Sometimes, all you need for a proper summer is a picnic table, of which there are plenty at our number one spot.
Sometimes, all you need for a proper summer is a picnic table, of which there are plenty at our number one spot.
Photo by Troy Fields

DEFCON Dining: Where to Find Kid-Friendly Eats This Summer Without Losing Your Mind

Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.

Summertime, and the livin’ is…hot and sweaty and bored and whiny. At least if you have kids. We look forward to it for nine months. By early May, they are practically aching for it. “If we can just hold on for another few weeks ...” we all tell ourselves, hoping for the magic talisman that is summer to restore life to a blissful state of relaxation. No school. No homework. No problems. It's usually sometime around mid-June, just past the edge of summer, when the boredom begins to take hold. When it does, you want to be prepared. Here are a few of our favorite spots to grab a bite and a bit of sanity when the kids start clawing at the walls and you can hardly wait for August.

What summer is complete with some barbecue and just a little bit of danger? At Hays County in San Marcos, get a three-meat plate with a side of fun.EXPAND
What summer is complete with some barbecue and just a little bit of danger? At Hays County in San Marcos, get a three-meat plate with a side of fun.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall

Honorable Mention: Hays County Barbeque
For many, summer vacation = road trips. Road trips = restless kids. When your kids get restless, you stop. When you stop, you eat. If you’ve planned well, the restlessness aligns with lunchtime and a smartly predetermined Lat-Long. If you’re headed to New Braunfels, it’s only a slight detour (slight being a matter of perspective) to Hays County in San Marcos. The brisket is stellar, and Hays County has the single best smoked pork chop I’ve ever had. It also has a playground with a truly terrifying slide, offering at least a half hour of increasingly concerning dares for your kids.

Meet a few parent-friends at Rico's and share a few beers while the kids get their selfie fix with the Midtown sign.EXPAND
Meet a few parent-friends at Rico's and share a few beers while the kids get their selfie fix with the Midtown sign.
Photo courtesy of Rico's Morning, Noon & Night

10. Rico's Morning Noon and Night
It's mostly a walk-up burger kiosk, but it has other amenities. For starters, there are the backyard games ready and waiting. Teach your kids to play cornhole, or maybe get schooled by them. If yours are of Instagram age, the whimsical Midtown sign in the adjacent yard makes for great photo fodder. There are often dogs. If you want a bite of something sweet after your burger, one of the city's best bakeshops, Fluff Bake Bar, is right down the street.

If nothing else, the Aquarium offers excellent people watching. When you see it...
If nothing else, the Aquarium offers excellent people watching. When you see it...
Photo courtesy Downtown Aquarium

9. Landry’s Downtown Aquarium
Yes, it’s cheesy. Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, the food is mediocre to the point of virtual caricature. Kids love it, though. Not the food so much. That’s not really the point. The point is: Nemo and Dory; stingray “petting zoo”; shark train; carnival rides; impossible games of chance and “skill.” It’s not a cheap outing, but it does have a lot to offer, not least of which is the fact that much of the attraction is blessedly air-conditioned. The combination of temporarily entertained kids and arctic-blast a/c is enough to earn this one a spot.

Welcome to Kitsch City, population: you.
Welcome to Kitsch City, population: you.
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt

8. Natachee's Supper 'n Punch
Natachee’s is pretty much kitsch city. You’ll want to know that going in. From the tin-roof shack that serves as a bar to the “aw shucks” drink names, Natachee’s is big on manufactured charm. That doesn’t mean the charm doesn’t work, though. Take the kid’s meals, brought to your table in old-school metal lunch boxes that will likely confuse your kids while offering you plenty of “when I was your age” opportunities. Charming as all get-out. The food is solid and comforting, the beer and punch cold and potent, and the patio out back spacious enough to free-range the kids for a few minutes while you finish your Ol’ One-Two. If your kids are older, take them down the street to browse the Mid Main block for records, sneakers and weird antiques. If they’re younger, they might enjoy hopping on the adjacent light rail for a ride downtown. Tell them the train is friends with Thomas. His name is Reginald, and he loves taking busy commuters to work before returning to the yard.

Forget helicopter parenting. Get on board with "tent-lounge parenting."
Forget helicopter parenting. Get on board with "tent-lounge parenting."
Photo by Troy Fields

7. Cafe Mawal
Cafe Mawal looks unimpressive from the front. A small cafe wedged into an ordinary family home, it obscures its secret hideaway. Behind the house, a sprawling property contains a tree-shaded patio, semi-secluded cabanas strewn with cushions and carpets, and a collection of playground equipment that’s like all of your best friends’ yards from when you were a kid, crammed together. The service is super-friendly and there are always a few families on hand whose children are as excited to have a few non-sibling playmates as yours are. Grilled meats rule the roost here, lending the entire experience a neighborhood cookout vibe.

Jax Grill offers entertainment for children of all ages.EXPAND
Jax Grill offers entertainment for children of all ages.
Photo by Mario

6. Jax Grill
Jax Grill has two locations, one in Bellaire and the other along Shepherd just before I-10. Both are about as relaxed as you can get, with friendly and efficient counter service and serviceable grill standards. Both are favorites for local youth sports teams, with large dining rooms and patios suitable for rowdy groups of tweens celebrating sweet victory or nursing the wounds of defeat over burger baskets. Bring a few handfuls of quarters for the handful of video game cabinets set off to the side at each location.

