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.
It was raining the day we first went to Mia's. My younger daughter, ten, had been begging me for months. I'd been deflecting. We'd made a deal. Sometime before school started up again, I'd promised. She reminded me of this promise daily, regardless of our plans, even if we were currently sitting down to eat dinner. She is dogged, I'll give her that. Finally, on the day before my self-imposed deadline passed, I gave in. It was raining, and we were in the neighborhood, and we were hungry, and she had bugged me about it five times already that day, starting with breakfast. She didn't believe me when I told her they weren't open for breakfast.
As we walked through the front doors, shaking off the accumulation from the trip from car to building, she noticed the little stand placed conveniently inside, holding the evidence of the more prepared parents who'd come in before us. Gaily, she suggested that we liberate an umbrella upon our exit. We did not.
We placed our orders at the counter and the kids meandered about the space, picking "the perfect table." They spent a few minutes getting a painfully precise amount of ice from the fanciful dispensers in the corner, like a free and frozen video game that buys parents at nearby tables, possessed of reasonably trustworthy kids, a few moments of peace without costing them a dime. Rare occurrences, both.
I asked the kid in question to pose by the soft-serve machine. Its existence had played no small part in her persistent and ultimately effective lobbying. Word had been going around among her peers. It was free. It was self-serve. You could make a cone three feet tall if you got really good at it. I told her she could have a cone after dinner. She argued that, by forcing her to pose for a shot, I was requiring her to work and she therefore deserved compensation. Preferably in immediate-soft-serve form. Most preferably as an adder to the cup of root beer she'd already talked me into. She made a persuasive point, and everyone loves a root beer float. She'd ordered fruit with her kids' meal burger. I could work with that. A deal hashed out, and soft serve extruded, we returned to the table.
The food had arrived. A CFS plate for me. The older kid got a burger of her own, full size. "My rule of thumb for burgers is that if they're not dripping, they're probably not that good." Clearly, I'm raising that kid right. This one, she decided, got about a B+ for drippage. She ate the whole thing.
She's past kids'-menu age pretty much everywhere, a fact she either cherishes or bemoans, depending on how much grief her little sister is giving her for being "such a teenager" that day. "A bunch of the girls in CC's class drink coffee and shave," her sister noted, pointing out exactly how teenagerly she is. I misheard "shave" as "shake," envisioning a bunch of jittery adolescent girls red-eyeing their way through pre-algebra. My wife returned to the "strawberry drink" machine with the baby for the ninth time. He wasn't drinking it, but he sure did enjoy the object lesson in fluid dynamics and the pushing of magical levers.
The CFS was big but not ridiculous; finely crusted, crisp and craggy. Tender, but still with some chew, which I like in a CFS. A little bit fatty. A hair salty, as were the bacon-larded green beans served alongside. The baby took most of those. Like me, he is a fan of this style of green bean cookery, the vegetable cooked until tender instead of arriving mostly raw, laced with bacon fat. The way my mom cooked them when I was a kid. The way they cook them at Buffalo Grille, another restaurant-my-daughter-goads-me-into-frequenting, but which nails those green beans every time. The baby steals most of my green beans there, too. There's a note in the jalapeño gravy that strongly recalls queso. Someone's in particular that I just can't place. I think it must be a roux thing.
Juliette, after her soft float, begged for more soft serve. Bargaining. Cajoling. "How about just a cone," with a smirk in her eye. "No ice cream?" "No...Just a cone..."
"Okay," I say, "but if I see one speck of ice cream in that cone, you're in trouble."
She nods, smiling mischievously. As she's walking away, I shout after her, "And no weezing the juice!" Nobody has any idea about what I'm talking about, or finds me funny in the least. Mostly because I'm a dad. That's the way that thing goes, I guess.
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We've been back since then, most recently with a good friend in town for the holidays, along with his two little ones. With five kids ranging from 13 to under one, it's hard to find a restaurant that doesn't present a myriad of pitfalls. The only one Mia's offered was its popularity. Especially among similarly situated tables, overflowing with would-be soft-serve weezers of their own. I can't say as I blame them; Mia's may well be one of the best family-centered restaurants in the city.
Everything about this place is finely tuned for their purpose. Says it right on the awning: "Family Friendly." From the counter ordering (no wait for a check at the end) to the self-serve crayons and paper, to the room designed like your grandma's comfortable old home — nice but lived in. Even the literal fountains for lemonade and the signature strawberry drink (unbearably sweet) cater to kids. Hell, even the large-scale ice dispensers are a ready distraction for six-year-olds or, in my case, two-, ten- and 13-year-olds. There are buttons to push. The food isn't the best in the city, but it's a good sight better than it likely has to be.
"Aren't you glad we came?!" enthused my kid, reaching, rebuffed, for an umbrella on our way out the door. I was, but I wasn't ready to give her the satisfaction. "It was okay," I offered, reminding myself to sneak Mia's into the list of possibilities next time we were deciding where to eat, just to surprise her. She grinned with near maniacal surprise when I did just that when my friend was in town. Never underestimate the power of soft-serve. Which reminds me, I didn't get a cone last time we were there.