You want to go out for a family dinner, but you don’t want your children forced to choose between boring buttered pasta and bland chicken nuggets while you slog through a meal you’re not excited about, either. Stop that negative thinking: Dining with the little ones doesn’t have to mean collectively lowering the bar. Some restaurants take kid-friendly options to the next level while still offering nuanced, flavorful cuisine that parents would be happy to enjoy by themselves on a date night. Here are seven area spots where the whole family will be excited to eat tonight.
1319-C, Rockville Pike, Rockville | 301-251-7878 | aandjrestaurant.com
Tucked away on the ground floor of an unassuming development on Rockville Pike, cozied up alongside a bubble tea joint and below a Ledo Pizza, is one of the most consistently flavorful and fam-friendly restaurants on the whole stretch. Founded in Taipei, Taiwan, in the 1970s, the A&J Restaurant dim sum chain has several outposts in the States—including one in Annandale, Virginia—but the snug locale feels like you’re walking into a mom-and-pop operation. Ever-in-motion servers greet regulars and newbies with real warmth, beckoning them to take a seat.
The menu offers options for everyone, including plenty of plant-based fare, and since A&J specializes in northern Chinese dim sum, which focuses on land-based meats rather than seafood, there is no shellfish. Highlights include golden seared pot stickers stuffed with juicy pork; a tangle of spicy and peanutty dandan noodles; crunchy cucumbers glossy with garlic sauce; and wraps hiding slender sliced beef and aromatic herbs. Even nonadventurous kids will have a lot to choose from, including crackly scallion pancakes, golden fried chicken on rice, and bubble tea in a rainbow of flavors, such as radiant orange-hued passion fruit and pretty-in-pink guava. To encourage more hesitant diners to try new foods, meals can be served family style so everyone can dip their chopsticks (ask for a fork if you prefer one) into everything.
At the end of the meal, servers send kids home with a lollipop, a small touch that leaves a big impression. Cash or Venmo only.
5600 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., 202-741-4599 | littlebeastbistro.com
Your little beasts will love Little Beast. The charming Chevy Chase, D.C., bistro was conceived with family outings in mind, so every element takes smaller diners into consideration. The walls are adorned with Monsters, Inc.-esque creatures, and coloring sheets and crayons are available to keep juniors engaged rather than zombied out on a screen.
Appetizers are fully interactive. Tear apart the garlicky breadsticks blanketed in melted cheese, then dunk them in vodka sauce, or slather cloud-light whipped ricotta dappled with honey and hazelnuts onto triangles of house-made flatbread. There are personal entrees—a burger shrouded in melted cheddar and piled high with fixin’s, a fried chicken sandwich fired up with Calabrian chili aioli and crisscrossed with bacon, and a chicken Parm that hits all the right notes—but fams will gravitate toward the shareable pizzas. There are New York-minded brick oven pies, including the Diavola with fiery tomato sauce, banana peppers and pepperoni, and a classic round topped with mozzarella, Parmesan and provolone. For more substantial slices, go for the Detroit-style pies built on focaccia-like crusts with brick cheese caramelizing at the edges. A strong choice is the produce-packed Greenfield Village sporting green peppers, artichokes and mushrooms, which is a fun way to get your tykes to eat their veggies.
For a sweet finish, pick up cupcakes to enjoy on the spot or savor later. Longtime faves include red velvet topped with a puff of cream cheese frosting, lemony cake bedecked with shredded coconut, and indulgent double chocolate.
7150 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda | 301-652-9780 | eatatsilver.com
Ever since opening in 2015, this beloved Bethesda Row brasserie has impressed youngsters and their parents with its next-level kids menu. Chef Ype Von Hengst crafts dishes that feel adult while appealing to children, and also seem decadent even with their nods to healthiness. To start the day, there’s avocado toast on crusty sourdough with an egg, and challah French toast dusted with maple sugar. For lunch and dinner, wee ones can choose from teriyaki-glazed salmon accompanied by quinoa and marinara-sauced fettucine dotted with lamb meatballs. Bonus: Every meal comes with a fruit or vegetable, and either milk, oat milk or juice. And not to worry, there’s still a chance for teens to indulge with a thick Oreo shake or a brownie sundae doused in chocolate sauce.
Meanwhile, moms, dads and more advanced little diners can browse the full menu, where items are thoughtfully marked when gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan and lower in fat or cholesterol. If you’re eating without restraints, the chef has plenty of splurge-y offerings: fried chicken balancing on a mound of mac ’n’ cheese, saucy chicken potpie hiding under a flap of flaky crust, and a taco bowl crowned with slow-cooked short ribs, grilled pineapple and avocado.
To help keep kids engaged during the meal, place mats double as activity sheets and crayons are provided, so you might leave with some new artwork to go on the fridge at home.
5534 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. | 202-570-0289 | opal-dc.com
There’s a down-home sensibility to this continentally inspired season-centric eatery on the main stretch of Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase, D.C., making you feel as though you’ve been invited to a friend’s house for a relaxing dinner party. The long dining room, divided by a bookshelf dotted with vases and sculptures, features a bar halfway down on the right and an open kitchen in the back. The newly minted venture is a collaboration between chef Colin McClimans and beverage director Danilo Simic, who found success with the New American-minded Nina May in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood.
