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Family-friendly (and cool) restaurants

Think you can’t eat at the buzziest restaurants in town with kids? We tried, and (most of the time) it went better than we hoped.

Photo: Erica Gannett
Models: Noah Guardado, John Almonte and January Almonte

Avec
615 W Randolph St (312-377-2002)
With a four-year-old and a baby
Total time One hour
With communal tables and a no-reservations policy, Avec seems to beg you to leave the kids at home. But if bringing them was a faux pas, the staff—from the hostess who explained the best place to put the baby’s car seat to the waitress who noticed the four-year-old coloring in a tiny notebook and brought larger paper—was too polite to let it show. However, no amount of solicitous attention can turn chicken liver pâté into chicken nuggets; the preschooler, eyeing the food doubtfully, asked, “What am I going to eat?” The answer turned out to be bacon, removed from the famed Medjool dates, and bread. Other diners shared her skepticism, casting a few “what are they doing here?” glances our way, though our visit was over by 5:30pm.
Verdict We’ll go back, but even earlier next time.
—Rebecca Maughan

Girl & the Goat
809 W Randolph St (312-492-6262)
With two seven-year-olds
Total time two hours 
A few threatening (ahem, encouraging) words on the way over to It Girl Stephanie Izard’s next-to-impossible-to-get-into restaurant may have helped get our evening off to a good start. It helped, too, that the staff (alerted that our party would include two kids) sat us at a table tucked near a divider, though not out of the way. But even if my kids had full-blown tantrums, the overall noise level would have prevented almost anyone from hearing them. I let them lead the way when we ordered, and they went crazy for the ham frites and sauteed green beans with fish sauce vinaigrette, not so much the goat masala pizza or baby octopus—which they tried to hide in a napkin to bring to show-and-tell. (We decided in advance the signature pig face was too much—for all of us.) My favorite part? Watching their faces when I told them the ice cream atop a bittersweet chocolate cake they loved so much was shitake flavored. “Mushrooms?!,” one of them shrieked. “So gross. But also so good.”
Verdict If we can score reservations again in this lifetime, we’ll  definitely bring the whole gang back.—Judy Sutton Taylor

Nightwood
2119 S Halsted St (312-526-3385)
With One 15-month-old
Total time 1.5 hours
Our son has lately adopted the habit of swinging his hand in the air and shouting, “Hi,” at the arrival of someone, anyone, to his line of sight. So we were a little nervous about how he’d be received, perched on the hip highchair in Nightwood’s elegant atmosphere. Luckily, though, our 5:30pm reservation found us among like-minded parents, and the woman on a date across the aisle was happy to wave back about 100 times. The vegan parents caused more headaches than our son, who was content to munch on the buttery biscuit they brought him, or our off-menu, chef-conjured vegan pasta. But the server couldn’t have been more pleasant given that we brought a 15-month-old, couldn’t eat anything on the regular menu, and the winter season made adapting dishes difficult.
Verdict It went as smoothly as could be expected, with none of the nightmares I’d been warned of (kid making a scene, difficulty finding him something to eat) materializing. No one told me, though, how weird it would be to finally gaze across a candlelit table of a fancy restaurant for the first time in 15 months and find the big brown eyes of a toddler staring back.—Jonathan Messinger

Owen & Engine
2700 N Western Ave (773-235-2930)
With A 10-year-old and 14-year-old
Total time two hours
When I heard about the rustic charm, classic comfort food and cask-conditioned ales at this Logan Square spot, I cast aside the notion that a gastropub might not be the best dinner spot for my kids. Turns out a pub, or at least this one, is a perfectly lovely place for family dinner. Our hostess was unfazed by the sight of children and instead said she’d been waiting to seat a party of six in a second-floor private room that looks exactly what my English grandmother’s house would look like…if I had an English grandmother. When my youngest spilled his Sprite on the gorgeous Persian rug, our server politely picked it up and offered a refill.
Verdict The kids couldn’t get enough of the Fish and Chips and Bangers and Mash, and we couldn’t get over how much better this was than another trip to Buffalo Wild Wings.—Amy Carr

Purple Pig
500 N Michigan Ave (312-464-1744)
With A 10-year-old and 14-year-old
Total time 2.5 hours
Asking a 10-year-old to eat pork neck bone gravy or roasted beets with goat cheese is a bit like asking a foodie to eat chicken nuggets, but we gave it a shot anyway. It didn’t take long to discover that a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach was the best way to go here. Much of the menu could have been written in a foreign language as far as both kids were concerned, but the oldest gobbled up everything—from shaved brussels sprouts to the deep-fried deviled egg (and then promptly went home and made a huge sandwich), and the youngest ordered seconds of the fried prosciutto bread balls and raved about the grilled octopus and chicken kebabs.
Verdict For older kids willing to try new things, Purple Pig is big fun, but the tight quarters, no reservations policy, long waits and eclectic menu could spell trouble for younger kids.—Amy Carr

Ruxbin
851 N Ashland Ave (312-624-8509)
With One two-and-a-half year old
Total Time  1.25 hours
Knowing that BYOB Ruxbin was small, popular and didn’t take reservations, we hit it slightly early (6:15ish) on a cold Thursday night—finding a surprising number of open tables. The indie playlist on the house system (recent Teenage Fanclub) provided a nice noisy backdrop that countered our son’s spontaneous expressions of good cheer. While our server suggested the pork and beans dish might suit our little one, the boy didn’t get much further than destroying half our order of garlic fries with chipotle aioli—despite our entreaties and assurances that he’d love the seared trout and braised short rib. While the menu was too sophisticated for a toddler—he gave us a disgusted face after trying the lychee panna cotta—he did feel comfortable and let us enjoy our meal. The staff seemed content to have us there, even letting us know the fresh bread pudding would be ten minutes in case we had to hop.
Verdict A great outing for the ’rents, but not at all a kid’s idea of indulgence—we stopped for a hot dog on the way home.—John Dugan

XOCO
449 N Clark St (312-334-3688)
With Three seven-year-olds and an infant
Total time 1.25 hours
The windy lines outside Rick Bayless’ always-packed Mexican street food spot daunted, but didn’t deter, our group on a recent cold afternoon. The kids’ ears perked up when one of the line wranglers informed us that we could order hot chocolate, churros and chips and guac to sustain us during our wait. But the last 10 minutes of our 40 minutes in line were filled with constant whining. (Baby, wrapped in her Bjorn, didn’t budge.) Most of the tortas were too sophisticated for our gang of picky palates, but the Jamon (requested minus black beans) tasted “like super-fancy and delicious ham and cheese” and prompted a request for a return visit.
Verdict We’ll return, but maybe next time for breakfast, when crowds are less of an issue.—JST

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