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Bring the family

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Taking the family out to eat is the point at which my two City Newspaper beats intersect. What is it, exactly, that makes a restaurant "family friendly?" And which local restaurants do the best job handling children, and thus make going out with children a pleasant experience for parents?

Most local food lovers wouldn't be caught dead at a chain restaurant, but chains attract families for reasons. They know kids need space, and seat families at large tables. Then they'll give the kids something to do, like crayons and placemats with games. Many have environments designed to entertain. Then there is a children's menu, with portions and prices tailored to little folks' appetites and parents' budgets. The staff is trained to pay attention to the kids and make special arrangements when asked. All of these things can be and are accomplished by many local restaurants.

Kids' menus generally offer burgers, hots, spaghetti, and the ubiquitous chicken fingers, usually with fries or perhaps applesauce, and a drink. Now, if you go only to places that offer fingers 'n' fries, your kids will never learn to eat anything else. So start getting your kids used to other foods as early as possible, at home as well as out. But going to a restaurant at which your children simply won't eat anything is a recipe for disaster.

Diners can be great for families. Jay's is practically a wonderland, with all the mirrors, crayons with whole coloring books, good prices, and the standard kids' items done fairly well. It won't be an exciting outing for you, but the kids will have fun and that's contagious. The Atlantic Family Restaurant lives up to its name, has the great "Sloppy Plate," and is very affordable. In a quick survey of parents, the Highland Park Diner proved popular (but go when it isn't crowded). The South Wedge Diner is nice because of all its space. Rev. Corey Keyes, a Family Valued contributor, speaks highly of the Lima Diner and its strawberry milkshakes.

Our local burger chains mimic the big boys' kids' meals in various ways. Bill Gray's has a solid entry there, but Tom Wahl's is my family's favorite, with the race-car boxes and its own root beer. Bill Gray's has a restaurant at the Strong Museum, which makes for a cool day out. Gray's, Wahl's, Schaller's, LDR Char Pit, and the Char Broil House also have the advantage of speed. Kids don't like to wait, and at the burger pads, they won't.

A step up, though in the same general category, there's Soccer Sam's, which burgerologist Stan Merrell raves about. Sam's has a variety of kids' meals, good adult food, and even a magic guy and a game room. Stan is less enthusiastic about but still recommends Zebb's, especially if you plan to stick to burgers.

But do parents have to resign themselves to burgers, sloppy plates, and diner fare to make the kids happy? And what about eating healthy food? That depends in part on your kids.

I always see families at The King and I, which has to do with space, speed, and variety. Chicken satay can sub for fingers, and is more healthy. Most kids will eat rice, and if you have kids who are even slightly adventurous, they'll like many of the sweet Thai dishes if they try them. My family loves Churi's; the food is stronger-flavored, but with the promise of ice cream if they eat well, my kids usually do. Probably our favorite restaurant is the Seoul Garden, where Heidi, our waitress, treats our kids like royalty, remembering everything they like and bringing it to them before we ask. Same is true at Dac Hoa.

Many parents like taking their kids out for Asian food. They cite speed, but there are other attractions. Family Valued writer Linda Kostin says going out for sushi at the Tokyo makes her kids feel cool (as it does mine), and radio host Michael Warren Thomas likes a kid-friendly attraction like the fish tank at Golden Port. Pediatrician Laurence I. Sugarman also recommended Golden Port, as well as Plum Garden, Mamasan's, Golden Dynasty, and Esan, mentioning their inclusion of vegetables and few fried, pre-packaged items.

Speaking of healthy choices, my friend Victoria Peter suggests lunch at the Abundance Co-op. It has tons of choices, plus a play area. Her husband, Michael, reminded me about O'Bagelo's, which has the largest collection of Dr. Seuss books I've ever seen.

Indian lunch buffets mean speed, and I regularly see families at the Raj Mahal, Thali of India, and the India House (though the latter is a tad spicy for my kids). Sweet dishes like chicken makhani score well, as do fresh naan, rice, and desserts like rice pudding. All three charge half price for children, making them very affordable.

Many kids like barbecue joints, though few of these restaurants have kids' menus, which can make the meal somewhat expensive. But that might be deceptive. Often, two or three kids can share a dinner, and barbecue makes good leftovers. Dinosaur is too loud for families in my book (but Linda Kostin likes it). Sticky Lips is nice, but occasionally a bit slow. At the new Market St. Smokehouse in Brockport, you'll wait for a table, but things will go quickly after that. It has crayons, and the food is great. Unkl Moe's is low-key and there's never a wait. It's my favorite local barbecue, but not my kids'.

Fine restaurants just aren't good places for the kids, though not because most aren't willing to try. Tony Gullace at Max tells me he's willing to accommodate my kids, and I believe him. But when I go there, I want it to be all about me, so I leave the kids with a sitter. Charley Brown's in Penfield is, perhaps, a middle ground, with very good food but a feel that works for families.

If you can talk your kids into fish, Captain Jim's and the Pittsford Seafood Market are good choices. Speed, low prices, and quality rule. Bill Seremetis at Captain Jim's will even make "fish fingers" for your kids if asked (but don't on Friday). My kids, sadly, eat only the fries.

The truth is, you can take your kids almost anywhere. Avoid crowds by going early and by not going on Friday or Saturday night. Develop relationships with servers and owners, leaving good tips and suggesting the restaurant to friends. Vote with your wallet. Restaurants need to make an effort to accommodate families, so give your business to the ones that do.

Food tip

One of Rochester's grandest homes is now open as a restaurant once again. The Jonathan Child House (35 S. Washington St.) was built in 1837 for Rochester's first mayor. Edward's renovated the house in 2002, but closed after less than two years. Tony & Jimmy Paulino just opened Paulino's Italiano Classico (232-2260), serving lunch Monday through Friday and dinner Monday through Saturday. Their van will pick up people within the Inner Loop. Call for details. Correction to an earlier tip: Max Chophouse is open for dinner every day except Monday.

--- Michael Warren Thomas

Michael Warren Thomas can be heard on WYSL 1040 AM. Tune in on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel from 9 to noon, and on Sundays for Toronto restaurants and wine from 10 to noon. Listen live on the web at www.SavorLife.com.

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