While you’re browsing the menu, put in an order for rustic focaccia fired in the wood oven and dappled with sesame-forward za’atar. Rip off chunks and slather the warm bread with whatever house-seasoned butter is on offer. For families with children boasting adult-size appetites, the simple supper is a good way to go. Everyone chooses their own entree, which is accompanied by snacks and small plates served family style.
Or you can order a la carte with lamb-stuffed pita, trout roe-crowned pommes dauphine (aka the most decadent Tater Tots ever), and wood-fired chicken breast—all worth exploring. There’s a lot for the plant-based crowd to savor: Options change with farmer deliveries, but might include artfully charred winter vegetables laid out on a bed of labneh and French lentils, and ricotta dumplings glistening with brown butter. For the under-21 crowd and adults enjoying a dry dinner, there are some fetching nonalcoholic creations, such as zingy ginger beer infused with berries and basil, and soothing cucumber-lime soda.
7271 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda | 301-284-3700 | spanishdiner.com
José Andrés’ newest restaurant in the area looks like it was designed for children. A sprawling collection of whimsical doodles of Spanish pintxos (small snacks), created by the artist KuKuXuMuSu and echoing Joan Miró’s playful line work, cover the walls and dot the tabletops. Swaths of sunny yellow and pops of orange brighten the space, as do tangles of crawling ivy and verdant potted plants. And soccer fans of all ages will love the foosball table and the weekly game screenings.
The para los niños (kids menu) offerings elevate classic options. Think grilled cheese oozing manchego, Mahon and San Simon with a hint of honey in the mix, and baked macaroni and tomato sauce under golden bubbled cheese. But even the main menu is bursting with approachable choices, including breakfast all day (fried eggs with a panoply of sides and the tender omelet concealing crunchy potato chips and caramelized onions are always winners), creamy avocado goat cheese salad livened with cilantro-forward mojo verde sauce, and Spanish hot dogs slipped into brioche buns with an array of garnishes. However, if your children are willing to try more boundary-pushing fare, there’s blood sausage and squid ink stew, neither of which tastes as challenging as they sound, so tell them to dig in without fear.
Save room for dessert. Standouts include San Sebastian-style goat cheesecake with a caramelized dark brown top and a drizzle of chocolate sauce, and whipped cream-topped flan made with a recipe from Andrés’ mother.
9201 Colesville Road, Silver Spring | 301-704-6653 | eatzinnia.com
There’s something for everyone at this blossoming cafe/restaurant/tavern/beer garden in the former space of the historic Mrs. K’s Toll House on Colesville Road in Silver Spring. Helmed by the team behind Takoma Beverage Co. and Soko butchery in Takoma Park, the multiconcept business has a thoughtfully casual sensibility with cut-above dining options, whether you’re sitting inside or outside, and no matter what time you visit.
Stop by during the breakfast rush or at lunchtime for all-ages favorites such as chorizo-packed breakfast tacos, po’boy brimming with shrimp, and multigrain toast dressed to the nines with refried black beans, avocado and eggs (plus, tired parents can fuel up with well-pulled espressos and Hercules-strength coffee). Dinner is a more refined affair but still offers plenty of choices for the younger set. Openers include a sphere of burrata waiting to be spread on sourdough, bacon-amped seafood chowder, and a classic and satisfying Caesar salad. In the entree category, home in on tender potato gnocchi, the hefty cheeseburger and dainty parsley-basil dumplings blanketed with grated Parmesan.
A plus for parents is the excellent selection of craft cocktails, short but sweet wine list, and well-considered beer selections, including local favorites from Silver Branch, Astro Lab and Union Craft. Don’t worry, the kids can act like grown-ups by ordering a ginger kombucha, tangy lemonade or hibiscus iced tea instead.
905 Rose Ave., North Bethesda | 301-818-9090 | melinagreek.com
For families with divided dining philosophies, Greek cuisine is a godsend, taking an age-old flexitarian approach that satisfies carnivores, pescatarians and plant-based diners alike. Rather than having anyone compromise their ideals, go to Melina. The modern Greek restaurant in North Bethesda’s Pike & Rose development is the latest venture from the founders of CAVA—Dimitri Moshovitis, Ted Xenohristos and Ike Grigoropoulos. They partnered with chef Ari Tsekouras, who moved to the States from Greece in 2016 to open Vasili’s Kitchen in Gaithersburg.
The chef has a bread baking background, so his skills are showcased in the ever-rotating bread basket, a must-order with all-ages appeal. Moving on to the main offerings, his dishes are artful and refined, eschewing classic preparations of iconic Greek dishes for more progressive demonstrations of the country’s current culinary scene. Adventurous younger eaters will love tiny, traditional trahana pasta with chorizo and dried white figs, delicate tuna crudo perked up with pickled green apple and hazelnuts, and charred gem lettuce salad lavished with pistachio pesto and dotted with semisoft manouri cheese.
A shareable showstopper is slow-roasted lamb neck with chunks of Parmesan-like kefalograviera cheese and roasted peppers cooked in parchment with a host of sides: sourdough pita, tzatziki, crispy potatoes and pickled onions. Mix and match the accoutrements as your heart desires to create a miniature souvlaki.
For dessert, there are Greek doughnuts with herb-infused honey, and vanilla ice cream served with spiced and chilled chocolate milk—a crowd-pleasing finale.
This story appears in the March/April issue of Bethesda Magazine.