Kids’ menus don’t get the respect they deserve. Blame dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. But just because tyke food is relegated to the bottom of the menu doesn’t mean it’s bottom of the barrel. Far from it. We menu-jumped across the Valley and were relieved — no, delighted — to discover a deluge of gourmet grub for the little ones, from vegetarian delights that make greens good to freebie entrées that mimic the adult options. Sure, we found chicken fingers, too, but not the frozen, reheated kind.
St. Francis (for ages 10 and under; free)
The kids' menu at St. Frances is free. No joke — and no skimping on portions. Take the Big Burger, a 7-ounce behemoth that kids will have a tough time wrapping their mouths around, never mind actually finishing all the fries. The fire-roasted chicken, also a big entrée, comes with a side of sautéed greens and a hefty side of fries. And in keeping with the farm-to-table vibe, kids also can order a colorful and filling plate of seasonal grilled veggies with buttermilk dip, plus there’s made-from-scratch pizza and pasta, too. The restaurant draws more cocktail crowd than preschooler, so while the kids are gorging, you can savor Parmesan risotto with caramelized Brussels sprouts and actually have an adult convo. Priceless.
Pita Jungle (for ages 12 and under; $4.99)
Choice is the spice of life at Pita Jungle. Open the big, bold kids' menu and you unfold a smorgasbord of keep-’em-occupied activities, from connect the dots to word scramble (translation: it’s a paper babysitter). Even better are the food choices, a four-course wheel of balanced and out-of-the-box options that put kids in the driver’s seat. They get fruit and choice of protein (lentils, turkey, hummus, tofu), carbs (brown rice, pita bread, garlic potatoes), veggies (steamed broccoli, carrots), and a drink. And, no, parents don’t have to be partial to lentils to love the modish Mediterranean fare — wood-fired pizzas and stuffed pitas will keep adult mouths and minds occupied, too.
Pomegranate Café (for ages 12 and under; $6)
We’re officially naming Pomegranate Café an Ahwatukee attraction, right up there with Rawhide Western Town. The menu is a vegan masterpiece, but even carnivore kids will unknowingly rejoice, partly because of the festive atmosphere, but mostly because the food is really that good. The Kids’ Choice Award goes to the banana bread French toast, a lightly griddled treat topped with coconut whip and real maple syrup. But there’s something for every kid palate, from adventurous eaters (the quesadilla comes with a side of spicy tepary beans) to comfort food lovers (the AB&J is served on ancient grain bread and slathered with almond butter and housemade POM-berry jam). And save room for dessert: Children's dishes come with either a vegan cookie ball or coconut “ice cream” topped with chocolate sauce and fresh fruit.
Zinburger (for ages 12 and under; $5, $3 in the summer)
The children's menu at Sam Fox’s burger haven may look small and unassuming — there are only four options, after all — but simple doesn’t mean subpar. The chicken strips are crispy on the outside and tender in the middle, the burger is made with Angus beef, the sloppy joes are meaty, the grilled cheese is stuffed to the gills, and they all come with hand-cut fries, sweet potato fries, or salad (Pro tip: Zinburger will sub fruit if you ask), and a drink. Plus you can tack on a real ice cream shake or root beer float for two bucks. It doesn’t hurt that the joint has a throwback diner feel where kids are treated like adults and adults get to feel like kids. Oh, did we mention the crayon table favors have been upgraded to Etch A Sketches? Genius.
Federal Pizza (all ages; $5)
Sketti and meatballs made from scratch (and with veal nonetheless), pepperoni pizza on arguably the best crust in town, crispy polenta sticks with mouth-watering marinara — all the items are excellent. The $5 prix fixe kids' menu at Federal Pizza comes with a drink (organic chocolate milk, hello!) and a side of distractions: The menu itself doubles as a paper iPad of fun, full of games and places to doodle, and and families can snag a booth by the open kitchen for plenty of live pizza-making action. Order the Bombolinis for dessert or warm decadent doughnuts with chocolate dip and you’ll officially be the coolest parent in the world.
