From the moment they can hold a fork, most kids are told they shouldn’t play with their food; always looking for a loophole, ours learned fairly quickly that when we go out to eat, he is often allowed to play near it. At home, we aim for distraction-free meals, and of course, we’re all on our best behavior at fancier restaurants. But on casual nights out as a family, the more fun and games available, the better for everyone. Luckily, a growing number of local venues, serving both food and drink, have owners who seem to feel the same way.
For toddlers and preschoolers, that means playspaces, crayons and colorable kid’s menus, for which parents of busy little ones will always be grateful. But there comes a bittersweet time when unscrambling the word “pizza” on an activity menu might no longer hold the same appeal, despite the enduring appeal of the pizza.
For hungry older kids who have upped their restaurant game, we recommend the following spots, where family-friendly dining meets old-fashioned fun, everyone eats and everyone wins.
Kid reviews by Leo, fourth grader at Oxford Elementary School.
Kid review: This is a great place where you can bowl, play pool, video games and all the necessities of life. I also like the food here. I ordered a simple corn dog with fries and fruit punch. The fact that it was in front of bowling really clinched it.
Parent review: A classic Bay Area favorite, Albany Bowl has provided “all the necessities of life” to families, students, leagues and parties since 1949. (It’s also a great place to go with grandparents.) Any day is fun, but Thursdays and Fridays are the best days to head to this old-fashioned bowling alley after school, as games cost only $1.50 per person for walk-ins (check website for times).
Fun: Along with 36 lanes of bowling, there are rentable pool tables, air hockey and a handful of arcade games. Shoe rentals are required for each bowler, and cost $4.50 per pair.
Food: It’s not health food, but kids of all ages are usually happy with retro standards such as pizza, burgers, hot dogs and fries from the chrome-heavy American diner on site, Little J’s. The dedicated kid’s menu also includes chicken and grilled cheese, and choices come with fries and a drink for $6. Be sure to check the website for the café’s hours as they alter throughout the week.
The Broken Rack
Kid review: It has tons of pool tables. The grilled cheese is really good. I love pool and it’s a nice place to learn to play, the tables are all really sleek. A must on any pool player’s list. Warning: Kids can only go at family hour.
Parent review: This family-owned billiards parlor and bar has been a treasured Emeryville fixture since 1998, and expanded into impressive, spacious digs on Peladeau five years ago. It features 20 upscale pool tables, a lively bar scene, and, recently, family billiards hours and a kid- and dog-friendly patio with pingpong.
Fun: Family hours from noon-4 p.m. on weekends allow budding young hustlers to hone their skills in a respectful environment with a bit of an exciting, grown-up edge. Note: Minors should be accompanied by an adult, and call ahead if it’s a big game day to see about table availability.
Food: A tasty, varied bar menu includes tacos, deli-style club sandwiches, fish and chips, build-your-own burgers and big salads. Kids and their families can dine on the outdoor patio anytime it’s open, weather depending, or inside the billiards hall during family hours, noon to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.
East Brother Beer Company
Kid review: It is a great place where the grown-ups can have a little beer while we youngsters can entertain ourselves with games and pingpong.
Parent review: Much of Point Richmond feels family-friendly and old-school in the best way, and East Brother Beer Company extends that chill, welcoming vibe to a cavernous craft brewing operation, where dogs and kids are welcome and games abound.
Fun: Everyone seems to be playing something in this indoor-outdoor, all-weather warehouse of fun. There’s free pingpong, bocce, darts and a handsome pool table ($4 an hour). There are many well-kept board games available free, and even a genius DIY activity board for toddlers made of simple hardware. Bonus: If screens are on the yes list, bring quarters for the vintage arcade games, including pinball, Ms. Pac-Man and Street Fighter II.
Food: Customers can bring in food (we supped on New York-style slices from Raymond’s Pizzeria), and there’s the veeeery popular La Santa Torta food truck on site Wednesday through Sunday, specializing in birria tortas and tacos, not to mention churros filled with dulce de leche. For the grown-ups, East Brother’s craft brews are among the Bay Area’s best, including a refreshing Red Lager, Bo Pils (Bohemian-style pilsner) and Gold IPA.
Public Market Emeryville
Kid review: The Public Market is perfect for any kind of kid’s taste because there’s lots of vendors, and then you can eat and play. I get Super Duper Burger because their burgers are good and their fries are good. Their milkshakes are a little rich for kids, but grown-ups love them.
Parent review: There is no denying the upped sophistication and diversity in Public Market kiosk fare in recent years, to include the popular, central Public Bar by Blush that now hosts brand-new, free parlor games. Ironically, what began as a draw for adults has made dining at the Public Market that much more kid-friendly. Just hand over an ID to the barkeep, no drink purchase necessary, to receive the accessories required for the game you want to play.