If you are brave enough, this is an after-lunch option at The Lakehouse.EXPAND
If you are brave enough, this is an after-lunch option at The Lakehouse.
Photo by Katya Horner

5. The Lakehouse Waterside Cafe
Sometimes, dining with kids is a lot like real estate: location, location, location. On those merits, it’s hard to leave The Lakehouse in the middle of the pack, given its location square in the middle of Discovery Green park. As its name suggests, the small counter-service operation sits alongside the lake carved into downtown’s premier green space. Watch the R/C boating action while you eat, take a stroll by the cattails after, and maybe bring swimsuits and a few towels for splashing in the park’s fountains. All that festivity can be used as both carrot and stick, extracting a few extra minutes of good behavior in exchange for playground promises.

The tire swing in the background is just the tip of the playground iceberg at The Shack.
The tire swing in the background is just the tip of the playground iceberg at The Shack.
Photo by Phaedra Cook

4. The Shack Burger Resort
The Shack Burger Resort recently opened its third sprawling burger paradise on the west side of town. Clearly, it’s a winning formula. The Shack tends toward a happily cobbled-together feel, like a combination that’s one part jolly junkyard, one part ground-level tree fort. The burgers encourage messiness, and the modified school bus-cum-play space encourages adventure. It’s a little bit overwhelming at first, but in the best possible way.

Slip on a pair of climbing shoes, chalk up and don't forget the pizza at 5.Ate Cafe, inside Inspire Rock in Spring.
Slip on a pair of climbing shoes, chalk up and don't forget the pizza at 5.Ate Cafe, inside Inspire Rock in Spring.
Photo by Troy Fields

3. 5.Ate Cafe
Houston summers always offer a cruel dichotomy: plenty of free time for running around outside, but little of the will required to brave the wilting heat and humidity. Thus our children spend their summers exploring the interiors of things instead. If we’re lucky, it’s a book. If not, a combination of digital devices and eyelids. It’s nice to have ways to keep the kids active while keeping them from melting. Tucked inside an indoor rock-climbing gym in Spring, 5.Ate is a great option. Order a blistered and bubbly-crusted pizza or a playfully topped burger (mounted on a house-made English muffin) from the cafe, then grab a climbing day-pass and give the kids a chance to get some real fun and exercise, all without breaking a sweat (or without drowning in it, at least). On belay!

AYCE Soft-Serve: The best thing ever, or TOTALLY THE BEST THING EVER?
AYCE Soft-Serve: The best thing ever, or TOTALLY THE BEST THING EVER?
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall

2. Mia’s Table
All you really have to say is “All-You-Can-Eat Soft-Serve Machine” and my kids start lining up at the door. This may be the chief draw at Mia’s, but it is far from the only one. This is the sort of place conceived from the first brick as a family-friendly haven. The interior feels as if your parents owned a nice, cozy place in the Hill Country. There are levers and buttons to press while you help yourself to beverages; the littlest ones might enjoy the bright, merry gurgle of the “Strawberry Drink” dispenser, and even the biggest kids seem to get a kick out of the oversized and semi-ridiculous ice dispenser, treating it like a refreshingly free carnival game. There are always families here, so the din of your own is happily drowned in the broader chorus. You will never feel out of place with your kids at Mia’s. The food wouldn’t feel out of place somewhere you might; it’s a good bit better than it likely has to be. Altogether, Mia’s manages the wonderful trick of making you feel like you’re out on the town, and like you’re right at home.

This image pretty well captures summer, and it pretty well captures Little Matt's. Coincidence? We think not.
This image pretty well captures summer, and it pretty well captures Little Matt's. Coincidence? We think not.
Photo by Troy Fields

1. Little Matt’s
This is the one restaurant my kids always want to go to. Beg to go to. Need to go to. I can’t say that I blame them. It’s pretty much perfect. It always feels like an impromptu party, and any day offers a greater than 50 percent chance of an actual impromptu party. There’s a candy counter up front, reach-in bins laden with frozen treats, and a game room in back. The game room has its money-pit machines, to be sure, but it also has a row of unlocked iPads offering everything from multi-player first-person shooters for the older kids to cute animal puzzle games for the littles. An adorable small-town microcosm set into West University, this stretch of Edloe feels plucked from the set of Pleasantville with its rows of patriotic storefronts, picturesque town hall and fire station. It’s clearly a hub for the neighborhood, with a regular chorus of familiar greetings and a constant stream of tweens and teens using the red picnic benches as a home base for their roamings. The food isn’t amazing, but it’s good enough to justify spending a leisurely two-hour lunch or early dinner here. Grab a beer or a glass of wine (free, on account of the lack of a liquor license), find a seat at one of the tables tucked into the awning out front, and watch the sun set over the ball field across the street while the kids amuse themselves, probably finding a few new friends in the process. Aaaaaah, summer.

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