They say everything changes when you have kids. Whoever “they” are, well, they’re right. Something as simple as going out to dinner becomes a lot more complex because you have to consider not only what you like to eat, but also what your child likes to eat. Or, what if your child gets bored and decides to see how loudly they can shriek, just for fun? Venturing out to dinner with a toddler can be stressful, and leave you wondering if you really would rather cook, clean up, and do the dishes than go anywhere. It’s easy to get stuck in the rut of chain restaurants that all serve the same tired chicken strips and french fries. I’m here to say, take the chance! Here are five places you should definitely try with your kid.
I can't say whether we are able to take our son to a variety of restaurants because he's a good eater, or if he's a good eater because we take him to a variety of restaurants. Either way, we're incredibly pleased to have options beyond chicken fingers and french fries. If you look hard enough, almost every place has something that kinda looks like chicken nuggets, and sometimes, that's all you can ask for.
Nope, they don’t have a kids menu. But that has never stopped us from taking our now-2-year-old there. Sushi Kame is our favorite place to have dinner as a family. The staff is incredibly accommodating. They bring soup and noodles for everyone at the table, even our son. And if there’s a “food mishap” (which there inevitably will be with kids) they are quick to respond and help by providing extra napkins, or helping you switch tables. Not that this has happened to us...on multiple occasions...
My son eats more both in quantity and variety at Sushi Kame than nearly anywhere else we’ve been. His favorite is the miso soup. He’ll polish off his own bowl, then asks for more. I can’t say I’m surprised, as it’s a very comforting dish. It’s warm and flavorful without being overly salty or fishy. Each bowl includes a few cubes of tofu, some scallions, and a few pieces of seaweed. This kid eats all of it and wants more.
Our standard order (for 2 adults and a toddler) is typically a chicken teriyaki bento box (or two depending on how hungry we are) and two to three sushi rolls. The bento box gives our kid plenty of options to eat that are fully cooked. He loves the teriyaki chicken and honestly, who doesn’t? The chicken and vegetables are marinated and cooked in a teriyaki sauce which helps it remain tender and juicy. To our son it’s basically chicken nuggets: perfect little bite-sized morsels of something familiar, but with extra flavor. To Mom and Dad it’s sushi without having to pay a babysitter.
132 W Church St
T – Th 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. + 5 to 9:30 p.m.
F 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. + 4:30 to 10:30 p.m.
Sa noon to 10:30 p.m.
Su noon to 9 p.m.
Courier is a great place to take kids. Acoustics are as you might imagine a busy diner sounds: loud but not in an overwhelming way. Murmurs of conversation everywhere, spoons clinking, floorboards gently creaking underfoot.
They do have a modest kids menu, with the standard fare like chicken strips. What surprised us was how much our son loved the salad bar! He has always favored fruit, so we were able to get him some fresh fruit like peaches and grapes. We also loaded our plates with his favorite veggies, peas and corn. He did not care at all that they were cold, he ate every bite. He actually ate most of our salads before his food ever came out.
Another staple we always order is the buffalo chicken wrap. The chicken is cooked in the buffalo sauce and cut into chunks, then wrapped up with lettuce, tomato, cheese, ranch and more buffalo sauce. The wrap is then topped with pretty stripes of even more buffalo sauce and ranch. Coupled with the salad bar it’s a great item to split between two people or eat half now and the other half for lunch tomorrow. Everybody gets something fresh and delicious.
111 N Race St
Su – Th 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
F + Sa 7 a.m. to midnight
The Downtown Champaign space is much more family friendly and therefore a great option for wanting a quality meal without having to make arrangements for the littler eaters in your family. I love that everything is made fresh, in house.
We had steak and pork tacos when we took our son. I wasn’t sure how he would react, as he's hit or miss with Mexican food. (For example, he eats Super Taco but not Cactus Grill. I have no idea what the difference is for him.) We were pleasantly surprised that he liked both meats. The pork had some spice, but he kept eating it despite the obvious kick. He even ate the onions and corn tortilla, but ate each part separately.
My husband and I returned later to get a broader taste of the menu. We tried the nachos and a few more tacos. The nachos are really hearty. The housemade chips are thicker than your average tortilla chip and retain their crunch longer under the weight of the melty cheese, refried beans, sour cream, guacamole, chicken, and salsa. Maize has really created a very pleasant flavor with these nachos and if you want some heat, add some of the salsa they bring to the table.
I love fish tacos, and the ones at Maize totally lived up to my expectations. It’s an ample portion of seasoned, grilled white fish simply served on a fresh corn tortilla with onions and cilantro. At first the fish seemed a bit salty, but then I realized that paired really well with the simplicity of the tortilla and finely chopped onions.
What we love most about Maize for our son is that it’s all food he recognizes, but styled a bit differently with some new seasoning. He’s trying something different without even realizing it.
Maize at the Station
100 N Chestnut St
M – Th 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. + 5 to 9 p.m.
F + Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Su 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Black Dog is a great place to take kids, if you can time it right. It’s always noisy due to the tight quarters and fact that’s it’s often pretty busy. I would plan to avoid the usual lunch or dinner rush if your kid has trouble waiting. We try to go around 11 a.m. or 5 p.m. to beat the crowds and stick to our nap/bedtime schedules. Since it's a barbecue place, most of the stuff on the menu is familiar.
We love to get the three entree dinner with a few extra sides and eat family style. Most recently we did the chicken (which we always forget comes as an entire leg), brisket, and pulled pork. Our son ate a good amount of the pork and tried a little bit of brisket. He’s not a huge meat eater, but he seemed to like the tenderness and mild flavor of the pulled pork. I really love the brisket, it’s got a nice smokey flavor and pairs really well with the Texas BBQ sauce.
The meat speaks for itself, but it should be mentioned that the side dishes are also quality. The twice baked potato casserole is delicious — so creamy and smooth, punctuated by bits of cheese and bacon. Our son loves the baked beans and green beans. The baked beans are served up in a sweet, tangy sauce with bits of pork or beef mixed in to add to the smokey flavor. The green beans are cooked with bits of bacon and stewed tomatoes. We love that our son likes these because he gets lots of vegetables and a little bit of protein in it.
If you’re in doubt about anything else at Black Dog, get your kid the french fries. They are near perfect: crispy golden on the outside and soft and buttery on the inside. They dip well in ketchup or literally anything.
320 N Chestnut St
M – Th 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
F + Sa 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Su 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
201 N Broadway
Su – Th 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
F + Sa 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
The great thing about Golden Harbor is the very thing that scared us away for a while. It’s all family style. When you order an entree, it’s huge. It’s meant to feed two to four people, so why not bring the family?
The green bean chicken was a huge hit. Like with Sushi Kame, the chicken in this dish looks like chicken nuggets to the untrained toddler eye. Remember what I said about these being very large portions? I think my kid ate half the plate of green bean chicken by himself. It was mildly seasoned, which is perfect for green beans as it doesn’t take much to bring out their natural flavor.
My husband and I got the General Tso’s chicken. It was perfectly spicy for us, but we thought it would be a bit too much for little dude. The chicken was cooked through on the inside, crispy on the outside, and covered in the tangy, spicy General Tso’s sauce.
505 S Neil
T – Sa 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. + 4:30 to 9 p.m.
Su 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. + 4:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Photos by Sarah Meilike, Jessica Hammie, and Rob Schaffer