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Local restaurants offer babysitting, snacks, fun to make dining out with kids less of a hassle

Owners work to attract families
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Posted at 7:00 AM, Aug 15, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-15 07:00:39-04

CINCINNATI -- Dining out with kids can be, well, a mess. Restaurant owners know that and are adding accommodations for kids in the hopes of continuing to attract business after a trendy couple has a plus-one (or more) in tow.

Some Tri-State restaurants are introducing specialized menus, toy stations, babysitting services and play zones. For parents who can't take one more spaghetti night at home, take heart -- these concepts might be for you.

On-site babysitting

Matt Loomis, owner of the upscale China Gourmet in Oakley, was talking to his wife about a struggle many families can relate to: taking three kids, ages 2 to 18, out to eat. They had an idea for an in-restaurant date night in which parents can enjoy dinner without the hassle of looking for, planning and paying a babysitter.

Fast-forward a few months, and the concept became reality. On Monday nights, Loomis and multiple trained babysitters offer food, age-based activities and entertainment in a side party room while the parents dine on-site. Kids have access to a ping-pong table, TV with Netflix, card table, toys, arts and crafts supplies, board games, puzzles and food.

Brayden Merrill has brunch during a playdate at The Village Troubadour in Greenhills. (Photo provided by Megan Merrill)

"In my business, we are always trying to figure out how to lure in a young professional crowd. China Gourmet has a lot of these ideal guests that let me know that they just don't go out very often due to their kids," he said. "That's when we decided that there should be a restaurant that could take care of your kids for you while you eat."

He chose Monday nights because it is "routinely a tough day for working parents, but mostly to help and try to drive business to our slowest day of the week."

For $15 per child, and a quick waiver form, parents can drop off kids of all ages and select options from a three-course meal, including an appetizer, main dish and dessert.

The demographic for China Gourmet has typically been those between 50 and 80, so Loomis was concerned with how his idea would be perceived. Owners of some other upscale restaurants are concerned about balancing being kid-friendly with attracting a younger, hip crowd.

"After many conversations with many different guests (with and without kids) about the idea, it seems my possible reward heavily outweighed the risk on an already slow Monday night," he said. "The fact that we have a party room that is very well sound-proofed and off to the side makes … having kids running around hidden to the closed confinement of one corner of our restaurant."

A cooking lesson

Parents who want to involve their kids in dining out can make a cooking lesson out of it at various locations, especially pizza joints, which are moving toward an inclusive cooking experience.

Pizzeria Locale offers a "Dough from Scratch" party that Anita Long, a Reading mom of children 2 and 4, said is a fun and family-friendly way to experience the restaurant. The party involves a kitchen tour, and kids can play with dough while they cook their pizzas.

"It's like having the whole restaurant to yourself," she said.

Long went to the party on a weekday in the early afternoon with a couple of friends and their kids, not for any special occasion and simply by calling ahead.

"We got a tour of the kitchen, a first-hand look at how they make their dough in-house from scratch, and then the kids got to play in dough and flour while their pizzas cooked," Long said. "It was a great learning experience for the kids, plus so fun and relaxing for us all to be able to eat and have fun together without worrying about bothering other customers.

"I think the concept is really unique and something we would definitely like to do again."

Dewey's Pizza offers windows so patrons can view the pizza-making process, which often keeps kids entertained while families wait for a table. Employees sometimes entertain the kids while cooking by throwing the pizzas high and putting flour on the viewing windows.

PlayStations, splash pads and toys

Sometimes kids don't need a full cooking or babysitting experience, but just a little help getting through that 40-minute wait for a table, food or both. Anyone who has tried to get a toddler to sit still can attest that toys in a diaper bag, chocolate milk with a cool straw and some crackers aren't going to cut it. Many parents don't want to resort to using media to entertain kids, and restaurants are stepping up and recognizing the difficulty of the wait time.

Parents magazine published a list of kid-friendly restaurants, including Mimi's Cafe, which has a location in Deerfield Township. The chain makes the pre-meal wait easier for kids by serving oranges, crackers and Cheerios, and it has multiple options for kids' drinks, such as three versions of milk (convenient for those with a baby or toddler and an older child). 

Jen Glass of Elmwood Place and her 2-year-old son frequent the Gruff, a pizzeria and delicatessen in Covington that has lots of books, a chalkboard wall, shape-sorting toys and other distractions. She praised the restaurant for the toy selection and convenience of being able to watch kids play from the parents' dining tables.

"It's helpful for toddlers and preschoolers, who are the hardest to take out to eat," she said. "It's nice to both have the toys and a place for a kid to walk around a bit when they're bored sitting at the table."

Another place for kid-friendly dining is The Village Troubadour, a family-owned cafe and restaurant in Greenhills, according to Megan Merrill of Fairfield. She and her 2-year-old go on "adventures" at the restaurant, which has a playroom within eyesight of the parents.

"It's awesome. The room is super helpful to let kiddos explore while the adults enjoy their coffees and food. The staff are super accommodating for families, too. They always carry your food out to you and greet your children when you arrive," she said. Another bonus is a kid-friendly breakfast.

Bar del Mar at shopping development Liberty Center features tropical cocktails, a slim but high-quality bar menu and a beachy, open atmosphere. The well-loved splash pad in the center of Liberty Center's square is feet from the patio dining, and kids also enjoy an oversized Jenga game on the same patio.

With a bit of forethought and an accommodating attitude, some restaurant owners are making dining out easier and more fun for Cincinnati kids -- and their grateful parents.