Kids Eat Free

(All others pay cash)

On any given night in this city, a diverse array of restaurants offer a promotion that, on its surface, seems like a pretty sweet deal: You buy yourself dinner and your kids eat for free. What's not to love? After all, anyone who has had a long day at the office, then had to take her precious darlings to baseball practice or violin lessons probably finds herself pointing the car at the nearest drive-through on the way home more often than she cares to admit.

To that end, we three Food staffers-cum-moms decided to investigate what is on offer when it comes to saving a few bucks ($3-6 per child), when you want something convenient but a little more special than the contents of a greasy paper bag. The good news is that there is a Kids Eat Free promotion almost every day of the week, from cheap tacos to all-you-can-eat meat. On the other hand, we were largely disappointed by the parade of samey, boring kids' menus, endless variations on carbohydrates and cheese alongside the same old chicken nuggets and hamburgers. No wonder kids are sometimes so picky – they're probably bored to death!

Those caveats aside, here are our reflections on our tours through Austin's Kids Eat Free promotions. Individual results may vary; older kids accustomed to ordering from the "grownup" menu may not want to go back to the cavalcade of cheesy carbs, while families with more children than parents might not see promotions such as these as a great value (since the "Free" part of these offers can be a misnomer). But, as any parent worth her salt knows, it's always good to have a backup plan, especially where dinner is concerned. – Melanie Haupt

Central Market Cafe
Central Market Cafe (Photo by John Anderson)

A Brighter Shade of Beige

For my family, dining out sans a tiny human is a rarity. Welcoming atmospheres are as essential to the dining experience as a wide range of colorful menu options for parents and child, so my largest issue with any Kids Eat Free deal is the almost-always-beige kids' menu items. Fruit, veggies, and non-breaded meats are rarely offered on kids' menus, making the savings not worth the hassle because our son usually prefers healthier items. Happily, we did find a few exceptions.

Everything about Estância Churrasca­ria was enjoyable, but the savings depend entirely on circumstance. Despite our preconceived worry, no one batted an eye when we walked into the high-end establishment with a little boy clad in superhero attire. Tableside chefs encouraged my son to serve himself his choice of the 14 skewered meats, all perfectly cooked. The stunning salad bar and traditional Brazilian sides of fried bananas, polenta cakes, and mashed potatoes are great for all ages. Although young children are well accommodated, it is still a fine dining establishment (read: generally ill-suited for any guests with loud, messy, or wiggly tendencies). While kids under 5 eat free and older children dine for half-off, Estancia is probably best left to date night.

On a hot Tuesday, we tried the deal at Nuevo Leon, particularly excited about the $3 house margaritas during happy hour. Overall, the food was standard (if a little greasy) Tex-Mex fare: good table salsa, buttery queso, and decent charro beans, but nothing else too memorable. The kids' menu offered little variety but my son enjoyed a few bites of his plain ol' cheese enchilada platter. Even if the food itself didn't warm my heart, the atmosphere and service were pleasant enough to consider a return visit for a KEF deal.

We dined al fresco Saturday morning at Opal Divine's Freehouse, and the wait­staff was patient with the two rascals at our table. I had forgotten how plentiful and fun their brunch menu is, while the kids' menu stuck to inoffensive standard fare. My Bacon, Egg & Cheese Burger ($11) was hearty and satisfying; the onion rings were crispy and served with an odd chipotle ketchup. My son absolutely loved his blueberry Smiley-Face Pancake, but I was irritated to discover after the fact that I had been charged for it. Despite this hiccup, we had a great time here; it's a spot I will keep in mind for another KEF adventure.

Central Market Cafe offers what is arguably the best Kids Eat Free deal on Tuesdays after 5pm, but the downside is definitely the crowd. With the great playground, options for assorted beverages, and desserts aplenty, Central Market is a no-brainer for what feels like the whole city. The Cafe provides consistently good food that we often purchase anyway, making the savings of $4 a bonus. I love their BBQ Chicken Pizza ($9 for a 10-inch pie). Throw in a free kids' PB&J on honey whole wheat Gold­fish bread with fruit, in a shady spot where I can eat delicious food and watch my son play? I'm in. – Jessi Cape

True Confessions

Kids Eat Free offers rarely entice me to a restaurant. When I go out, it's usually because I'm craving something particular, and deal or no, I will generally seek that food out. If I want to save money, I stay home. Secondly, my particular children have disparate tastes that typically don't benefit from a free kids' meal. My 11-year-old is an adventurous eater and likes to explore items beyond kids' menus, while my three-year-old eats like a bird, and I rarely order a separate meal for her. So it was that I went almost kicking and screaming to scope out Kids Eat Free deals around town.

In the end, I'm glad I capitulated, because I discovered a few gems that were not previously on my radar. Kerbey Lane's Tuesday Kids Eat Free offer was a pleasant surprise for the whole family. An Austin institution, Kerbey Lane Cafe nonetheless refuses to rest on its laurels, continually improving its menu, not only to meet changing demands, but also to stay socially responsible. They offer meals made from fresh, local ingredients and hormone-free meats, as well as vegan and gluten-free options. During the summer and early autumn, Kerbey trots out its tomato menu, featuring a roll call of tomato foods that capture the season. I loved the tomato pie baked with olives, fresh basil, and feta cheese, all nested on a sublime buttery crust ($9.55). Meanwhile, the seasonal BLT replaces regular tomatoes with fried green tomatoes to give this trusty mealtime workhorse a perky new flavor ($7.95). Our kids ordered a burger and a bean and cheese taco from the kids' menu and we escaped for under $30, including tip.

