Sit-down restaurants can be a tough sell to wiggly little eaters. After all, there’s a whole lot of staying put involved, and not much to look at (unless you surrender and give up your phone). But no more, mama! We’ve got tons of suggestions on where to take your tiny diner without sacrificing your iPhone battery. Whether you want your dinner with a side of magic or served with tiny teacups for your child’s dolls, here’s our list of the best-themed restaurants—all within an hour’s driving distance of LA.
The Proud Bird
If your kids love airplanes, they'll be in aviator heaven at this famed restaurant and museum that lets patrons dine beside huge windows overlooking LAX's east runway. If you haven't checked out the Proud Bird lately, now's the time to go! The 51-year-old eatery underwent a complete renovation last year and reopened with new sleek and stylish new digs that'll make any modern pilot feel right at home. Kids will love that the place is surrounded by life-size replicas of historic airplanes (there's even one hanging dauntingly from the ceiling when you enter the front doors) and parents will love that the place has gone from a dated, sit-down joint to an airplane hanger-themed space that feels bright, clean and airy. Once you're inside, grab a free aviator pin and kids coloring book for your littles and explore several walk-through exhibits that give lay folk a lowdown on some of aviation's most famous figures.
As for eats, there's an upscale food court offering a variety of choices including pizza, fresh salads, burgers, and pasta; just get your food and pick a table (preferably a booth by the window). Your kids will happily eat, iPad-free with the can't miss view of airplanes landing just outside. Our recommendation: Check out the all-You-Can-Eat brunch and dinner on Sun., which is just $29.95 for adults, $19.95 for kids 5-12 years old, and free for kids 4 and under.
Read Red Tricycle's full review of The Proud Bird here.
11022 Aviation Blvd.
American Girl Cafe
Don't dolls deserve a fun day out? If your kids are into American Girl dolls (or any dolls, for that matter), a trip to the American Girl Cafe is the perfect outing. Located on the second floor of the Grove's massive American Girl store, the bustling cafe offers a fixed-price lunch, dinner or afternoon tea* that includes food and treats for both your child and her doll. Kids will love that they can seat their tiny friends in a chair that attaches to the table, and every doll gets a place setting with a tiny cup and plate that kids can take home. Don't have a doll yet? No problem; there's a full wall of loaners available, including girls, boys and baby dolls.
As for the food, the menu includes tried-and-true kid faves like burgers, pasta, and pizza; plus grown-up options including a delicious Caprese sandwich and an herb-roasted salmon plate. Don't be surprised, though, if your kids fill up on starters: Every meal begins with a plate of yummy cinnamon rolls and an appetizer of veggies, pita and hummus, and ends with a chocolate cupcake and vanilla mousse "flowerpot" complete with a plastic daisy kids can keep as a memento. If you're worried your kids won't be able to sit in their seats for the entire three-course meal, a box of "Conversation Cards" sits at every table to help engage kids in meaningful mealtime banter. It works. And anyway, the place is loud enough to drown out the protests of antsy little diners.
Helpful Tip: Good luck getting out the doors without buying something. Remember, you'll have to walk through the massive retail store to get in and out of the restaurant. Our suggestion: Save the cafe for a special occasion so you won't feel bad about buying a doll, an outfit or an accessory. Getting a doll devotee to leave the store empty-handed is going to be about as easy as slipping in and out of the neighboring Dylan's Candy Shop without an impending sugar high.
*Fixed Menu Prices: $24 per person for dinner; $20 per person for afternoon tea.
189 The Grove Dr.
Hours: Mon.-Thur., 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Hear ye, hear ye: There's a reason Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament has been around for 35 years. It's got everything kids love: Animals (horses!), competition (jousting!), and simple food (that you eat with your hands, no less!). New for this year, the king who has ruled over the tournament since the show's inception has been replaced by... A queen! In our opinion, this just makes the show better since it will woo young girls who may have been turned off by the otherwise completely-male cast.
Does your little one like horses? Swords? Screaming as loud as she can for the sake of fun? Perfect. The rollicking, two-hour "tournament" showcases knights on horseback competing in a variety of Medieval competitions, all of which will have your dining section proudly cheering on its assigned team. The sparsely intertwined dialogue is a little hard to understand at times—but who cares! There are knights on horseback! With weapons! That, and you'll be slightly distracted by the four-course meal served on metal plates, without utensils while you spectate. The food is better than you might expect, though when all is said and done, most rave reviews will still be for the knights.
