Family Matters

Dining Downtown with kids

As a Downtown denizen, I enjoy taking my children to the "big city" part of Austin for art exhibits, shows, festivals, parades, and other fun events throughout the year. But like many parents, I draw a blank on picking a great family-friendly place to eat afterward. Too often, we settle for mediocre fare that leaves me regretting the compromises of parenthood – or I make the mistake of dragging the little ones into a chic setting where none of us can relax.

So recently, I set out with my 11-year-old son, Nate, and a few of our young friends to expand our Downtown restaurant repertoire. First and foremost, I sought out food that made me happy – fresh, interesting fare fit for a foodie parent. Second, I looked for places with children's menus and cheerful waitstaff where I could have enjoyed eating with my kids when they were babies, toddlers, or picky preschoolers. I avoided run-of-the-mall chains in favor of memorable restaurants that felt special enough for a mother-son Downtown date (or an outing with visiting grandparents). The food had to be healthy so that my motherly guilt-o-meter didn't clang. It also had to be cheap: I looked for affordable deals and specials, and I didn't spend more than $15 to $20 on each mother-son outing.

What follows are recommendations from our Downtown adventures. They're grouped by area in order to offer choices that surround attractions of interest for families. String several together to create a family summer "stay-cation" exploring Downtown Austin. (Yes, you'll have to pay $5-7 to park or get lucky on the street, but Downtown is worth it. Or learn to take Capital Metro together.) Of course, taking children out for a nice restaurant meal is a teaching moment – a chance to socialize the little savages – so please: indoor voices, napkins on laps, forks and knives, no wandering about, and convivial conversation, everyone!


Area: West Second Street Neighborhood

Tart
Tart (Photo by John Anderson)
Nearby Attractions: Austin Children's Museum, 2nd Street District, City Hall

Tips: Park under City Hall for $5 (or for free on Thursdays, on weekends, or with merchant validation). While you're in the neighborhood, tour the interesting architecture and art collection at City Hall, where you might spot the mayor or council members in the soaring atrium. Stroll the handsome promenade along the lakefront, or for a living civics lesson, catch part of a City Council meeting (selected Thursdays; check council agenda online).

Mama Fu's Asian House

100 Colorado Ste. C-100, 637-6774
Monday-Friday, 11am-10pm; weekends for delivery only, 11am-10pm
www.mamafus.com

My yen for Asian cuisine has been nicely satisfied on several visits by the Thai coconut soup (tart, with lemongrass and lime), ginger sesame salad with chicken, and the rice dishes and noodle bowls. They can be customized with a choice of meat, shrimp, or tofu and white or brown rice. Try the orange peel chicken or the red Thai curry with tofu (both $8.29). The seared ahi tuna steak with wasabi mashed potatoes and Thai green beans was a darn nice meal for $15. The young ones liked all of the kids' meals ($4.29), which include Dragon Tails (chicken tenders), Scooby "Fu" (honey-glazed chicken), and Ninja Noodles, served with choice of rice or mac and cheese, plus a drink. (The servers cheerfully added steamed broccoli to balance the meal, at my request.) True, it's a franchise, but the setting feels pleasantly uptown, and Mama Fu's is Austin-owned, so it made our list.

Jo's Coffee Downtown

242 W. Second, 469-9003
Monday-Friday, 7am-9pm; Saturday-Sunday, 8am-9pm
www.joscoffee.com

The attraction here is the outdoor sidewalk dining, ideal for people-watching. Inside, you'll often spot council members and aides and other City Hall denizens, Sen. Kirk Watson, or Texas Tribune Editor Evan Smith holding court. The menu features a range of simple meals, snacks, baked goods, and drinks appealing to all ages.

Tart

241 W. Second, 457-TART
Sunday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-11pm
www.tart-yogurt.com

Tart offers organic, self-serve frozen yogurt in a variety of flavors and toppings, all in a cheery, rather Scandinavian setting. Free samples of flavors range from tangy plain "tart" to peach to cake batter. The toppings include fresh berries and other fruits (although my kids reached for the cookie dough bites and gummy bears instead). Warning: Serving cups are large, so control your little ones' self-serve portion sizes – the yogurt is 45 cents an ounce, and it adds up fast.

Frank

407 Colorado, 494-6916
Monday-Wednesday, 8am-10pm; Thursday-Saturday, 8am-2am; breakfast daily, 8-11am; Sunday brunch, 11am-3pm
www.hotdogscoldbeer.com

In the exposed brick ambience of an old warehouse, parents can indulge Warehouse District foodie whims with an artisan sausage while kids stick with the reliable Plain Dog ($3). Artsy Frank interpretations include the Duck Dodger (duck and pork sausage stuffed with Gruyère and served on a bun with habanero-mango aioli, fried shallots, and cotija cheese, $9.50) and the Jackalope (antelope, rabbit, and pork sausage with huckleberry compote, aioli, and applewood-smoked cheddar, $7). Plentiful beer choices, waffle fries, and Americana sides (Beanie Weenie Cup, $3) round out a meal. House-made desserts include a $1 cookie rich with chocolate chips, pecans, walnuts, cranberries, and bacon.