Kids eat free on Wednesday nights at Santa Rita Cantina's Slaughter Lane location, and at Sazón. Santa Rita is a favorite haunt of families who love the wholesome take on Tex-Mex fare. My kids adore the marinated beef fajita tacos, quesadillas, and the nachos from the children's menu. I've always had a soft spot for their flautas ($6.95) and Santa Rita shrimp ($8.95) dipped in puckery lime-chile salsa. Closer in, Sazón may be one of Aus­tin's best-kept secrets for Interior Mexican cuisine. Why spend $20 at Fonda San Miguel on cochinita pibil when you can have the same thing for half the price at Sazón? Sazón's ample Puerco en Pipian, a delicious exotic stew of ground chiles and pumpkin seeds, is a steal at $10.79, and I recommend any dish made with their excellent, fruity mole. However, the kids' menu here is basically limited to tacos, quesadillas, frozen chicken fingers, and hamburgers.

On Saturdays, feed your kids for free and watch all the college football games (as well as soccer, baseball, and basketball) at the Lion and Rose. This pub-in-a-box chain from San Antonio offers English-themed dishes including bangers and mash ($10.99), and chips and curry ($6.49). However, based on our experience with the shoe-leather corned beef and cabbage ($11.99), I recommend sticking to fish and chips ($11.79). I was pleasantly surprised by the chicken fingers, battered to order from the kids' menu.– Rachel Feit

Zuzu (Photo by John Anderson)

Bean and Cheese Taco, Please (Hold the Cheese)

Paco's Tacos
Paco's Tacos (Photo by John Anderson)

My children have simple yet surprising tastes. Our son will devour a plate of shrimp and green beans sautéed in chili oil, but hates melted cheese. Our daughter doesn't like cookies, but adores bacon and goat Gouda. While the boy is largely agreeable, the girl will often refuse to eat anything at all depending on her mood – which is why Kids Eat Free promotions are attractive to us. It is less frustrating when she refuses to eat what we didn't have to pay for.

That was certainly the case when we visited EZ's on a Wednesday night before school started. While I was happy enough with my diet-friendly Alamo Bowl ($7.95) with its black beans, rice, and grilled chicken, my daughter turned her nose up (rightly so) at the blackened grilled cheese sandwich and limp, tepid french fries that comprised her free meal ($4).

EZ's (Photo by John Anderson)

We fared similarly at Z'Tejas, which offers a Sunday special from 4pm to close. We dined there on a holiday weekend and were grateful it wasn't a school night, as dinner lasted nearly two hours thanks to incredibly slow, error-ridden service. While our boy devoured his chicken tenders ($5.95) without hesitation or complaint, the girl was more interested in picking the cheese out of her quesadilla ($5.95) than eating it; a pity given the generous portions.

A Monday night trip to ZuZu found the boy amazed by the tiny taco bowl that doubled as an edible dish for his black beans. Here, each adult meal is worth two items off of the very affordable kids' menu after 5:30pm Monday through Wed­­nesday. This only adds up to a few bucks savings – our son's steak taco with rice and beans normally costs $2.75, while our daughter's quesadilla would have set us back a whopping $1.75 – but they enjoyed their meals while their parents went with fairly bland taco platters: blackened catfish for me ($8.50) and steak for my husband ($7.95).

Things started looking up toward the end of our explorations. While the boys were at baseball practice, the girl and I decided to check out Austin Java, where kids eat free after 3pm Monday through Wednesday. We shared a refreshing Funky Monkey banana smoothie ($4.79) while waiting for my delicious Loose Leaf spinach salad ($8.89) and her penne pasta with butter ($3.99). Because my daughter ate nearly every bit of pasta on her plate, I chose to ignore that it was positively swimming in butter.

A few nights later, the whole family went to Paco's Tacos, where kids eat free on Tuesday through Thursday with the purchase of an adult meal totaling at least $10. While the girl didn't love Paco's "hybrid" corn-flour tortillas, the boy made his two bean and cheese tacos ($3.50) disappear, then started eyeballing my husband's tacos (he would have nothing to do with my searingly spicy Paco's Zarape, $9.25, a bracing sauté of peppers and chicken). Paco's is the one spot on this quest where all four of us enjoyed our meals. Even better, it's right around the corner from our house.

Melanie Haupt

Kids Eat Free at:

Estância Churrasca­ria (10000 Research)

Nuevo Leon (1501 E. Sixth)

Opal Divine's Freehouse (700 W. Sixth)

Central Market Cafe (4001 N. Lamar)

Kerbey Lane Cafe (3704 Kerbey Lane and four other locations)

Santa Rita Cantina (5900 W. Slaughter Ln.)

Sazón (1816 S. Lamar)

Lion and Rose British Restaurant & Pub (701 Capital of TX Hwy. S.)

EZ's Brick Oven & Grill (3918 N. Lamar)

Z'Tejas (1110 W. Sixth)

ZuZu (5770 N. MoPac)

Paco's Tacos (1304 E. 51st)

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Estancia Churrascaria, Nuevo Leon, Opal Divine's Freehouse, Central Market Cafe, Kerbey Lane Cafe, Sazón, Santa Rita Cantina, Lion and Rose, Z'Tejas, EZ's, ZuZu, Paco's Tacos

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