 93rd Street
Good for: A parent-pleasing combination of ample stroller parking and a well-stocked tequila bar that churns out frozen margaritas.
Years ago, a group called Margarita Mamas met regularly at Gabriela's Mexican Restaurant & Tequila Bar, hosting speakers on topics like breast feeding while mothers sipped the restaurant's signature tequila drinks, said owner Nat Milner.
The Margarita Mamas don't get together anymore, but the mom-friendly vibe at Gabriela's lives on, and the Mexican eatery is a go-to spot for families. The reason? An unbeatable combination of a kids' menu with real food and a bar that serves margaritas made with full pours of tequila.
"Our kids' menu isn’t chicken nuggets," Milner said. "It's our regular food, we just spice it down and make smaller portions. We're not taking anything out of a box and deep frying it for anybody."
The $6.95 kids' entrees include roasted Yucatan chicken, black bean burritos, cheese quesadillas, tacos and enchiladas — all served with rice and beans.
Gabriela's sprawling dining room and festive atmosphere works well for families, said Milner, an Upper West Side father. "We're a big space, we accommodate large groups," Milner said. "It's always noisy and loud, so a little kid making some noise doesn’t freak out anybody."
Ample stroller parking, a large outdoor patio, coloring books and lidded cups are some of the features that keep families coming back, as well as an experienced wait staff. "Most of our service people have their own kids," Milner said. "They know how it works."
Alice's Tea Cup
Where: 102 W. 73rd St., at Columbus Avenue
Good For: Lady-like little girls who like tea parties.
Lewis Carroll's "Alices Adventures in Wonderland" comes to life at Alice's Tea Cup on West 73rd Street, where wait staff "adorned with fairy wings" serve up freshly baked scones, sandwiches and a wide selection of teas from around the world.
The whimsical decor appeals to children, but they're expected to behave, said co-owner Haley Fox, who started Alice's with her sister, Lauren. The mini chain also has two locations on the Upper East Side.
"We cater to their adult side," Fox said. "It's elevating their experience and expecting a lot of them. But I think it works. Even though it’s not a child-themed restaurant, they feel comfortable, and it’s comfortable for adults that are there too."
Children are offered a sprinkling of fairy dust when they walk in, which "which truly transforms them into little angels when they eat, most of the time," said Fox.
There are also classic children's books like "Gulliver's Travels" and "Treasure Island" in the waiting area, and child customers can wear fairy wings if they want to while they eat. Children can order a "wee tea," a scaled-down version of a traditional tea service. If young hands aren't ready for china tea cups, Alice's has plastic ones on hand.
And if cucumber and watercress aren't your kid's thing, child-friendly menu items include peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on homemade banana bread and nutella and apple sandwiches.
Where: 2130 Broadway at West 75th Street
Good for: Straight-up diner food.
"Any restaurant can be kid-friendly," says Scot Steinberg, an Upper West Side father of three. The P.S. 9 PTA member prefers restaurants with reasonable prices and a friendly wait staff. "(Some) have the patience level to serve a family of screaming twins and a 7 year-old," Steinberg said. "Some are old school waiters that don’t have patience."
Viand Cafe, a no frills diner on Broadway and West 75th Street is one of Steinberg's go-to spots, especially for weekend breakfasts, he said.Two eggs any style go for $5.75; french toast is $6.50. The diner
It also ranked highly on Urban Spoon's list of Upper West Side kid-friendly restaurants. "They can accommodate big groups, never say a word about strollers or that kids are too loud. After few visits they treat you like an old friend," wrote one Urban Spoon reviewer.