Froots

415 W. Second, 482-8570
Monday-Friday, 9am-7pm; Saturday 11am-6pm; closed Sundays
www.froots.com

Froots has an upbeat decor and serves simple, fresh, and healthy fast food perfect for refueling a family. The specialties here are wraps (using whole wheat or white tortillas) and smoothies (several different formulas and many fruits). It also offers soups, salads, panini, power shakes, and fresh juices. The menu packs dense nutrition into fun packages, attractively presented with squiggles of sauce on triangular china. Parents will find sophisticated flavors in the Mediterranean wrap of hummus and feta or the wasabi chicken wrap; for extra energy, add a Screaming Bull smoothie (made with Red Bull). Children can get a kid-sized Banana Boat or Strawberry Smile smoothie paired with a wrap from the children's menu. Froots is a franchise, but CEO and President Eric Myers is an Austinite.


Area: Heart of Downtown

(L-r) Aiden Alvarez, chef Shawn Cirkiel,  and Colin Martinez  at parkside
(L-r) Aiden Alvarez, chef Shawn Cirkiel, and Colin Martinez at parkside (Photo by John Anderson)
Nearby Attractions: Paramount Theatre (Summer Film Classics), Austin Museum of Art

Tips: Fine dining with children can be challenging, but these four restaurants are all comfortable places to bring the family (perhaps with visiting relatives) for a special dinner or an after-theatre or after-museum treat.

1886 Cafe & Bakery

604 Brazos, 391-7066
Sunday-Thursday, 7am-12mid; Friday-Saturday, 7am-2am
www.1886cafeandbakery.com

The cafe in the historic Driskill hotel has an old-fashioned glamour and luxe decor that has always delighted our family. Watch the scene on Sixth Street from the patio tables. The delectable sandwiches, burgers, wraps, pizzas, and salads range from $8 to $12. (Alas, the children's menu was discontinued.) My kids love the fancy pastries, cakes, ice creams, and other dessert creations – we have a family tradition of celebrating good report cards, birthdays, and other childhood achievements with a visit. The signature 1886 banana split is an affordable indulgence worthy of three or four people's spoons and smiles (vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream; bananas; strawberries; hot fudge; caramel; nuts; whipped cream; and cherries, $7).

TRIO at the Four Seasons

98 San Jacinto, 685-8300
Monday-Thursday, 6:30am-10pm; Friday, 6:30am-11pm; Saturday, 7am-11pm; Sunday, 7am-10pm; happy hour Monday-Saturday, 5-8pm
www.fourseasons.com/austin/dining/trio.html

The secret here is the legendary Four Seasons' service. Your family might be guests at the hotel, so they have to be nice to you, right? And they are. Staff enjoy indulging guests of all ages, including those who only eat chicken tenders and fries. But since TRIO is normally very expensive, follow these budget guidelines exactly: Go during happy hour, and know that you must order and pay at the bar inside in order to get the half-price special on wine and appetizers. A happy hour glass of vino and appetizer (the crab cake was excellent) will set you back just $15. For junior, order the half-price rosemary truffle fries and some juice. Carry your order out to the lawn or the Adirondack chairs or the hammocks overlooking the river to have a very classy picnic. Watch the sunset and the bats, roll down the hillside, stroll on the trail or out onto the dock; this is all public parkland, so it's yours to enjoy. You'll feel very tranquil – it's like taking your child to a resort. There's also a children's menu that includes a hot dog ($6), angel hair pasta ($7), and a grilled chicken sandwich ($9).

Moonshine

303 Red River, 236-9599
Monday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-11pm; Sunday, 10am-2:30pm & 5-10pm
www.moonshinegrill.com

When my kids were small, they always did better eating outdoors – and Moonshine's ample patio dining (with "patio cocktails" like Harvest Moon Tea) fits the bill. Seasoned popcorn, served immediately, soothes the small savages, as do the familiar items on the children's menu. Moonshine offers Deep South charm, with water served in mason jars and baskets of corn muffins; while the menu is varied, stick with the traditional Old South dishes and sides. Portions are huge; two people could easily share the recommended broiled rainbow trout with cornbread stuffing ($18.95) or portobello Stroganoff with spinach and marsala cream ($12.95). The beautiful limestone building on the National Register of Historic Places is Moonshine's best feature. Sunday brunch is also quite popular (buffet, $15.95; kids, $6.95; free for kids 6 years old or younger). If there's a wait for a table, take the kids to stroll the block of tiny historic cottages or over to the nicely landscaped watershed-protection pond across the street.