Fun: Shuffleboard, pool, air hockey and foosball tables. There are also team quiz nights on Tuesdays for trivia-loving families, and live music certain nights of the week. Check the calendar.
Rialto Cinemas Cerrito
Kid review: It’s really fun to watch a movie while you eat your dinner.
Parent review: The simple pleasure of enjoying budget-friendly dining with the kids in front of a new release on the big screen is tough to beat, especially when the service, comfort level and quality is as appealing as it is at this classic El Cerrito movie theatre, open since 1937 and operated by Rialto since 2009.
Fun: Movies! While you eat! Clean, comfortable seating across the board, including couches depending on the auditorium (there are three screens). Daily matinee prices (before 5:30 p.m.) add even more value. For grown-ups, there’s also a wine bar on site.
Food: Food here is genuinely above average, with heaping sandwiches, creative pizzas, salads and shareable plates such as nachos — as well as beer and wine — delivered quietly while you enjoy your movie. There’s a kid’s menu that includes grilled cheese, chicken tenders and a hot dog on a brioche bun for less than the usual cost of a regular popcorn and soda. That said, the popcorn is also very tasty. (Oakland’s New Parkway Theatre is another option, and a favorite with many locals, but we enjoy the food, stylish Art Deco vibe and easy parking at this El Cerrito family favorite).
Kid review: It is an awesome place where you can play pool and cornhole. I had a burger and fries on the kid’s menu and the flavors are a little strong for kids, but it’s still good. Also, they just have waffle fries, not regular fries. This is a really fun place to go, and it’s so fun that it can get a little crazy a little fast.
Parent review: Parking is easy, counter service is quick, the vibe is laid-back and welcoming, and almost all of Sideshow’s seating is at casual picnic tables, making this a popular neighborhood place to relax al fresco with the family, a burger and a beer.
Fun: Free cornhole, a free outdoor pool table (just give them an ID), tons of sidewalk chalk and a variety of card and board games. In recent weeks they’ve added a junior basketball hoop. Fair warning: Though everyone seems cool with it, this place might be a bit too much fun for a group of kids, especially if they have hit the lemonade a little hard.
Food: Grown-ups like the wings, flavorful burgers and waffle fries, and good salads with pickled vegetables. (There’s also kombucha on tap.) The dedicated kid’s menu offers burgers, grilled cheese or wings for less than $10.
Town Square Eats at Crooked City Cider Taphouse
Kid review: It’s a really fun place with drinks for the grown-ups, pizza for the kids and games for the whole family.
Parent review: We originally headed to Plank in Jack London Square for dinner and bocce on a warm weekday evening, and were told to stake out a table near the beer garden’s bocce court. There, we waited with no service, food or bocce ($24 minimum) for quite some time, even after inquiries, which is probably just as well. Parents: Maybe save Plank for a corporate event or night out with friends? Just not dinner if the kids are hungry, and maybe not on a school night.
We decamped instead for nearby Town Square Eats inside the Crooked City Cider Taphouse. The welcoming interior, quick service and seriously good “bar” food saved the night, as did the free darts, stashes of board games and vintage pinball.
Fun: Rustic furnishings with drawers and cabinets fill the roomy, spotless Crooked City space, hiding games and other surprises. Three pinball games (including Theatre of Magic!) and two tucked-away dartboards comprise a semi-private nook where we all enjoyed our dinner and Dad his flight of craft cider.
Food: A collaboration between the owners of Great China and Perle Wine Bar, Town Square Eats operates out of a dedicated window inside the cider house, and boasts quick, healthful yet truly crafted bar eats — hearty salads, flavorful sandwiches (the Jive Turkey includes a milk bun, lingonberry jam and a layer of crispy chicken skin), with many vegan or gluten-free options. For grown-ups in a different dietary place, get the deliciously unhealthy truffled potato chips, sprinkled with three kinds of caviar and drizzled with crema. Leo had the margherita pizza, a fat slice of pillowy, gooey, filling goodness…from which he dutifully picked off all the fresh basil.
Victory Point Café
Kid review: I love the games here! And the pizza is really cheesy and gooey.
Parent review: The ambient sound at this lively, indoor games café is all analog — laughter, clicking tiles and tumbling dice — as players enjoy classic and new board and card games from the mind-boggling selection available for rent. Though it helps the venue to pay its actual rent, a gaming fee of $5 per player ($7.50 at certain times, check the website) on top of food and drink costs can make a parent wish they could pay with Monopoly money; be sure to budget for family and friends accordingly.
Fun: A vast library of rentable board games, cards, dice of all sorts and other classic gaming accessories for all ages in a roomy and comfortable café.
Food: Larger pizzas for sharing (we got the Just A Cheese Pizza for $14), sandwiches, pastries, salads, vegan options and ice cream, with coffee drinks for the grown-ups to get through that second hour of Ticket to Ride.
Oh, it’s on.