The Kids Are Alright: Top 50 Places to Dine with Children

kid friendly restaurants1 The Kids Are Alright: Top 50 Places to Dine with ChildrenKids are people, too. And, just like their mature counterparts, they love to dine out. But, not every restaurant has mastered the art of catering to the smaller set. Some make it easier on the parents or adults accompanying them with mouth-watering menus especially designed with young palates in mind. Others make it easier on kids by having fun activities tucked away in the hostess stand. What they all have in common, though, is a welcoming attitude on the part of restaurateurs that makes both growing and grown-up diners feel at home when they walk through a restaurant’s doors.

Arriving while school is still out for the summer, OpenTable will be revealing the national winners of the OpenTable 2009 Diners’ Choice awards for “Top 50 Kid-Friendly Restaurants.” Check back next Wednesday to find out the very best establishments for sharing a great meal with the children in your life, wherever you live.

When Cash Is King

cash is king When Cash Is KingHave you ever dined out at a restaurant only to discover — at the end of the meal — that they don’t accept credit cards (and you don’t have any cash)? With the advent of in-house ATMs and gaggles of websites warning you about a restaurant’s refusal to accept plastic, it may not happen quite as often as it used to. But it still happens, as one diner bemoans to Chow’s Helena Echlin.

My dad always carries cash (as does my husband, but he’s a bit of a throwback), but I rarely do. However, I try to make sure to do my due diligence before dining out so I’m not caught short. Still, when I went to a steakhouse in New York that is notorious for not accepting credit cards (except their own) with a friend and her out-of-towner father, who I’ve always known to walk around with a full money clip tucked in his pants pocket, he tried to pay with a credit card. We learned, to our chagrin, that he’d stopped carrying cash recently as so many credit card companies now offer tempting rewards programs. The situation was resolved quickly as the restaurant had just begun accepting debit cards, but I think he went away feeling a bit annoyed, and I was bit embarassed that I’d not told him of the policy.

The lesson is don’t assume anything about a restaurant’s payment policies or a dining partner’s preferences. Do a bit of research so you’ll know before you go.

Is Dining out Healthier than Cooking at Home?

healthy eating Is Dining out Healthier than Cooking at Home?It depends on where you dine, according to San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer. Eating at big chains that are more like glorified greasy spoons is probably worse for your waistline than making ham and eggs in your own kitchen. However, fine-dining establishments usually offer more balanced meals that feature many of the things that contribute to a healthful, well-rounded diet — fresh fruits and vegetables, quality proteins, and good-for-you grains — prepared in a manner that doesn’t require being topped with bacon or glistening with butter. Plus, portion sizes are controlled (and you can’t ask for seconds. Well, you can, but you probably shouldn’t).

When left to my own devices for lunch, for instance, I’m more apt to make a less-than-healthy choice at home (think reheated pizza). When dining out for lunch, however, an interesting salad with seasonal ingredients not readily found in my fridge will always catch my eye. Ditto on dinner. I always go for fresh fish at a restaurant, but preparing that at home takes a bit of planning (and a stop at a fish store). My fallbacks — grilling steaks (more red meat!) or ordering in (pizza again!) — are far easier,  but far less healthful.

The Tipping Point: Should It Come Sooner?

check The Tipping Point: Should It Come Sooner?Slashfood’s Hanna Raskin makes an interesting case for announcing your intended tip prior to a meal to ensure better service and to be fair to your server. She admits her notion of pre-tipping is a radical one, as it would involve more modest tippers to, say, fetch their own water.

I’ve waited tables at a number of restaurants and I don’t think Ms. Raskin’s idea would work in reality. A diner may promise a 30% tip, but what happens if the meal goes awry through no fault of the server? For example, what if the steak is over- or undercooked? Or the kitchen 86′s a menu item, but neglects to promptly tell the wait staff? Or…you get my drift. That diner is certainly going to balk at the initially agreed upon tip and insist it be reduced.