Note: The tournament culminates in a final knight-against-knight battle that'll have your kids riveted. This means, of course, that there are tons of choreographed battle scenes involving swords, flails, and axes, so if you don't like the idea of your kids watching actors get knocked to the ground by props, you may want to give the show a pass. In our opinion, the final scenes were the most fun (and this writer's 6 and 8-year-old boys we unfazed by the battles).
Expect to be inundated with opportunities to open your wallet, because opportunity awaits from the get-go, whether they be photo ops and souvenir cups or light-up swords and dragon claw necklaces. There's even a Knights Templar suit of armor for $3,800 and a full armory of metal swords that cost upwards of $125, so, yeah: Everything is for sale. Our advice: Be ready to channel your inner "No" voice unless you're up for a full-on, spoil-the-kids "knight out." That said, the $5 Medieval Times flag is worth getting since your kids will be excitedly waving it nearly the entire show. And, as for whether you need the "VIP seating package," remember every spot in the 1,100-seat arena offers a fantastic view of the show.
7662 Beach Blvd.
Tickets: $61.95 for general admission seating (includes dinner)
The Magic Castle
Little magicians will love everything about this place, from their first steps inside (through a secret door behind the bookcase) to the roster of magical performances they can see during their visit (there's a show every 45 minutes!). The first trick? Getting in. Sadly, you have to be a member or be invited by a member, to be admitted into the castle. But, this is LA, where everyone knows someone who knows someone! And up-and-coming magicians are usually more than happy to fill the seats to their shows. So ask around and we bet you have a friend who has a magician's number in their phone. You can also make a weekend of it: Guests of the next-door Magic Castle Hotel get an automatic pass to the Castle.
Dinner at the Castle is offered nightly, but for the sake of your kids' bedtime, we recommend going for the Sunday brunch, which offers a slew of kid-friendly faves including chicken tenders, grilled cheese, waffles and French fries. Of course, no magic is needed to get the kids to finish dessert, a sugary buffet that includes a self-serve ice cream station and trays of sweets. Once you've eaten, you can head down for the show and/or explore the nooks and crannies of the place. Don't miss out on the ghostly piano player, which takes requests.
Note: Your meal includes a ticket to the main stage show, which is the biggest and most extravagant of the shows, but hang around for more; there are two other stages where smaller close-up magic acts take place. If your kids are lucky, they'll be chosen as magician's assistants (sitting in the first few rows helps). And FYI: The dress code is strictly enforced. If your attire is not up to snuff, you'll be asked to change.
Read Red Tricycle's review of brunch at the Magic Castle here.
7001 Franklin Ave.
Once you sell your kids on the idea that you're going to Downtown Disney without actually going to Disneyland (Shhh, don't tell them it's JUST RIGHT THERE!), they'll have too much to look at to protest. Huge elephants loom against the wall, a giant snake lurks in the vines above, a giant gorilla huffs and puffs at passersby. There are trickling waterfalls, a forest of trees, and a walk-through fish tank that'll, at the least, keep your kids mesmerized while you wait for your table. Don't be surprised when the lights dim for periodic thunderstorms—don't worry; nobody gets wet. Oh, and make sure kids see the bar counter chairs, which are designed to look like various animal butts (sorry, but it's just cute not to mention).
As for the food: Expect large portions of (somewhat overpriced) all-American specialties including hefty burgers loaded with toppings, cheese-and-salsa topped nachos, fried shrimp, and mashed potatoes, etc...with a kids menu supplying the usual staples like mac 'n cheese, grilled cheese, burgers, and pizza. Of course, there's a store, where you can shell out a few more bucks so your kid can have some Rainforest swag.
Hint: Make sure to get your parking ticket validated; spending more than $20 at any Downtown Disney table-service restaurant gets you five hours of free parking. Also, since this place is almost always crowded, it's best to make a reservation by calling ahead of time. Online reservations can only be made for breakfast or lunch; to make reservations for dinner, call (714) 772-0413.
