Four-toy restaurant ratings

We eat at the types of places we never, ever (e-vah!) pictured ourselves dining at. You can too! Here’s my handy guide.We were at Rainforest Café a couple nights ago. Having a kid will do that to you. As The Little Nutball took in her surroundings – animatronic safari animals, twinkling stars, leafy canopy, aquariums, gift shop – I told her we’d first gone there when she was a toddler and that when the animals suddenly became animated, she’d screamed and cried, as had all the other toddlers there as part of the maternity-leave-moms afternoon crowd. I was there with a girlfriend, and she’d said, “I never thought I’d be eating here.”

But ate we did. We were stuffing our faces because we never had time to eat elsewhere and we were so happy to not have to shush our kids. The room was a cacophany of crying babies and toddlers. The very things that were designed to lure us in were terrifying the kids, although we knew eventually they’d turn into the equivalent of crack for our future preschoolers.

I’m all on-board with bringing kids to nicer restaurants – after all, they should develop a taste for fine dining if their parents are foodies to begin with, although obviously there’s a learning curve for moms, dads and kids to navigate together, preferably without driving the non-breeders crazy. (Start at the casual restaurants and at home, and then work your way up to fancier restaurants during the lunch rush, then have an early dinner under 90 minutes long when you eventually hit the fancy-pants establishment.) But on the other hand, sometimes you have to just cave and give in to what your kids want. After a grueling 2.5 hours in the mall looking for kids’ shoes, say. (Brown’s, by the way, which is normally one of my fave shoe stores for the whole family, currently has a nicely curated selection of stripper shoes for young girls. Who buys this sh*t???)

So, in recent years, I have become a connoisseur of chain casual family dining establishments. Here’s my guide to the ones you’re most likely to find in your community (and I hope you will post your own, in the aims of furthering our knowledge of Restaurants We Never Thought We’d Dine At)

COST: Pricey for what it is. Entrees can run to $24, which is what you might pay at a nice restaurant with good-quality ingredients
VIBE: A world where rainforest, ocean and plastic cohabitate in harmony
PROS: Loud animatronic animals mean no one can hear your kid have a tantrum
CONS: Food insulting to your intelligence. A cream-sauce pasta called “Rasta Pasta”? Why?
GO THERE WHEN: You’re at a mall and want a clean bathroom, some peace and quiet from your kid so you can just stuff your face and veg out. Or you’re going whole hog on a kid-driven night of fun on their terms.

COST: Moderate.
VIBE: Much like the Paramount theme park in Orlando, they do a good job of creating a very stereotypical and idealized notion of a particular cultural context. I think the design of this was driven by watching movies like Goodfellas and A Bronx Tale, and channeling that cinematic image of New York’s borough neighbourhoods. I’m actually transfixed whenever I go to East Side Marios and the level of detail they’ve gone to in creating this notion of a sort of 1970s Italian-American neighbourhood film-set, complete with obscure tomato sauce cans and fake hanging laundry. I’d have to say it’s my favourite of the bunch, and no, I never thought I’d be saying that out loud.
PROS: Warm bread arrives with tiny wooden cutting board allowing your child to play with knives while you’re sipping some wine yet close enough to prevent actual digit-loss.
CONS: Realizing you could have driven into Toronto to go to Terroni, which is also kid-friendly and which actually has amazing real Italian food.
GO THERE WHEN: They want pizza, you want pasta, everyone wants artery-clogging garlic bread that they’d never make at home lest it drop oil and butter all over the oven

COST: Moderate.
VIBE: Is it just me, or is there a NASCAR feel to the space?
PROS: Onsite arcade, pool tables mean you can spend time alone with your mate if your kids are old enough to head over on their own.
CONS: Your alone-time is in a crazy, loud, flashing-light, NASCAR pizza establishment
GO THERE WHEN: You’re really desperate to talk and you need to keep the kids preoccupied. “Honey, I think our marriage may be over… But first, let’s order wine while the kids play video games.”

COST: Moderate to slightly high on weekends when I think it’s like $23 pp or something
VIBE: Giant buffet-style heart-attack funhouse with vaguely Chinese inflection
PROS: After you force your child to eat some cherry tomatoes, cucumber and exactly one broccoli “tree” you can let them loose to be masters of their own dinner selections, which is fun for them and a load off for you.
CONS: “I feel sick for two days afterwards,” says my partner. Mind you, I don’t have this problem myself. But then I’m not the one who has one Chinese-takeout style meal, and then goes back to hit the Western buffet for roast beef and potatoes.
GO THERE WHEN: Garlic-y corn syrup meets meat is just what you need. Vague moment of Zen tranquility via entrance fish pond, is also desired.

About Author:

Yuki Hayashi, mother of a five-year-old daughter, AKA The Little Nutball, writes from home and admits her household lacks routine. If you’re feeling a bit scattered as a parent, you’ll find comfort in her Momedy blog.