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

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
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.

click to enlarge 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
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.

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.

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. - PHOTO BY KATHARINE SHILCUTT
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." - PHOTO BY TROY FIELDS
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.

click to enlarge Jax Grill offers entertainment for children of all ages. - PHOTO BY MARIO
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.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall