If you know anything about me, you know I like good food. It’s no surprise we have made it of chief importance to expose our kids to great eats from a young age. Kids are notoriously picky eaters, but in our house we have one rule: You have to at least taste the food. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it, but you do have to try it. This has helped our kids slowly ease their way out of the chicken nugget zone and into the good stuff like calamari, sushi, kale, and goat cheese. In fact, I think our oldest may be more of a foodie than I am. Naturally, we always get asked what the best family friendly restaurants in our region are. That’s why I’m beginning an ongoing list of some of our favorite spots to chow down with the kids in tow. Make sure to check back regularly, as this list is expected to grow. Bonus! Executive Chef Ian Lynch weighs in with his “must haves” for restaurants he’s willing to bring his kids to.
Mezza enjoys neighborhood status in Atlantic Beach. The popular Town Center it’s housed in is home to a growing number of tasty foodie destinations. Mezza is more well known as an upscale dining destination, however the locals are in on one of the best kept secrets in town. For a more affordable night out that is also kid friendly, reserve a seat in the lounge area or patio and bring the kids to the pizza bar. There they will enjoy working with the pizza chef to create their own wood fired masterpiece. Mom and Dad can order a pizza too and you’ll get away with dining out for a song. Of all the pizza I’ve enjoyed in our city, Mezza’s is my favorite.
Tip- Reservations are suggested. Be prepared to to Valet, parking is tricky.
Ashes is one of the most charming family friendly spots at the Beaches. This intimate tea room welcomes all ages to enjoy a pot of tea and some tasty nibbles on any occasion that inspires. We have a standing tradition of celebrating birthday lunch out at Ashes, but really, any excuse is a good excuse to taste her homestyle goodness. It’s not uncommon to see little princesses enjoying a special birthday party, lunch out with grandma, or special tea time playdate. Dana, the owner makes each guest feel welcome and at home in this little cottage by the sea. Don’t miss out on the boutique, there are some special treasures you won’t want to leave without.
Tip- Ashes takes reservations Monday through Saturday.
The Bearded Pig BBQ is well known city wide as an extremely kid friendly dining destination. This new fast casual concept serves up Austin style BBQ to diners in it’s San Marco location. Outside, guests can enjoy year round patio seating in the Beer Garden. Designed with families in mind, the fencing that surrounds the garden welcomes kids young and old to make their mark with chalk. Misters keep the temps bearable in the summer and twinkling lights set the mood in the evenings. Named one of the best BBQ joints in town, you can feel confident you wont be sacrificing taste when you take the family out for dinner. Seriously, what’s not to love?
Tip- Don’t leave without trying the banana pudding.
At home in “The Sweetest Destination on Earth”, Candy Apple Cafe + Cocktails shares space with extraordinary candy company, Sweet Pete’s. What better place to bring the family for some sweet treats, and foodie favorites? Serving up French cuisine with a decidedly Southern twist, Candy Apple pleases taste buds young and old. We love the colorful, larger than life decor that transports you to another place. No matter your age, you feel like a kid in a colorful dream. The food is decadent and generously served along with colorful cocktails for the grown ups. Don’t leave without dessert, the Candy Apples are out of this world.
Tip- Candy Apple Cafe has the best Mac N Cheese I’ve ever eaten.
St Johns Town Center
Moxie is a favorite of mine for so many reasons, but you may be surprised to know how kid friendly they really are. Being a family owned and operated business, they made sure to create a kids menu that didn’t dumb down the palate of our progeny. You’ll see safe options like Mac-N -Cheese, but also more creative flavor combinations that any young foodie would be impressed by such as BBQ Tempeh and Rainbow Trout. Grab a seat with the kiddos at the Chef’s table for dinner and a show, or reserve a table for brunch on the weekends where they will enjoy their own Kids brunch menu. My littles always enjoy every savory morsel of Moxie’s tasty selections so bring out the culinary aficionado in your little ones with a visit to this local gem.
Tip- Located in the heart of the St Johns Town Center, this is a great spot to stop while shopping.
Burrito Gallery isn’t a new face in Jax, but it’s certainly new to my tastebuds. Ever since they recently opened their new beach location in my neighborhood, my family and I can’t get enough. It has quickly become our never fail family destination due to it’s great location, generous portions of fresh fare, and quick service. We generally opt to dine in the fenced in patio area where the children will enjoy some fresh air and be less of a distraction to other guests. The chips and queso are part of our regular order along with giant salads, perfectly executed quesadilla’s, and very generous House Margarita’s.
Tip- Don’t be fooled by the name, they don’t just excel at Burritos, the entire menu is delish!
Situated in Jacksonville’s historic Riverside neighborhood, modern Italian hot spot Il Desco is the perfect family date night out destination. Bring the fam out for “Kids Night”every Tuesday where children will hand craft their own pizza creations, which will then be cooked to perfection in the restaurants wood fired oven. The open kitchen provides a fun show for the the entire family while you wait for your meal, and the staff is warm, and friendly keeping the entire clan well taken care of and at ease. Il Desco enjoys easy walking access to plenty of shops and businesses nearby and is just a few blocks from the Willowbranch Library and Park.
