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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Raising epicureans: Eat out and eat better

Finding the right place to eat with your kids can be as hard as getting a four year old to enjoy a nice cool bowl of gazpacho. A lot of the better restaurants out there – and I’m a bit of a foodie – don’t put much thought into the little patrons. Things get harder still at ethnic restaurants that specialize in spicy foods. So if you want to continue eating well (IE. NOT MCDONALDS OR ANY OF ITS COMPETITION) you’ve got to do some thinking for the restaurateur.

Depending on the age of your kids and their personal tastes, eating at restaurants that cater to people with a colourful palate (IE, in Vancouver, Ouisi Bistro, Bin 941, Monsoon, Tapastry, Banana Leaf, The Reef and many others) can be easier than it might appear. For starters, these restaurants all share something in common: They’re interesting to be in. The atmosphere and the music at these places are stimulating for people young and old.

By contrast, many restaurants that pretend to cater to kids, with menus chock full of crap food like macaroni and cheese and chicken fingers, have dull interiors and duller music which serves to further deaden our senses. (Read: Earls, Nandos, Milestones, and any restaurant that calls itself a family restaurant.)

So what does the epicurean parent do for a night out with the sprouts and ankle biters?

Well, I should have named this site “IMHO” – because that’s about as scientific as we’re going to get here. IMHO kids will eat much more than they’re given credit for. And at a restaurant with a solid pedigree you can bet that the food is better than most of the mangled concoctions we slap together at home. As a kid, I absolutely detested pork chops and steaks because my experience of these was the frozen, thawed and over-cooked type. Only later did I learn that pork tenderloin is one of the most gob-stopping of all dishes. And the sauces we pair our food with are an expression of the chef’s personality and creativity.

By which I mean to say, chances are a kid will enjoy the Beef Wellington at Bin 941 in spite of how many times in the past they’ve hidden morsels in napkins at home or surreptitiously smuggled half chewed mouthfuls off to the bathroom.

Part of the trick is getting them to try things in the first place, and IMHO this is the culture that you present to your child. Are you adventurous regularly, or do you feed your kids mac ‘n’ cheese for lunch five days a week? Good eating is a culture, just as being adventurous and spontaneous are ways of life. Hand in hand with this goes the excitement you bring to these experiences. If your demeanor at a restaurant is uptight, why would your kids enjoy the experience?

My favourite way to dine with or without kids is to order a bunch of different dishes – tapas style – and share. This way you can be sure there will be something for everyone, while everyone gets to try some different things, and s-t-r-e-t-c-h that palate.

Always order a few safe bets. A side rice dish or simple pasta plate are good choices for starch dishes. Mild fish like Tilapia, haddock, mahi-mahi, sea bass, orange roughy, flounder, basa, cod, and catfish are all good bets for picky kids.

One of the biggest mistakes with kids is assuming you’ll know what they like or telling them what they do and don’t like. Let kids be adventurous and they’ll learn to keep trying new things. If you order only safe bets every time, you’re encouraging over-pickiness. I prefer ordering dinner for picky kids and letting them choose dessert. Kids who are adventurous should be given more latitude to choose for themselves, as they clearly don’t need the nudge to keep on trying.

The best advice I’ve read about getting kids to eat their food is to encourage them to have three bites of everything at each meal. Once this task is done, they’re free to have more of the things they like. But pick your fights carefully: You can always fall back on not making them eat, but not inviting them to share dessert if they refuse to eat. As always, you’ve got to follow through with every consequence you set, so make it fair.

Top Ten Cool Kid Friendly Restaurants in Vancouver:

  1. Cafe de Soleil - It's got a stage with a kids play area! Oh, and great granola muncher food, too.
  2. Cactus Club - A chain with cookie cutter waitresses, but lively, affordable and tasty food. Did I mention the cookie cutter waitresses?
  3. Sophie's Cosmic Cafe - Garage-sale décor. Popular Kits breakfast brunch hangout. Beer and wine. 2095 W. 4th, 604-732-6810
  4. Guu - Popular izakaya with modern Japanese tapas and comical young staff. 838 Thurlow, 604-685-8817; 1698 Robson, 604-685-8678; 105–375 Water, 604-685-8682
  5. Havana - Large patio, weekend brunch, new Afro-Cuban food, lively atmosphere. 1212 Commercial, 604-253-9119
  6. Vera's Burger Shack - Friendly joint serves six-ounce, fresh ground-beef patties. 1935 Cornwall, 604-228-8372; 1030 Davie, 604-893-8372; 1181 Denman, 604-681-5450; 2188 Western Pkwy., UBC, 604-221-8372; 15989 108 Ave., Surrey, 604-582-8372
  7. Naam - Funky natural-food joint with open-air patio and painfully slow service. The miso gravy makes it all worth while. Nightly music. 2724 W. 4th, 604-738-7151
  8. Las Margaritas - Casual atmosphere, great patio, excellent margaritas. Classic mexican fare. 1999 W. 4th, 604-734-7117
  9. Bin 941 - Not typically for children, but the staff are always spot on, the food doesn't get better (not at this price, anyways) and the busy vibe will keep the kids distracted. Not for the claustrophobic.
  10. Elbow Room - A tongue in cheeck brunch spot that serves attitude and insults with omelletes. Great food and prices. 560 Davie St. 604 685 3628

Top Boycotted Restaurants (Because they don't love our kids):

  1. Zen Cafe, Vancouver - They charge you for a spare plate for your kid and don't offer ANY kids' options! And really don't care what you think.

Email with your nomination.