Not going to Anaheim anytime soon? There's also a Rainforest Cafe at Ontario Mills.Details:
1515 S Disneyland Dr. (inside Downtown Disney)
When you walk into the four-story Clifton's Cafeteria, a quirky downtown eatery that's been serving up randomness (and food) for more than 80 years, you and your kids won't know what to do first. Do you want to marvel at the collection of taxidermy animals and hidden dioramas spread throughout the space? Check out the actual billion-year-old meteorite perched on the third-floor bar? Stand at the foot of the giant replica redwood tree that stretches up through the whole building? There's a reason that Clifton's is called a "Cabinet of Curiosities," and we'd guess it has something to do with the fact that you'd be hard-pressed to find all that's hidden in all these crazy nooks and crannies. Of course, you can try (Hint: Let your kids find the cave), and that's what keeps people coming back again and again.
But first you should eat. Clifton's is (perhaps secondarily) a restaurant, after all. And the massive ("World's largest!") cafeteria on its first floor offers enough eats to satisfy everyone in your brood — from hot dogs and pizza to prime rib and roast beef, plus classic cafeteria desserts like lemon meringue pie and fifth-grade-style jello cups. Your tray will be filled. Just saying.
Once you get your grub, head up to the third floor and seat yourself down at a table beneath the majestic taxidermy lion, who stands, stuffed and ready to (not) pounce. Once your bellies are full, it's time to explore. You'll notice that the whole restaurant is done up in a woodlands forest theme, with trees both painted on the walls and sprouting from the ground alongside rocks, boulders, and shrubbery. If it all feels a bit like Disneyland, there's a reason for that: The place was reportedly a favorite of Walt Disney's when it opened in the 1930s. And, according to Clifton's website, the dining hall was the "original fantasy environment that helped inspire Walt Disney to create Disneyland nearly two decades later."
Read Red Tricycle's full review of Clifton's here.
648 S. Broadway
PIrate's Dinner Adventure
In case you haven't noticed, Orange County has a thing for themed restaurants. Located practically RIGHT NEXT DOOR to Medieval Times (because if you like one, you're bound to like the other, right?), the Pirate's Dinner Adventure sets out to entertain little seafarers with a swashbuckling dinner show that kids will love, especially if they're fans of Captain Hook, Jack Sparrow, or the Neverland Pirates. Your kids will be sold the moment they walk into the main arena and see the stage, a massive pirate ship set that makes the whole place feel small in comparison. Of course, the journey (and spending opportunities) begin way before the theater doors open. Get there 90 minutes early to enjoy a selection of free appetizers which include fried zucchini, fried corn cakes, and other fried stuff that kids will love and you'll love for the sake of it being free. Then, about 30 minutes before showtime, there's the Pirate's "Pre-Show," which gets everyone warmed up to the story (someone is kidnapped!) and ends with a pirate-led walk into the theater.
The show itself is a mixture of choreographed sword battles, short songs, silly pirate banter (including at least two cues for the audience to raise their mugs and "Drink! Drink!"), and circus-style performances including two aerial silk acts and a trampoline bit that'll make kids wish they could go up on stage and jump around. There's also a whole lot of fighting, though we found it harmless enough, and even kids will be able to see that the stage fights are, well, staged (many of the "hits" were noticeably a few inches off). The story is a bit hard to follow: The princess has been kidnapped! But wait, she's in love with a pirate! And oh, there's the Loch Ness Monster! It's, honestly, a bit all over the place, but your kids will be riveted just the same.
Like Medieval Times, everyone gets a pirate to root for, which gives kids a vested interest in paying attention (and makes the whole thing a lot more fun). So wear your team bandana proudly, Mom and Dad!. If your kids are lucky, they may even get a chance to go on stage; about 30 kids in total are called up at various parts throughout the show. Bring a zoom lens: Your little pirates might be taken backstage, dressed in adorable costumes, then brought back on stage far from where you're sitting. And you'll want pictures. Trust us.
As for the food, which (like Medieval Times) is included in the ticket price: It's good for what it is. Just keep in mind you're here to be wowed by the pirates; not the potatoes. Your meal starts with a choice of soup or salad; entrees include roasted chicken with shrimp and vegetable skewers, mashed potatoes and mixed veggies. Kids meals include chicken nuggets with mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and fruit. Cake is the dessert (and our kids literally licked their plates). Vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free meals are available.
Note: We think the show is appropriate for kids over 5, though sensitive kids or those who don't like loud noises may get scared at the cannon blasts and the appearance of a sea monster toward the end of the show.
7600 Beach Blvd.
Did we miss one of your favorite themed restaurants? Tell us in the comments below!