As more Millennials enter parenthood, restaurants are reimagining dining rooms where kids can run free while grown-ups eat and drink.
Gone are the germ-ridden ball pits, indoor slide contraptions and creepy animatronics that defined restaurant play areas in the past. Today’s kid-friendly restaurants appeal to more-discerning parents with higher expectations for a dining experience, both for themselves and their offspring.
“We would always have trouble finding a place where our kids could go run around and we could enjoy dinner,” said Michelle Courtright, co-founder of Fig + Farro, a plant-forward, sustainability-focused restaurant in Minneapolis with a play space for kids. “Very few places that cater to families are places that have healthy options. You’ve got your McDonald’s, you’ve got your Burger King and you’ve got your Chuck E. Cheese.”
For parents, having to get a babysitter is an impediment that prevents them from going out to eat, she said.
So when she and the creative director were designing Fig + Farro, the veteran entrepreneur — who is also known for a creative co-working space in Minneapolis — set out to create something a little more timeless, and at the same time more imagination-forward: A tree fort built by a real-life grandpa.
“It’s an A-frame tree fort that my dad built — he’s a carpenter,” Courtright said. “It’s a really basic play structure. You have to climb up to get to it.”
Escaping to the vintage wallpapered tree fort that’s stocked with books and games, kids “feel like they’re doing something wrong … something secretive,” Courtright said. “There’s an element of adventure to it, something off limits.”
As parents know, the age of kids determines how much they can play unattended, and Courtright said that since smaller kids need supervision while they play, she wanted to make the space somewhere parents could have fun, too, Bloody Mary in hand.
The result is an inclusive vibe that feels welcoming to breeders and non-breeders alike.
“There’s no judgment there. Parents can be seated near the play area and families don’t feel like they’re being annoying,” Courtright said. “And if people are ‘anti kid,’ then we can seat them away from the play area. But honestly, the feedback has all been very positive.”
Overall, she said she thinks the tides may be shifting, while, of course, there will always be restaurants where kids aren’t exactly welcome, and there will always be cranky customers who complain about the little angels (or devils).
We were all young once
“Obviously, we’re not going to take our kids to a multi-course tasting menu, but what about a place you can go for an hour and drink a beer and chill and know my kid is entertained?” said Ethan Stowell, who with his wife and business partner Angela, is opening family-friendly Mexican restaurant Super Bueno next month in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood.
“Food is more important than ever and going out to eat is more of a service, an amenity, than a special occasion because parents are busy,” said Stowell. “You want your kids to grow up eating healthy. And a lot of parents coming in just need a break for a half hour. Let my kids bomb around.”
Stowell, however, has little patience for kid haters.
“I’ve never liked it when people complain about kids in a restaurant. One: You were a kid once. Two: You’re just having a meal. Let parents have a night out without feeling guilty about having kids,” he said.
Part of Ethan Stowell Restaurants, Super Bueno is designed to attract busy parents with the promise of a fun taco-and-tequila centric menu.
The restaurant occupies a two-level, rustic space designed by Altelier Drome architecture and interior design firm, with seating for 80, plus more in the patio and bar areas. Kids’ grab-and-go items make it possible for families to roam free throughout the restaurant and in the second-level kids’ play area.
The play area has lots of art supplies, padded floors and various activities like Jenga, which kids can do while parents watch while perched on a bar that faces the play area.
Creating a restaurant where families feel comfortable is serving a smart business purpose for the Stowells.
“They’re our next generation of customers,” Stowell said, adding that the tacos to be served at Super Bueno and the pizza at another of the group’s restaurants, Frelard Pizza Company, make kid-friendly accommodations a no-brainer since “you don’t need a kids’ menu at a pizza joint.” Frelard also features a play area.
Triple threat: pizza, ice cream and play
Another husband-and-wife team, Michelle and Corey Wilton, along with Herb Gualpa, a middle school teacher-turned bar expert — not much of a leap — just opened Piencone Pizzeria, Creamery and Pub in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Eagle Rock in April.
The wood-fired pizzas are made with naturally fermented dough and cooked over compressed almond wood along with a menu of shareable snacks.
The beer is craft and cocktails curated. Seasonal ice cream and sorbet swirl into house-made waffle cones (hence the “pie ‘n cone” play on words), ready to Instagram in the natural light against a backdrop of repurposed jade-green tile and exposed brick.
And, of course, kids are welcome.
“Our playhouse area has been a huge hit,” Corey Wilton said. “We have a 6-year old and a 3-year old, and we’ve been to some restaurants that have a little area that your kids can play in and be distracted long enough for you to have a conversation with your significant other, so when we were designing the restaurant, we discovered we had enough space to create a kids’ area.”
The Playhouse Patio, a fenced-in area which features giant-size Jenga, has its own section of website, proclaiming a big welcome to “lunch playdates and birthday parties.”
For restaurants considering stepping into the playground world, Courtright stressed the idea of going big or staying home.
“Definitely go in with the intent and be deliberate about having that much space dedicated,” she said. “When it’s an afterthought, you kind of set up three feet of space with a bookshelf and call it a day. At times, we were thinking of putting more tables in, but I wanted 200-square feet of play area.”
It all seems like a win-win-win, but it’s not without some continuous effort.
“You have to be diligent about cleaning it,” Stowell said. “It’s an ongoing thing, and you have to be committed. It’s a cost, but it’s not a major one.”
He does point out that he considers it a best practice to throw everything away once or twice a year. “Everything has to go into the garbage,” he said. “Because things get broken and no one wants to go in ‘the graveyard of toys.’”
Overall, play spaces are an investment that can change the face of your restaurant to the friendlier.
“Clearly, it’s paid off,” Courtright said. “It’s allowing us to have guests that wouldn’t normally be able to come in.”
Contact Tara Fitzpatrick at [email protected]