Dining out doesn’t have to be a snooze fest. Want a place your kid’s imagination can truly run wild? As the weather chills and you’re looking for fresh ideas for fun family time, immerse yourselves in different worlds at these themed restaurants that range from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory-esque to an aviation adventure. Sure, we know these spots can sometimes be sensory overload, mostly for parents, but embrace it. Who says you have to be serious all the time, anyway?
SafeHouse, Chicago’s super secret, spy-themed restaurant, is packed with family fun, food, missions and even a "spycial" menu for junior spies. While your agents-in-training wait for their food, they're encouraged to investigate all the secret passageways and interactive gadgets. But first up, you have to crack the code to enter or be subjected to whatever shenanigans the gatekeeper requests of your dinner mates. It’s an incredibly fun covert mission the family won't soon forget.
60 E. Ontario, River North
Take your kids for the smiley-est meal in Chicago at Wow Bao, which specializes in steamed bao (aka Asia's most favorite portable Chinese snack). Available at the Clark & Diversey, State & Division, and 200 N. Michigan locations, children under ten can enjoy the grinning Lil’ Bunz Meal ($5.99), which includes jasmine white rice, two mini teriyaki chicken bao, one ginger chicken potsticker and one baby carrot.
JoJo's Milk Bar
River North's most delicious new resident, JoJo's Milk Bar brings Chicago a nostalgic take on creative desserts and a reimagined and elevated take on classic diner fare. Along with deliciously whimsical desserts, you'll find tongue-and-cheek decor including a lifesize Lite Brite wall, Got Milk mural and more. New to the menu is the Brunch Shake, featuring an Oreo espresso base and cookie crumb collar. But the toppings are the real icing on the (pan)cake: whipped cream, a toasted waffle, a golden French toast stick and crispy Maplewood bacon — all the ingredients for a well-balanced brunch.
23 W. Hubbard, River North
American Girl Cafe
If your child is forever with doll in-tow, their mind will be blown by this cute little cafe inside the mega downtown flagship of American Girl Place. Dolls have their own “treat seats” complete with place setting and bright centerpieces. Every meal starts with welcome cinnamon buns and there are great choices for the kids and yummy entrees for the parents. Kids even get to take home a momento. The store just added two new experiences, a doll hospital and salon. So, schedule your doll for a bit of pampering and a free wellness check. This spot is incredibly popular with out-of-towners. Book weeks in advance if you are looking for a weekend or take advantage of less crowded weekday times.
835 N. Michigan Ave., Mag Mile
Calling all Chocolate lovers! Every dish at this adventurous eatery in Gurnee includes chocolate as an ingredient — from the Cocoa Chili to the Turkey, Mozzarella and Cocoa Candied Bacon Flatbread Sandwich. The pastry and chocolate team is always at work, so request a table near the action and your kids will be entertained as the splendid chefs work their magic making homemade cakes, puddings, truffles and more. The real entertainment, however, is the dessert menu: a magical chocolate fountain flowing with your choice of white, milk or dark chocolate will be brought directly to your table, as well as an assortment of dipping items including housemade marshmallows, Rice Krispys, sable biscuits and fresh fruit, just waiting to be dipped.
5101 Washington St., Gurnee
Kings Dining & Entertainment
Kings Dining & Entertainment features everything you need to keep the kids entertained, including luxury ten-pin bowling lanes, a full-service restaurant, HDTVs and HD projector screens for all the sports action, billiards tables, shuffleboard, foosball and air hockey tables. Call ahead to make a Dine Then Bowl dinner reservation. If everyone in your group orders an entrée or equivalent, your party will be moved to the top of the bowling wait list.
1500 N. Clybourn Ave., #c102, Lincoln Park
5505 Park Place, Rosemont
It's just about everyone's favorite theme in food — Mexican! Fat Rosie's opened their second location close to downtown Naperville's popular riverwalk. The 3,500-square-foot restaurant features retractable garage doors creating an indoor/outdoor space that's perfect for fun, warm-weather eats. Their menu covers everything from empanadas to enchiladas in addition to the much-loved margaritas and free chips and salsa while you wait to feast. We'd recommend starting with the nachos, with or without meat, as an app and the cauliflower tacos are great for any vegetarian or vegan eaters in your crew. If you have a member of the family with a large appetite, challenge them to the enormous, 3lb El Patron Gordo Burrito, which is free to guests that can eat it in under 12 minutes! Kids that need distracting will get a kick out of the sombreros available for photo opps and the stuffed donkey over the bar that engages diners at random.
47 E. Chicago Ave., Naperville
It’s a bird, it’s a plane . . . wait it actually IS a plane. This aviation-themed restaurant is located at the Schaumburg Regional Airport and the windows give a panoramic view of the bustling runway where your little ones can be mesmerized by take-offs and landings. The bright interior is also dotted with model planes and other flying things that are fun for kids to point out. The everything-made-from-scratch menu is extensive with everything from “World Famous” chicken tenders with top secret honey mustard to fall-off-the-bone ribs with a mango guava BBQ sauce. Check out wait times before you go (and get in a virtual line) via the no wait app they have so there can be more time enjoying the views and less time in line.
