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.

42 Meals: A Vacation Odyssey, what the kids thought

by Lisa

Last night, as we were eating our 15th tomato sandwich since returning home, this time in the form of a BLT, I asked Ella and Finn about the best part of vacation food.

“DISNEYLAND!” they both screamed.

“Really?” I asked. “You liked the food at Disneyland?

“Oh. No.”  They both shook their heads.  Aside from a nice meal at Ariel’s Grotto (which is in CA Adventure anyway), the food at Disney was memorable only for its awfulness.

The short of list of things Ella liked about vacation food:

  • Choice. Getting to chose what you want every night.
  • Kids’ menus: which she says (mostly accurately) include: chicken fingers, burgers, sushi, macaroni and cheese, pizza.

Her affection for kids menus is interesting because I think it has less to do with the offerings and more to do with the fact that they offer a manageable list of food specifically to the child.  I do like the portion size and pricing on kids menus. When you’re eating out every meal, economy of all sorts is important. But I do hate the tyranny of those same five dishes. It’s definitely true that not all burgers (or even mac ‘n cheese) are created equal, and side dishes vary, but like so many other parents, I wish restaurants would think a little more creatively about what to feed to kids.

Another highpoint: the dining room at Hearst Castle, also the inspiration for their beloved Hogwarts.

Now they both want to be billionaires.

What didn’t she like? Eating out every night. By which she meant having to make the effort and “be perfect” at the table.  But so go the trials of childhood.

Finn’s response was more measured. He says he didn’t much like the menus which had “good things, but not always things you feel like eating.” He is a creature of habit. Also the one picking cucumbers out of water by the end of the trip. He likes restaurant booths, because they’re cozy. And I can add that they both love the menus they can color on and take with them. We have several now glued into scrapbooks.

The lesson here is that choice is important, and so is control. Kids like to be spoken to directly. They like to be offered things that are their size and fitted to their taste.  A smaller list of choices, so as not to overwhelm, is a great idea for school age kid who wants to master her own menu.  But maybe it’s not such a great idea to have the same choice at every single restaurant. Because really, fries with a quesadilla are kind of ridiculous.

They did resoundingly agree on one thing: San Diego food. So stay tuned because tomorrow, straight from our favorite place in San Diego: the only new recipe you need for the summer.

42 Meals: A Vacation Odyssey, Breakfast

by Lisa

The force was with them even though they hadn’t eaten breakfast

Our kids, like many, take breakfast seriously. They eat shortly after waking up and are used to a fair amount of variety: porridge, eggs many ways, waffles, pancakes, cereal, sweet rice, granola….lots of whole, fresh fruit.

Since we were staying in hotels on our trip, eating right away–even coffee right away–was not so possible. I suppose I could have kept breakfast fixings in the room, but we were moving around a lot and I didn’t want one more thing to tote and pack and, probably, waste.    At several hotels we had a breakfast package, and if you’re traveling with kids, I would highly recommend these.  Hotel breakfasts had variety, were easy to get to, and meant we could get on with our day without any effort. On these days, which was maybe a third or half of the time, we had a solid breakfast. Other days, not so much.  As opposed to the breakfast-included package, purchasing breakfast food a la carte at our hotels proved prohibitively expensive. We loved adored our hotel, but $40 for 2 coffees, 3 bagels, 2 waters and 1 fruit cup is absurd.  Breakfast quickly became the least important meal of the day. It was all about the grab & go.  We made sure to find something decent and relatively healthy for the kids, but really, we bought just enough to tide them over to lunch.  We found this place on Coronado, which was a great place to grab & go on our way to wherever we happened to be going for the day. We relied on bagels, smoothies, and one fine day, a totally delicious bacon burrito and french toast.

We learned that California Adventure has far superior coffee and breakfast options in the early AM than does Disneyland.  Our most egregious meal failure was the day we arrived at the Disneyland gate for the 7 am, hotel-guest only hour, without having eaten.  Anything. Not even coffee for the adults, which frankly might be more important than food for the kids. Especially at Disneyland. In our defense, we had assumed we’d be able to grab food at the park (since we had done this the day prior at CA). Also in our defense, we all rode Star Tours and Space Mountain before 8 am, and got FastPasses for both.  We avoided a near meltdown with pizza at 10 AM.

Some days, you gotta do what you gotta do.

The best breakfast of all–food and fun wise, was the character-themed Critter breakfast at our Disney hotel.  This of course, was a surprise to me, but not to my Disney loving family. My husband, who worked many character breakfasts (as Pluto, for instance) in his 6 years employed at the park, was full of fun stories about what was really going on around us, and was able to speak to Chip and Dale and all the rest in some secret language unknown to the rest of us mortals. Our kids don’t give a hoot about princesses, but what’s not to love about enourmous, cuddly stuffed animals come to life and wandering through a pretty swell arts and crafts/mission style restaurant?  There was kots of fresh fruit, grits, bagels, cream cheese, capers, lox, eggs to order, Mickey-shaped waffles. And the husband knew enough to have a mimosa waiting for me. Which was swell.

So the moral here is: it was good to lighten up temporarily about that most important meal.

And if you have a choice, definitely eat with the animals.

Up next: Surviving the theme park food. (Or maybe not so much.)