Tip – Tuesdays also boast all night Happy Hour, the perfect treat for parents ready to wind down.
M Shack is another locally owned establishment pleasing families in a big way. Gourmet burgers and fries are hand crafted and served up with style for diners that demand only the best. M Shack takes special care with the selection of their fresh ingredients and even grinds up their own hormone free Angus beef. Our kids can’t get enough of the all beef hot dogs, sweet potato tots, and fried pickles. My husband is a double bacon cheeseburger man, and I’m addicted to the turkey burger. Whatever you order, you simply can’t go wrong at M Shack.
Tip – Try the made from scratch Ranch dressing or a Hand Spun Milkshake.
It’s easy to think that because a restaurant is located in a resort, that it’s hands off to the locals. Not so at the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort and Spa in Ponte Vedra. This extremely kid friendly resort has multiple dining establishments you are welcome to bring little ones to, but my favorite would have to be the American Gator Club. Situated waterfront, just off the resort’s pool deck, this patio restaurant serves up regional fare with a decidedly tasty twist. Kids will enjoy the variety of Southern inspried small plates like Chili Glazed Gator Nugget Tacos, Buttermilk Fried Chicken Tenders, and Brisket Nachos. Handhelds join the mix with choices like The “Swamp Cuban”, and the massive Sawgrass Smoked Brisket served with slaw on buttered Texas Toast. House made Gator Punch and Sangria are mixed up daily along with other delightful concoctions just for Mom and Dad. One of my favorite Al Fresco best kept secrets in the area, it’s a matter of time before this one goes viral.
Tip- Valet, or enjoy plenty of self parking in the resorts convention center parking lot.
Whether you are a resident or a visitor to Fernandina, Gilbert’s Underground Kitchen belongs on your list of places you must dine at. After a day spent touring the local waterways, we ended up at Gilbert’s to chow down on the highly praised Southern fare. All the classics are there including BBQ, Shrimp and Grits, Fried Green Tomato’s, and Pimiento Cheese. Celebrity Chef Kenny Gilbert celebrates his roots with inspired fare, and at home surroundings in an atmosphere that invites you to pull up a seat and stick around a bit. Every detail is tastefully selected including made from scratch sides, and cane sugar lemonade. Bonus! Now kids 6 and under eat free from the new Little Rascals Menu. A rare treat indeed!
Tip – Craving some BBQ but want to stick closer to Jacksonville proper? Check out Chef Kenny’s new spot Gilbert’s Social in Jacksonville’s Southside.
Considered “The Best Upscale Dive” you’ll ever visit, Cap’s On the Water is a locally celebrated institution. Although I’ve lived in the region for 20 plus years, I had the honor for the first time last year to enjoy a meal on Cap’s famous deck. Nothing can prepare you for the stunning sunset underneath the old oak trees in this authentic “Old Florida” experience. During low tide kids can find their way to the old cedar tree still standing in the sands below the deck and climb to their hearts content. The newly rebuilt dock also invites curious visitors to take a romantic walk over the intracoastal waters. The menu is extensive and includes the freshest regional catch, and the largest wine list in the area. If you haven’t had the pleasure, you are truly missing out.
Tip – The best experience is dining outside. Make sure to reserve your seat in advance.
Need more advice on what to look for when choosing a quality spot for dining with the family? As LeVar Burton says, “Don’t take my word for it.” Here are some tips from a pro.
Expert Advice from Executive Chef,
and Father of Three, Ian Lynch:
It’s very difficult for my wife and I to eat out with the kids. We still want fresh, quality food, but in a kid-friendly atmosphere where we’re not going to feel guilty for bringing in three small, mostly well behaved kids. We all have our moments!
When my wife and I head out to eat with our kids, there are four things we usually factor:
Noise level. We need a casual restaurant that carries a good energy just in case our kids are extra energetic.
Kid–friendly options. My wife and I are lucky that our kids will eat foods that aren’t just on the kid’s menu, but we still need options that will keep them happy. All of my kids eat a salad every night and they love fresh vegetables — so a restaurant that only offers pizza, fries, or chicken nuggets for its young guests isn’t going to be our first pick.
Wait time. If a restaurant doesn’t take reservations, then we need to know that the wait times won’t be too long. Kids and waiting just don’t go together well, and a lengthy wait could ruin our chance of eating out altogether.
Proximity to distractions. I think, “ok, what’s our exit strategy if Roan (our youngest child) starts to lose it?” We like casual places like Flying Iguana, because the beach is right outside if Roan needs to burn some crazy off.
And, when all else fails, it’s all about the gimmick! Is there an open kitchen so our kids can watch the chefs cook? Is there a giant school bus inside where they can move around? Can we sit outside where they can people watch? Are the servers fun and open to serving a family with three small children? Can they make their own food? Attitude and ambiance make a huge difference.
Chef Ian Lynch is Executive Chef of Forking Amazing Restaurants
Thank you Chef Lynch for that great advice. I couldn’t agree more! Have great family friendly dining advice to share or a restaurant you think deserves more attention? Give me a shout out in the comments below. You might be featured on my next story.
Enjoy the Journey!
xo- Amy West