905 W. Irving Park Rd., Schaumburg
We won’t tell if you are secretly more excited about this one than your kiddos. After all, they may only know about Pac Man because mommy or daddy told them. But they’ll soon realize how cool this chomping little yellow circle is when they get a chance to play an “old school” joystick game (and there is bowling too!). And shh…parents, you may want to come back here for a date-night sans kids to take advantage of the lounge area and craft cocktails. The dining venue is surprisingly top-notch with sushi and filet, and has a kids menu with choices for every type of kid from “blinky” to “inky.” Early evenings or Sunday brunch works well for families as the later in the evening it gets the less this place is about the kiddos.
Woodfield Mall, Unit A, Schaumburg
House of Blues
Are you ready to rock n’ roll? Then this Marina City concert venue and restaurant is the place to be. Of course, you’d be amiss to bypass the Sunday morning Gospel brunch for a true taste of Southern cooking — chicken and waffles for the family — and live gospel music that will have your kids up and clapping between each bite. Tickets must be reserved through Ticketmaster and everyone needs a seat. If you call and reserve (you can’t do it online for the littles, unfortunately) kids under 5 can be seated for free. And, a portion of the proceeds support the arts and music for underserved youth.
329 N. Dearborn St., Downtown
Dylan's Candy Bar
The good ship lollipop pales in comparison to this brightly colored modern candy haven complete with a ginormous lollipop tree. Although it may be nearly impossible to dodge the candy from the get-go, head into the cafe for a light meal in a sweet spot. You’ll feel like you are swirling in a rainbow of deliciousness as you order a variety of snackable selections from burgers to flatbreads. If you feel like throwing dinner out the window altogether, the over-the-top desserts are a kiddos dream from dessert pizza to a 10-scoop sundae. If your kids love it and don’t want to leave, they also host birthday parties which includes a candy spree through the store.
663 N. Michigan Ave., Mag Mile
If your kids can’t sit still, no big deal, you won’t want to either once you hear the nightly live entertainment in this lively, expansive German beer hall. Waitresses don cute Bavarian outfits and everyone quickly befriends each other while munching on giant Bavarian pretzels (kids can also order the tinier version — pretzel bites) It’s like being transported to another country without leaving the ‘burbs. As an extra bonus, go on Tuesdays when the little ones eat free the entire day.
5500 Park Place, Rosemont
Lucky Strike Social
Lucky Strike Entertainment debuted its latest creation, Lucky Strike Social at Wrigleyville, with sweet views of Wrigley Field. This 30,000-square-foot social space brings together chef-driven food and craft beverages with eight Lucky Strike Lanes, over 100 electronic gaming systems including the exclusive Daytona Championship USA Motion SDLX, a first in the world of its kind, ping pong and pool tables, air hockey, board games, a very addictive basketball Connect Four and more. Tip: If you have a chance to visit during the day when school is in session, you have very little competition to play the games.
1027 W. Addison St., Lakeview
For date night you’ll want to run far away from this spot, but it’s one of those joints that every kid needs to experience . . . if even just once. The behemoth frog on the outside of the building is unmissable and inside is larger than life too. There is no stone left unturned when it comes to catering to kids. An expansive kid menu, various mascots and even an exploding volcano dessert that even you will secretly love. This spot is a mega-tourist destination so try popping by on a weeknight to avoid massive crowds or head out to the slightly less intense suburban locations in Gurnee or Schaumburg.
605 N. Clark St., River North
6170 W. Grand Ave., Gurnee
D121 Woodfield Mall, Schaumburg
The sweetest of the sweet-tooths will be satisfied when meal time leads you to Sugar Factory. With nearly a 40-page menu, there’s no need for a separate kid’s menu, but several food options can be prepared in smaller portions if you ask. Kids will think they're on a trip to heaven with drinks served in goblets — with and without alcohol for the parents — candy galore, milkshakes, ice cream, chocolate fondue and, oh yes, the insane milkshake that includes a chocolate covered glass and anything from a burger to a Twinkie on top.
55 E. Grand Ave., River North
5455 Park Place, Rosemont
Punch Bowl Social
Schedule a date, in fact, make it a double. Punch Bowl Social brought their eat-drink-play concept that’s no-fail fun for family dates to the West Loop. You’ll find made-from-scratch dishes and craft beverages paired with throw-back social activities like shuffleboard, Ping-Pong, marbles, 80s video games, bowling, virtual reality and skee-ball in an urban and eclectic atmosphere. The fun is family appropriate until 10 p.m. and then it’s big kids only.
310 N. Green St., West Loop
— Amy Bizzarri & Samantha Lande
Featured photo: JoJo’s Milk Bar