Chelsea’s Kitchen (for ages 12 and under; $6)
Kids' food can be colorless. Not so at Chelsea’s Kitchen, an Arcadia hot spot known for its teeming taco platters and über-cool patio. The six-item kids' menu, boldly presented on a chalkboard, are served as gourmet TV dinners, each plate sectioned so that PB&J with the crusts off doesn’t touch the fries, fruit, or ketchup. The mac and cheese is the most popular, but our fave is the fried chicken, a legit piece of white meat breaded and pan-fried to perfection with a side of sizzling seasonal veggies and mashed potatoes. Youngsters love the complimentary Wikki Stix, a rainbow of bendable sticks kids can contort into creations. And parents love that kids eat free from 3 to 6 p.m. Just don’t forget to grab a complimentary salted chocolate chip cookie for the road.
Bragg’s Factory Diner (all ages; $5)
It’s not often that a pie business morphs into a hip vegan eatery, but that’s exactly what happened with Bragg’s Factory Diner, a downtown Phoenix favorite that serves up a side of kitsch with its kale. This is the place to go for breakfast — or anytime, really. The silver dollar pancakes are cloud-like and fluffy and come with real maple syrup, and the tofu scramble is packed with colorful veggies. Both are garnished with a hefty dose of fruit salad or hash browns and a side of crayons. The newest addition, Jake the Snack Nachos, is a piled-high plate drenched in vegan nacho cheese and loaded with pinto beans and housemade pickled jalapeños. The name of the game here is made-from-scratch, from their ketchup to their pies, and the love shines through.
The Parlor Pizzeria (for ages 10 and under; $6)
This '60s beauty parlor turned trendy pizzeria is about as far from Chucky Cheese as it gets — thank goodness. While Mom and Dad happily sip artisan cocktails and munch on pizza, the bambinos will be won over by the complimentary Wikki Stix (so much better than crayons) and the kids' selections. We’re talking flying saucer-sized pizzas, housemade pasta with red or meat sauce, and a great sandwich selection that includes PB&J, BLT, and grilled cheese, each served open-faced with a hefty serving of fries. The $6 price tag may seem steep, but the serving size reflects it. And where else can you find a vintage hair dryer in the bathroom?
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Southern Rail (for ages 12 and under; $7)
The kids’ menu at Southern Rail, the spacious Southern-inspired Central Phoenix eatery from chef Justin Beckett, comes tucked inside a children’s book, a trick that scores points with the kids and buys parents some distraction time. Granted, there’s no duck leg confit on the kids' version of the menu, but Beckett, a father of two, doesn’t pander, with standouts like made-from-scratch fried chicken bites, open-face meatball sliders, and a white cheddar and fontina grilled cheese on billowy baguette. Kids also get a drink (we suggest the housemade honey lemonade) and two sides (we loved the succotash and watermelon), but the real pièce de résistance is the beignet, a fried dough mountain topped with snowy white powdered sugar.
Earnest (for ages 12 and under; $8)
Granted, you don’t automatically think kids' menu when you think of Earnest, a dinner-only upscale dining experience in Chandler. But this place will have your kids at hello, from the interactive menu that lets them build “the weirdest burger ever” to the white napkin feeling that they’re in store for something special. As well as the usual kids' burger and grilled cheese, the menu includes mammoth turkey meatballs, fall-off-the-bone BBQ ribs, chicken or steak kebabs, and even a chopped-to-perfection salad, all served on a kid-style cafeteria tray. The grub may not be as gourmet as, say, the foie gras of the day, not that you’ll hear the kids complaining — especially since main dishes comes with a fun side, from fries to fruit kebabs, a drink (they’ll even make off-the-menu Shirley Temples) and a dessert. What kid doesn’t want to end the meal with a watermelon sorbet push-pop or fresh-spun ice cream in an edible sprinkle bowl?