Which Columbus eateries are kid-friendly? Almost all of them can be, with proper planning.

The phrase “kid-friendly restaurant” has become practically pejorative. Parents use the term as shorthand for any dining establishment where families with young children can largely (and affordably) escape the haughty glares of adult diners—a place where kid conversations blend in with the background din.

If visions of messes or meltdowns have kept you confined to counter service and avoiding Columbus' best food, fear not: Restaurateurs say that with a little planning, parents can bring children along to virtually any sit-down spot. Not only is it a treat for you, table-service dining can expose children to new tastes and experiences and help them build good manners. (There's nothing wrong with pizza night or drive-thru days, but it's always good to have more options.)

We asked local parents, a dining critic and restaurant staffers for tips on when and where to go and other advice to make your dinner out a success rather than a shipwreck.

When to Go

Sometimes it feels like 90 percent of successful parenting is just good planning. Dining out is no different: Strategy is essential for a pleasant experience.

First, consider optimal days and times. The same restaurant can have vastly different moods depending on the occasion and hour. For example, a family is likely to feel out of place having Valentine's Day dinner at a white tablecloth steakhouse, but may fit right in at the same eatery's more casual Sunday brunch or an early seating on a non-peak day.

Wait time is also an important factor. Lea Delaveris, a Dublin mom of 5- and 8-year-old sons, said it plays a big role in her family's dining decisions. “Either make a reservation or go at a time that's not busy, because you're going to blow their patience on the wait for the table and the meal will be tougher,” she said. When in doubt, call the restaurant and politely inquire about current wait times.

Dining Downtown? Make sure sporting events, conventions or concerts won't throw a wrench into your plans. Delaveris has used crowds to her advantage, choosing a spot where lively kid chatter wouldn't disturb other customers. “We recently did Nada in the Arena District. That was nice because we hit it on a [Columbus Blue Jackets] hockey night, so there was a little more hustle and bustle there. We ordered mostly adult menu items but a couple of kid quesadillas, too—which were amazing, by the way—and ate and shared and enjoyed it all.”

Todd Cumbow, managing partner at Lindey's Restaurant & Bar in German Village, takes a practical perspective. “It's really just about good common sense,” he said. “We welcome family guests every day, but definitely see the most families during brunch. Valentine's night or New Year's Eve, just anything really crazy or busy, is just maybe not the best time for parents. We think nothing of having families with young children on other holidays like Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Mother's Day. We try to be a place that accommodates children. We would never deter or tell people they can't come.”

Brian Scheren, regional director for Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, said that while brunch is one of the most popular meals for families, they're welcome anytime. When deciding when and where to go, he said, “It's more about increasing the guest's enjoyment. Fridays and Saturdays are busier, though we're busy all the time. Earlier is always best, especially if it's new and the children are just learning to eat out. There are generally more tables available and shorter waits. We see most children before 8 p.m., so anytime earlier than that is very appropriate.”

Scheren recommends making a reservation and noting if there are young children in your group, since safety regulations and dining room layouts limit where high chairs can be placed. If the restaurant doesn't accept reservations or it's an impromptu visit, even a 15-minute call-ahead can be helpful to both you and the staff. If you prefer a booth or patio seating or a particular room or table, let the host know so they can help make you and other diners comfortable.

Expert Advice

Restaurant managers concurred that the biggest tip for parents is just to relax. Cumbow explained: “We all have children: Our executive chef has four kids. I have two kids. Our sous chef has two kids. Our executive sous chef has two kids. We have children, so we try to be understanding and children-friendly. A good rule of thumb is that a parent worries more than others generally pay attention to them.”

Scheren agreed. “A lot of time … the parents want to clean up for their child. Allow us to take care of that for you. We see a lot of children and we're used to that. Even in the rare case where a child gets sick, again, that's not something to be embarrassed over, that's the reality of serving people. The server will clean up. That's part of taking care of the guest.”

Parents shouldn't feel awkward about asking for the food to come out in a certain order, or using a device such as a smartphone (on mute or with headphones) to entertain kids while they wait. Everyone we spoke to agreed this is an acceptable strategy that shouldn't disturb other diners.

John Marshall, a dining critic for Columbus Monthly and parent of two teenagers, also offered another suggestion. “If we were at a restaurant where I knew we would be in for a bit of a wait, I would bring fresh fruit along and small games to keep them occupied,” he said.

Delaveris carries a small notepad and a few crayons in her purse, and keeps a backup “bag of tricks” in the car that contains a Magna Doodle and other supplies, just in case.

Regardless of where you're dining, there is one rule that must be heeded: Children should stay seated for the entire meal (restroom trips aside, of course). “If they're getting restless, walking them around for a moment is fine,” Scheren said. “But it's important to keep diners at the table. It's unsafe for them and our staff to have them roaming below adult eye level amidst trays, food and a busy dining room of people.”

Where to Go

Marshall recommended exposing kids to all kinds of different foods and dining experiences and considering it part of their education. It's something he did with his own children. “We would get them something they want, but maybe order things to share at the table and encourage them to taste. We also take a lot of their friends out with them. In some ways, they show off for their friends; it makes it easier for them when a peer is willing to eat something.”

New to dining out with the youngsters? Start with a lively, accessible spot, such as Dirty Frank's Hot Dog Palace, Max & Erma's or 101 Beer Kitchen, and work in more adventurous choices as their comfort level rises. Marshall said kids tend to like the sights and tastes of sushi bars, and there are many staple menu dishes that don't contain raw fish. Indian buffets offer the advantage of no wait, with plenty of chicken, vegetable and bread options.

Wherever you choose, Marshall advised, avoid ruling out destinations for the wrong reasons. “Don't decide not to go to any restaurant with your kids because you think it's too serious, fancy, quiet or white tablecloth. I don't know of any restaurant that discourages kids.”