At fine-dining establishments, service is usually a collaborative effort. The server (and those he must tip out at the end of the evening — bussers, bartenders, runners, and so on) and the rest of the wait staff could suffer a loss of wages for a mistake made by a salaried employee who isn’t tipped out (i.e. the kitchen staff).

I’m a generous tipper (at least 20% based on the post-tax total), as are most folks who have worked in restaurants. I often tip much more than that. And when faced with abominable service, I have also tipped much less.  While I wouldn’t be opposed to a mandatory 20% service charge (as is the custom in France, according to Ms. Raskin), within our current system, I don’t want to agree to a larger or smaller tip when service has barely begun.

Dining out on Bastille Day

bastille day Dining out on Bastille DayToday is Bastille Day, and at many French restaurants across the U.S., you’ll find special menus and dining deals. Bastille Day is a national holiday in France, honoring the storming of the Bastille and the start of the French Revolution. It’s a great day to visit your favorite French bistro or fine-dining establishment and commemorate these important events in France’s history.

French cuisine is the backbone of much of American cuisine, especially insofar as technique is concerned.  So even if you’re not dining out at a French restaurant today, the odds are that its influences are evident in the kitchen.

Look for the Bastille Day listing under “Offers and Events” on your OpenTable homepage to reserve a table today. Bon appétit!

Restaurant Weeks: Choosing Where to Dine

Restaurant Weeks are amazing in almost every way — except for one. How do you choose where to dine? Saying yes to one restaurant often means saying no to another. This year, during New York City Restaurant Week, I’m dining out nearly every day. There are too many restaurants on the list for me to hit them all — so which will get my business during these bustling weeks?

nyc restaurant week1 Restaurant Weeks: Choosing Where to DineI booked out the first week (thankfully there are two!) with places I’ve either never dined at or those with lavish menus and higher prices at which I cannot be trusted to not break the bank. Seriously, my appetite bests my accountant any day of the week. The prix-fixe menus offered during NYC Restaurant Week encourage me to visit more expensive restaurants while staying within my fiscal limits in the face of culinary temptation (Nobu, anyone?). I’m filling my second week with a bunch of familiar favorites to see (and taste) what they’re offering diners this year.

Restaurateurs are raising the bar on themselves as of late, delivering better dining experiences for your dollar, so this promises to be the best NYC Restaurant Week yet.

Napa Restaurants Where the Food Is as Fine as the Wines

napa1 Napa Restaurants Where the Food Is as Fine as the WinesLos Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila heads north to revisit Napa’s wine country, focusing on the food at some of the region’s finest (but less name-checked) restaurants. She drops by Ad Hoc, Bardessono, Bottega, Brix, FARM, Meadowood, and Ubuntu, finding a few new chefs, some familiar faces, farm-fresh ingredients, and also affordable-yet-memorable meals. Use her insights to help you plan your next culinary road trip to the nation’s most renowned wine region this summer.

Dining out with a Food Critic: Reality Bites

group dining Dining out with a Food Critic: Reality BitesDo you dream of being one of the (supposedly) lucky folks who regularly dine out with food critics? Your dream may actually be a bit of a nightmare if you’re not prepared for the realities of what is required of their dining partners. Baltimore Sun restaurant critic Elizabeth Large reveals 10 truths about what you’re in for when you come along for a free meal, including the fact that there’s no such thing as free lunch (or dinner).

I haven’t had the pleasure (or displeasure, depending on your perspective) of dining out with a food critic, and it might be fun to do once. In general, though, I’d rather dine out as a civilian, if you will, than as a critic. I loathe looking for fault at restaurants as I’ve spent a good part of my life working at them and I know too well how hard it is to get everything right on any given night — the food, the service, the setting, and a thousand other variables. Also, I’m a firm believer that our enjoyment of many of life’s pleasures, dining included, is contextual. If you’re in good company, in a good mood, or simply having a good day, you’re probably going to have a good time. If you’re in a foul mood? Not so much.