Eating out is often a challenge for diners with young children. Those late-night meals, provocative tasting menus and snacks by the bar just don't deliver when you've got little-kid palates to worry about. But dining with young ones doesn't have to be a comedy of errors dominated by picky proclivities, high chair hijinks, and servers who hate you—so long as you pick the right place.
Lucky for Philadelphians, the city and its close suburbs are are full of locally owned, quality-driven establishments that will quickly make I-give-up options like Chuck E. Cheese a permanent afterthought. Have kids of your own or are taking family around town? Here's where you should go.
Good Food Near the Liberty Bell: SquareBurger
A few blocks from Old City, and all those people elbowing each other to get a look at a bell with a crack in it, is relaxing Franklin Square, one of the five original public squares featured in Billy Penn's design of Philadelphia. In more recent years, the city's developed a number of all-ages attractions around its picturesque fountain and carousel, including two playgrounds, a mini golf course and SquareBurger, a low-key food stand that's open from late March through late October.
Burgers and snappy hot dogs crisped up on the griddle are easy to love, but the real winner is the "Cake Shake," which blends Philly's own Tastykake brand Butterscotch Krimpet, caramel, and a vanilla ice cream together in a sweet Blizzard-like treat you suck through a straw.
Neapolitan Pizza: Pizzeria Stella
Like SquareBurger, Pizzeria Stella is owned by prolific Philly restaurateur Stephen Starr, and it has his aesthetic touch all over it, from the beautifully tiled wood-burning Renato oven to the fire-engine-red folding sidewalk chairs reclaimed from the demolished Philadelphia Civic Center.
But unlike some of Starr's pricier dining concepts, Stella is remarkably accessible for big parties, especially ones with youngins in tow. The lineup of airy, leopard-spotted Neapolitan-style pies is diverse enough to handle pickier, plainer eaters (margherita, quattro formaggi, and thick-cut pepperoni curled into beautiful grease cups) and more adventurous pizza fans alike (the tartufo, with truffle crema, truffled pecorino, ground black truffle and truffle oil, plus a runny-yolk egg broken tableside). There's also antipasti aplenty (try the grilled octopus over refreshing salsa verde-dressed fennel) and tight, smart lists of Italian wines, cocktails, and craft beers.
For Rib-Gnawers: Percy Street Barbecue
Central Texas- style smoked meats executed with a little city flair is Percy Street's M.O., and the South Street restaurant's relaxed vibe and roomy picnic seating makes it an easily agreeable for a family dinner out. (Each table also gets its own personal roll of absorbent paper towels to handle egregious sauce-on-cheek situations.)
Start with drinks—a huge craft-can roster for adults, local draft root beer for little ones—and move on to the barbecue which, unlike traditional Texas-style barbecue joints, are served as composed plates. That means smoky, fatty brisket served with grilled potato bread and sweet onion jam or chopped up with sweet pickles and onions; and burnished pork belly sandwiched, banh mi-style, with pickled carrots and cilantro. If you'd rather not make decisions, opt for The Lockhart, an all-inclusive meat-and-sides meal deal spread out for the entire table to share.
Well-Rounded Vietnamese: Pho Ta
Many of Philly's pho parlors feature Vietnamese beef noodle soup and nothing else, but the spacious Ta, just outside the Italian Market in South Philly, has a menu so thick it could be successfully tossed as a Frisbee. Focusing only on the pho, quality as it may be, would leave you missing the massive and surprisingly in-depth selection of soups, snacks, rice platters, and noodle bowls, which accommodate seekers of authentic, offal-y Viet cooking (see: noodle soup with pork heart and liver or quail egg).
For kids? Simple grilled meats with sweet, aromatic marinades served over rice, and some Chinese take out menu reliables like General Tso's are there, too. Oh, and that near-constant hum you hear in the background is coming from the beverage bar, where the friendly staff blends up fresh fruit smoothies, without or without tapioca bubbles, beloved by kids and adults alike.
Your Go-To Diner: Trolley Car Diner & Deli
Another Mount Airy fixture, the Trolley Car takes the something-for-everyone mentality synonymous with the classic American diner and throws in bonus bells and whistles that speak to weary parents, like a liquor license, a takeout deli, and a free-standing sweets shop, inside a literal trolley car that scoops local ice cream and water ices.
