eating out

(Salad and) Dessert for Dinner

by Caroline

I have to admit, as much as I adore my children, and as good as they are at eating out, it’s rare that Tony and I eat dinner alone at a restaurant and I think, “I wish the kids were here!”

But that’s exactly what I thought when Tony and I first ate at Zero Zero, a pizza and cocktail place in downtown San Francisco, and I saw their mix-and-match dessert menu. You pick a base (ricotta donut, warm chocolate cake, or sticky toffee pudding), you pick an ice cream (chocolate, vanilla, or swirl); and then you pick from the glorious toppings: hot fudge; chocolate bacon bark; olive oil and sea salt; vanilla poached cherries; chocolate-orange-hazelnut shell. It appealed to me, but I knew it would really delight the kids, and I’d been trying to think of a way to get them to this dessert ever since.

The problem is that neither of the boys really likes pizza, and I am too cheap to spend $10 a plate on the plain pasta they would likely order as an alternative. I considered taking them for brunch, but couldn’t imagine letting them order dessert after an order of deep fried French toast with caramel bananas. You see my dilemma. I bided my time, hoping the right opportunity would arise eventually.

It took a few years, but recently the planets aligned just right. Friends of the boys had slept over, and the kids had all enjoyed their typical breakfast followed (after some LEGO spy games) by a big waffle and fresh fruit brunch. Then we all headed downtown to the California Historical Society’s exhibit on the Golden Gate Bridge (which you really shouldn’t miss). We went over to Yerba Buena Gardens afterward to run around, walk through the MLK, Jr. Memorial, and climb trees.

The boys’ friends went on home with their parents at that point, and we found ourselves downtown in the late afternoon, a bit hungry, not ready to head home yet. I remembered Zero Zero. “Salads and dessert?” I suggested to Tony. And off we went.

The boys read peacefully while Tony and I had cocktails.

We all ordered salads: Caesar for Eli and Tony; mixed greens with shaved artichokes, fennel, green olives and herbs for Ben and me:

And after that, felt free to go to town with the dessert menu. First Ben:

Ben's menu choices

And then Eli:

Eli's all-chocolate dessert selection

They ate happily, of course:

At various points along the way, our plan could have gone awry: the restaurant might have been closed, or crowded, or the kids not interested in salad, or unable, after the busy day, to sit and make salad a good meal. But the planets aligned for us in that way, too, and our time at the restaurant just capped off a lovely, rare day, so I didn’t even mind when I asked Eli to share a bite and he laughed and answered like this:

I just laughed and took my picture — and my bite.

Learning to Eat Ceviche

By Lisa

On Friday evening, we were on our way for tacos, when all hell broke loose in the car. It was 5:30 pm. My 7-year-old son had just finished an intense 90-minute soccer practice. During this time his sister had been kicking the ball around with a few teammates. It was the end of another 90 degree day. Both kids were hot, sweaty, and my son’s knees were black from turf dirt.  They were hungry.  They were tired.   It was no surprise what happened next: yelling, fighting, tears, complete and utter irrationality.

Normally, this is not the state in which I take kids out to eat. In fact, taking tired, hungry, cranky kids out goes against everything I’ve ever written here about kids and restaurants, summed up here.

But let me back up. The kids are growing like weeds. These days Finn reminds me of a baby giraffe. He’s all lanky arms and spiking legs and careens around on his bike, or skates, or on the field in a headlong way, as if shot from a catapult, always on the verge of falling.  Ella is an athlete.  She spends long, intense hours at the soccer field and in the pool.  To see her in her soccer gear or swimsuit is to see a girl totally at home in her body and its strength. It’s awesome, and we tell her this every day.   It’s become clear to her father and me that her body craves this kind of  physical outlet just as much as her mind craves the novels she schemes to stay up too late reading. Even Finn, whose sports are less serious will gear up  for roller hockey and skate in the car port on days we’re at home.  All this means one thing:  they need more food.  A lot more food.  A few weeks ago we made the direct link between between the kids’ moods and their blood sugar levels.