Parkside

301 E. Sixth, 474-9898
Daily, 5pm-12:30am
www.parkside-austin.com

If you're seeking a true fine-dining experience Downtown but have kids in tow, try parkside. Chef Shawn Cirkiel is among the best in town, but he's also a devoted dad whose young children come in to eat with their mama weekly. So Cirkiel offers affordable, off-menu items for children (just ask). The waitstaff are cheerful about keeping kids happy, and they labor to make the meal a success for everyone. Families regularly catch an early supper here during the daily happy hour (5-7pm) when beer, cocktails, and bar food menu items are half-price. The bar menu includes an awfully good cheeseburger and fried egg sandwich (normally $9.50 each), as well as steak, oysters, ceviche, and crab fritters.


Area: West Sixth Street

Family Matters
Photo by John Anderson
Nearby Attractions: Faulk Central Library, BMX bike-jumping at Duncan Park (900 W. Ninth), Bremond Block Historic District

Tips: Sign the kids up for Austin Public Library's summer reading program, where they can win gift certificates and prizes and even keep a favorite book. To add pizzazz, start a summer tradition: Check out a fresh bag of library books once a week, then go out for a treat or a meal on West Sixth Street's low-key restaurant row.

Walton's Fancy and Staple

609 W. Sixth, 542-3380
Monday-Friday, 7am-8pm; Saturday, 8am-8pm; Sunday, 9am-5pm
www.waltonsfancyandstaple.com

This little place is charming. Actress Sandra Bullock and her team attended to every detail to turn this old-time storefront into a lovely atmosphere for food, flowers, pastries, and gifts – even candy from Grandma's day. For an intimate parent-child outing, go for morning coffee and croissants, lunch, afternoon tea and cakes, or a quiet supper. At the counter, order excellent sandwiches made with first-rate ingredients, salads, soups, or a few hot dishes. The children's menu items (Monster Cheez Sandwich, $2.75) and fresh fruit salad rated "awesome" with our crew. But it was the dessert case that really made their eyes pop – everything from assorted cupcakes (Dreamsicle cupcake, $2) to honeybee cake topped with a marzipan bee, Parisian macaroons, and strawberry cheesecake in ginger crust ($3). It's a perfect setting to really listen to your tween or teen or to host a small sweet 16 birthday party (order whole custom cakes in advance, $18.25 to $140).


Others to Try: West Sixth Street

The concentration of family-friendly restaurants within walking distance makes this area a good destination, even when you're not sure what you want to eat. If the restaurants' small parking lots are full, try the plentiful on-street parking on West Avenue between Seventh and Ninth streets. The area is also served by Cap Metro routes 21, 103, 484, and 663 (Lake Austin).

Wahoo's Fish Tacos (509 Rio Grande, 476-3474) has an extreme sports theme great for a father-son dinner. Our group of fifth-grade boys liked the surfboards and colorful stickers plastered on every surface; the tiki bar and quasi-outdoor dining patio were lively with well-behaved young people in their 20s. The food is fresh, healthy, cheap, and served quickly. Items we tried from the children's menu ($3.49-$3.99) were all a hit, as were the local, handcrafted, all-natural GoodPop popsicles from a case (try mango-chile, watermelon-agave, or pineapple-basil).

At funky Opal Divine's Freehouse (700 W. Sixth, 477-3308), kids younger than 12 eat for free on Saturday from 10am to 3pm, and for half-price from 3 to 10pm. We enjoyed an adult brunch of Hippie Benedict (poached eggs with avocado and sprouts, with glazed sweet potatoes, $8.95) and a Smiley Face Pancake and fruit cup from the kids' menu ($2.95 when not discounted). You can even bring the family dog; all the dogs on the airy deck will amuse your baby or kids while you down a cold one.

Local stalwart Hut's Hamburgers (807 W. Sixth, 472-0693) is always good for quality burgers, onion rings, and shakes, although we've endured long waits that left everyone grumpy. (Two mediocre meals at Katz's took it permanently off our list.) Our family prefers Frank & Angie's Pizzeria (508 West Ave., 472-3534), just around the corner from Hut's. Parents get a minivacation to New York's Little Italy, kids can practice spaghetti twirling-not-slurping skills, and the ambience is perfect for a relaxed family meal. Patio and creek-side dining is available, and there are two-for-one specials on Tuesdays (pizza) and Sundays (spaghetti).

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Downtown dining, Downtown, kids, dining, Mama Fu's Asian House, Frank, Jo's Coffee, Tart, Froots, 1886 Cafe & Bakery, TRIO at the Four Seasons, Moonshine, parkside, Walton's Fancy and Staple, Wahoo's Fish Tacos, Opal Divine's Freehouse, Hut's Hamburgers, Frank & Angie's Pizzeria

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