As if reliable belly- and crowd-pleasing diner classics like bacon-laden mashed potato croquettes and chicken-fried steak with sausage sage gravy weren't enticing enough (though they are), the restaurant also offers a mix-a-six craft beer cooler. Snag a booth inside the diner itself to take advantage of even more hooks, like half-price kids' meals on Tuesday evenings and movie screenings on Saturdays—The Incredibles, October Sky and Ratatouille are recent titles.
Comprehensive Kid's Menus: The Pop Shop
The South Jersey hamlet of Collingswood, a mere 10 minutes from Center City Philadelphia, should be cited as a primary source on the "fam-friendly living" Wikipedia page. Wholesome, quaint and dry (next town over, boozehound), it's basically the post-colorization Pleasantville, without all the heavy morality-play undertones. C-Wood's Pop Shop, with its lively layout and vintage soda fountain feel, has turned catering to children into an artform.
They have three different menus based on age ranges, tyke-centric musical performances and karaoke nights, and even offer free Saturday-morning breakfasts to kids who show up still wearing their PJs. But there are enough eats to satisfy adult appetites, too, from all-day breakfast to 30-plus varieties of grilled cheese, with add-ins like balsamic blueberry and pulled pork. The food is consistently tasty and never fussy, with enough latitude to handle widely varying tastes.
Hot Dog Heaven: Hot Diggity!
Though the Hot Diggity! team probably won't come out and proclaim this themselves, American children who dislike hot dogs should be sent to reform school. For the remaining sensible small humans who appreciate the value of a well-executed tubesteak, Philly's premier doggery is eager to accommodate.
A specialist in regional wiener styles, like the beef chili-covered Cincinnati Skyline and the kraut-laden Bronx Bomber, HD! also makes lovely hand-cut fries, scooped into brown paper funnels and dropped into the perfectly sized caddy holes sawed out of the tables. The ever-changing housemade soda selection is another attractive aspect for high fructose corn syrup-averse parents.
Street Eating (With a Table): Garden Variety
The Northern Liberties neighborhood has a reputation for vibrant nightlife, but it's also home to plenty of families. Mike "Frosty" Spiker, a parent himself, capitalizes on this split with Garden Variety, a pretty open-air space that hosts food carts and events way into late-night. Mobile vendors, like Mom-Mom's Polish Food Cart, Little Baby's Ice Cream (which made a name for itself with its pizza-flavored ice cream), and The Dapper Dog, hold court at various points of the day, with family-oriented gatherings, attractions, and performances filling the schedule in daylight hours. To accompany the painting of a nearby mural, for instance, they set up a giant paper wall for artistic little ones to decorate with crayons and water-based paint.
Great Deli: The Avenue Delicatessen
The charming Delaware County suburb of Lansdowne, located a couple minutes outside the West Philadelphia boundaries, is home to The Avenue, a sunny and centrally located Jewish-Italian hybrid deli with a loyal local customer base. They make their own tender corned beef and pastrami—miles fresher and more flavorful than the dull, pre-packaged deli meats used elsewhere—and offer a big selection of sandwiches, entrees, and baked goods and pour a mean cup of coffee.
But they make sure to present plenty of options for younger customers, too, whether it's scratch-baked sweets or savory menu items. Popular kid's menu orders include the pizza bagel, a melt made with the house's own marinara sauce, and the mouse pancake, shaped like a certain big-eared, squeaky-voiced animated rodent.
Pizza and Some Healthy Environmentalism: Earth Bread + Brewery
Mount Airy's reputation for environmentalism and political engagement extends to its drinking establishments. This includes the wonderfully irreverent Earth Bread + Brewery, where house-brewed ales with names like "Love Your Mother" and "The Peace of Wild Things" relax on tap alongside housemade kombucha.
The two-story establishment attracts like-minded parents and their children, ushered in by family-friendly fare like all-natural sodas and flatbread pizzas baked in a custom-built wood-burning hearth. (One of their most popular is the unexpected "Seed," which counts crunchy pine nuts, pumpkin seed and sesame seeds among its toppers.) Even events are designed with the curiosity of kids in mind. "TableTop Science," a monthly series led by Dr. Frederick Schaefer, sees the University of the Sciences professor entertaining and educating all comers with interactive chemistry demos.