There are distinct danger times: right after school, right before lunch, right before dinner.   Snacks have become urgent, no-compromise affairs.  I’ve been tempted to show up at school with those little glucose packs cyclists carry.  Instead, I’ve become an efficiency expert, whipping up smoothies with milk and fresh fruit or peanut butter, slicing cheese, cutting fruit, freezing yogurt, rolling salami, pouring milk, handing over crackers, defrosting edamame, portioning nuts. Protein has become essential for both of  them, pre- and post- practice, and calcium is especially important for Ella in these pre-adolescent years–as it is for all girl athletes.

So that night on the way to tacos (or not) I had two choices: take them home and find something to cook, or soldier on and hope for the best.  The first option was not so appealing to any of us. My kitchen was clean.  I had nothing prepped. We love tacos. What they needed was food. Fast. So against my better instincts, I drove straight past our house and up the hill to the taqueria, all the while scheming about what healthy, sustaining thing I could get into them fast.  Because it was hot, and perhaps because the taste of fresh lime and seafood is still lingering from our San Diego extravaganza, my food brain conjured one word :  ceviche.

Before we entered, tears were dry, kids were calm, and they had been read the riot act in my scariest mom voice.

Inside, they commandeered the table where they could watch the MLS game (another benefit of taco night out). I stood in line. ordered for all of us, and asked for the ceviche to be brought right away.  I had no reason to think they would love it.  But I also had no reason to think they wouldn’t.  It was cool and fresh and full of  citrus and tender white fish.  I knew it wouldn’t completely stuff them before their dinners, and I knew it would complement whatever they ended up ordering.   I also told them they had no choice in the matter, and so two minutes later, while we waited for carne asada, and tacos al pastor, and a quesadilla, the kids confronted a gorgeous pile of white fish ceviche with fresh avocado and a mountain of fresh chips.  Finn dug in first, and then there was no turning back. Not for him, not for Ella, and not for the mood of the night.   As quick as they could load a chip, the mood of the night turned.  They polished off the ceviche until only scraps of fish were left.  Dinner came and they didn’t stop eating.  We went home happy and ate ice cream.

The lesson here?  Food is fuel.    If you’re lucky, sometimes it’s more.

Post-ceviche bliss

Road Trip Restaurants

by Caroline

Like most families, our family’s road trips have usually meant packing a cooler and handing sandwiches and snacks over a shoulder into the back seat, stopping only for quick gas and bathroom breaks. Traveling with kids, you hesitate to break the rhythm of a trip; sure, sometimes when the kids were much younger we had to stop because someone was screaming or wet (or both) but more often the kids would get into a good groove with a book or a nap and we’d hate to break the spell. So we’d forge on, sometimes late into the night. But on our recent trip to Santa Barbara, a couple factors made the idea of road trip restaurant stops more appealing. We were spending a day longer in Santa Barbara than usual, and we were staying with family, cooking most of our meals together, so schedule + budget = meals on the road.

I have some fond memories of childhood road trip restaurant breaks. Most often, it was a stop, on the way to my grandparents’ house, at The Red Rooster (cheeseburger deluxe, fries and a root beer float); sometimes, I went with my grandfather when he drove my grandma to a weekend retreat, and we’d stop at Friendly’s along the way (fried clam roll for him, grilled cheese for me, shared fries and a chocolate fribble).

These days we’re keeping up The Red Rooster tradition in my family (happily, it’s about halfway between JFK and my parents’ house now) and our drive to Santa Barbara usually involves a quick stop at The Madonna Inn. The boys love the amazing grotto bathroom, and somehow manage to resist pieces of cake bigger than their heads in favor of a cookie or chocolate from the sweets counter. We get a treat, run around the parking lot for a few minutes, and then continue on our way.

This time, we stopped at the Madonna Inn for lunch. It’s an ornate room — floral carpet, red leather seats, pink cloth napkins, carved wooden walls — and the menu is enormous. The kids, a little overwhelmed, ordered breakfast for lunch and were perfectly happy; I ate an egg salad sandwich which tasted just fine. The service is lovely and the atmosphere — maybe from all that pink? — is really warm and friendly. It’s a kind of kitschy place but it made us all very happy, and we were on our way in under an hour, feeling much more relaxed than if we’d eaten in the car.

On our drive back home, Tony used TripAdvisor to find a restaurant in Paso Robles, Panolivo, which I discovered, later, is a favorite of a local writer friend (always nice to have that confirmation). The boys ate giant salads, Tony had an excellent house-made veggie burger and a glass of wine, I had salad and a delicious hummus plate. We talked and lingered and picked up pastry on the way out the door.

