If you are like us and frequently ate out a lot when it was just the two of you, you will find it a completely different ball game when it comes to eating out with a young child or children. Some restaurants’ vibe will be completely snooty of families with young children while others will welcome you and your food-throwing child with patient, loving arms. It becomes almost imperative that you find out early which restaurants are kid-friendly and which are not.
This article is written is written for tourists with kids, people on short-term travel and family vacationers who are looking for kid-friendly restaurants during their short holiday in Chicago city or the downtown area.
If you are a local Chicago resident, our recommendations would be slightly different for you. The reason for this is because local residents with families have different interests compared to tourists. For family tourists (especially first-time family tourists to Chicago), they desire a great dining experience while being able to see as much as possible of Chicago.
These recommendations are also not intended for ‘foodie families’, that is, families who mainly eat at Michelin-starred restaurants. Instead, these recommendations are for your average family who travels on a budget but who still loves dining out.
Best 3 Kid-Friendly Restaurants for Short-Term Visitors in Chicago City & Downtown
The Rainforest Café is on the top of our list because it is like visiting a Disneyland-style restaurant. However, instead of Disney characters, you will be greeted by an Amazon-rainforest-type atmosphere. Funnily, this restaurant does have a branch in Disneyland, Anaheim too.
Don’t worry about not spotting it. If you drive or walk past Rainforest Café, you won’t miss the gigantic green frog with red eyes (named Cha! Cha!) perched on the side of the roof.
Once you walk through its doors, there are gigantic bubble water tanks that greet you on the way in as well as a fake, moving crocodile hiding in a small pool at the bottom of a mini waterfall.
The restaurant itself is two levels. You should definitely sit upstairs! If you have a stroller, you can leave it downstairs near the entrance.
Upstairs, there are more rainforest animal displays including moving elephants and gorillas that make lifelike sounds! There are other rainforest/safari animals that stick out from the walls including zebras, rhinos, macaws and colorful birds. You will be dining underneath a rainforest canopy resplendent with leaves. A ‘thunderstorm’ occurs a few times during your meal where some lights in the restaurant start flashing and the animals of the rainforest start to trumpet, scream and make other animal sounds. The tables have rainforest-theme prints on them and your kid will be given a similar themed coloring sheet and crayons.
The food itself is diner-style with sandwiches, burgers, fish and chips and salad choices. There are a few desserts too but with limited options. There are lots of choices of drinks. There is a kids menu where you get to design your kids meal with healthier choices. We felt the food was just slightly above average, but overpriced. A fish and chips will set you back by about $18 and sandwiches by about $15.
While you are dining, there will be a rainforest-themed character walking around from table to table so that you can have a photo. There are also a few guys who come around to make a balloon for your child. There is so much going on, your child (and you!) won’t get bored.
On the way out, there is also a retail shop that is almost as fun as the restaurant itself. You just need to stop your child (and yourself) from buying everything in there!
Just a word of caution, it can get pretty crazy during birthday parties or during busy times. For some young children (and parents), it might be too full-on. However, you can choose to go during quieter times for a less full-on experience.
All in all, if you haven’t been here before, you need to bring your child here.
We had to include R.J. Grunts on our list because it is a popular family diner just opposite the Lincoln Zoo. In case you didn’t know, the Lincoln Park Zoo is free admission. Not just for kids, for EVERYONE. And yes, it’s worth visiting.
So after your kids get tired of staring and waving at the animals, you can take them to R.J. Grunts which is literally across the street, and about 5 minutes walk away.
R.J. Grunts is like a diner for families. It plays a little louder background music so that the protest and cries of your child will not disturb other guests as much. If you are bringing a stroller, you will be required to leave it outside but don’t worry. They provide a lock to secure your stroller.
Your kids will be provided with crayons and an activity sheet (coloring, Sudoku, maze-hunting) that also acts as a kid’s menu. You can customize your kid’s meal with a few pre-set options such as choosing between mac n cheese or grilled chicken. All kid’s menus come with a drink, either milk or a juice.
No visit to Chicago is complete without checking out their blues music. However, you may be worried about whether such dining places would be suitable for young kids.
Your answer is the House of Blues, and specifically the Back Porch area.
Not only do they start the music early (at 5pm when we last checked) but it’s kid-friendly. You can reserve a table in advance which is probably a good idea as you don’t want to wait in line with young kids.
The performances vary from evening to evening and you can leave before the night crowd starts.
So these are our top 3 choices for kid-friendly restaurants for short-term visitors in Chicago.
Kid-Friendly Restaurant for Chicago Locals
We also have to make a mention of Portillo’s. This place is extremely popular with local families as it serves kid favorites like hot dogs, burgers, fries and ice cream for very decent prices. It has several locations all over Chicago. It doesn’t provide kid-specific activities like some of the other restaurants mentioned above but some locations do have some more interesting décor that your kids might like looking at. Definitely worth a visit if you are going to be staying longer in Chicago and just want a decent bite to eat at a good price.
One Word of Caution
You may see recommendations from others that Carnivale is a kid-friendly restaurant. We went to check it out ourselves and I need to warn you that we didn’t consider this restaurant suitable for kids.
This place is indeed interesting, colorful, full of life and lots of fun BUT it is NOT suitable for kids. In our opinion, the ambience is really suited for people who are at least 16 years old. The walls are littered with pictures of women in suggestive poses or dress and if you visit during a special occasion like Mardi Gras night, there is live dancing where the performers are performing and dressed in skimpy outfits ala Las Vegas-style.
Don’t get me wrong, the place is totally fun and worth checking out, but I would not recommend it as kid-friendly. There is no special kids menu, play area or activities and we truly don’t think that it was designed for kids. The staff completely welcome children if you were to bring them but again, they have great customer service and I don’t think that they would ever be so rude as to suggest that it may not be appropriate for kids.
Of course, you may feel that the dancing and dress is completely fine for your child but we finished our dinner rather quickly and left as soon as we could.