I’m sure we won’t always stop and sit down to eat when we’re making road trips, but, like our gradual move away from kid’s menus, this is a development that’s definitely improving our family food life.

Saying Goodbye to the Kid’s Menu

by Caroline

When Lisa told me about her family’s road trip plans, I was envious (the sun! the stars! the Missions! the meals!) and then, instantly, dubious on the one point she was nervous about herself: the meals. Two weeks of restaurant meals. Forty-two restaurant meals. With two kids. At (among other places) several theme parks.

I wished her well and waited to hear the report.

Happily, the family survived well and Lisa’s writing about how to handle two solid weeks of restaurant meals with kids, covering everything from breakfast to theme park meals to the kids’ take on all of it. All of which has made me realize an exciting recent restaurant development in our family: we are saying goodbye to the kid’s menu.

Let me back up. We eat out a fair amount. Tony and I ate out regularly before we married (we both did growing up, too), and it was important to us to cultivate good restaurant habits in our kids. So we were strategic about it. Ben’s first restaurant meal, I have to admit, was at Chevy’s; he was about 7 weeks old and gazed at the balloons while I drank a margarita. Success! His first fancy restaurant meal, months later, was at Lulu, a place we chose partly for its delicious menu but also for its volume: we figured a crying baby wouldn’t be heard over the din. We needn’t have worried; he was old enough to sit in a high chair and gnaw happily on baguette, while we enjoyed several courses.

We continue to be thoughtful about eating out and follow the same practices as Lisa’s family. We eat out at fancy places to celebrate, sometimes, (both kids have eaten at plenty of places that don’t offer high chairs or kid’s menus) but more often we walk to one of the many local spots in the neighborhood where we can afford (both in terms of environment and price) to experiment. So if, as happened once when Ben was a toddler, there’s a meltdown between ordering and the food arriving, it’s no big deal to flag down the waiter and get dinner to go. Luckily, it’s been a long time since such an evening has gone awry; more often, we eat and chat and it feels quite a bit like home, just a little more special. But the kids’ preference, always, is to eat at home: it’s more relaxed, they don’t have to wait for their food, they like our cooking.

This summer, we’ve traveled a bit but managed — by booking hotel rooms with kitchenettes or staying with family — to keep the restaurant meals to a minimum (on our visit to Seattle this June, just the second restaurant night made Eli mournful). Tony researched spots that looked good — Italian and Asian restaurants tend to offer a good variety for our choosy, vegetarian kids — and we’ve been eating well. I’ve been remembering the mom I used to be, who would sweep the fragile glassware into the middle of the table, far from a toddler’s grasping reach, or who would set the high chair far from the tempting tablecloth. I’m grateful for older kids who (mostly) sit politely and use the kid’s menu now (mostly) just for drawing.

Kid’s menus certainly offer a welcome landing spot, a sign — as surely as highchairs and lidded cups — that the restaurant welcomes kids, and we’ve been grateful for them. But honestly, the kid’s menu has never offered a great selection for my kids; of the standard burger-fish sticks-chicken fingers-pizza-pasta quintet, most are either too meaty or too cheesy for my kids. So we have always looked beyond it, and are now really moving away from it. Eli will just eat a big salad (particularly Caesar, the gateway salad) if there’s nothing else on the menu he likes, though still often augments with pasta or grilled cheese. Ben, however, is making some new choices. Recently at our favorite local place, he passed up his beloved pasta “shoulders” (a toddler malapropism of his we have all adopted) in favor of a new dish: soba with grilled tofu and greens. It’s the kind of dish he eats all the time at home but would never order out. He’s also not shy about ordering exactly what he wants. He’ll scan the menu and assemble himself a meal from side dishes, he’ll order a salad without that cheese or with that other salad’s dressing (I know special orders can be a nightmare for a kitchen staff, and we always check that they don’t mind). At our most recent meal out, I noted how the water goblets stood a little unsteadily on thick placemats atop the marble table, turned down the waiter’s offer of plastic, lidded kid’s cups, relaxed and ordered a glass of wine. They are growing up and I am enjoying it.