Kid-Friendly Favorites for Family Meals in Orange County

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Orange County’s robust food scene includes a fair share of restaurants with kid-friendly menus, accommodating service and even play spaces. We asked 12 parents in the area what they love most about their favorite spots to eat.

Michael Everhart, Molly Chadbourne and kids eating at El Restaurante Ixtapa
Gladis Munoz brings dinner out to Michael Everhart, Jack Everhart, 1, Maybellene Everhart, 5, and Molly Chadbourne at El Restaurante Ixtapa.

Compiled by Mila Mascenik | Photography by John Michael Simpson

Orange County’s robust food scene includes a fair share of kid-friendly restaurants with something on the menu for everyone, accommodating service and even play spaces at some. At the same time, parents can unwind and feel confident knowing their kids will leave feeling full and happy. We asked 12 parents in the area what they love most about their favorite spots to eat:

“With small kids, I’m always really worried about making a mess of places we go. So it’s nice to go places that have good outdoor seating, and they’re both really fast. El Restaurante Ixtapa [in Hillsborough] has a great setup outside. They have picnic tables, a huge field with toys for kids and a play area. We have a 5-year-old, so she can leave the table and go play and sort of do her own thing, which is really nice. And they also have options if the kids are being really picky. We love getting coconut juice; it’s like a whole coconut that they cut open, and you put a straw into it, which feels really fun.

Elsewhere, my husband and I both like getting a chicken Mejor Burrito at Carrburritos, and then we often just let our kids pick out of those. Carrburritos recently added, in the past couple of years, a much smaller burrito, which is nice because sometimes we can get my daughter to eat one of those. She loves the horchata; that’s a special treat there. The food’s always really consistent, good and fast.” – Molly Chadbourne, parent of Jack, 1, and Maybellene, 5

“When dining out with our three active young boys, we’re very conscious of menu offerings, noise levels and physical space. We enjoy local fast casual spots like Sup Dogs, where our kids always feel welcome and love the menu; my oldest was even pictured on the menu for a while! Merritt’s Grill is another quick option with a great selection for young eaters and the perfect outdoor dining space that feels safe because it’s shaded and set back away from the road. When we want a full evening out, we like to pair dinner with dessert! On Franklin Street, we’ll go to Cosmic Cantina followed by YoPo, or head to Hillsborough BBQ Company and finish with Whit’s Frozen Custard. Local, fast and relaxed is always a win for us!” – Christy Graves, parent of Kenan, 4, Joe, 6, and Griff, 8

“Living in the ‘Southern part of heaven,’ my family gravitates to Franklin Street. Brandwein’s Bagels is the perfect casual breakfast spot. Our girls, 9 and 11, love the chocolate swirl bagel, the people-watching and the dog-friendly spot. For an evening out, Crossroads Chapel Hill in The Carolina Inn is a family favorite. The kids menu offers a nice variety, the adults have plenty to choose from, with the dinner or bar menu, and I love seeing local ingredients as part of the dining experience. The Carolina Inn provides plenty of space for kids to roam the beautiful hallways or run outside on the lawn. Both places are a short walking distance from all Chapel Hill has to offer. – Karrie Tilley, parent of McKenzie, 9, and Maddie, 11

“When dining out with our two young daughters, we often look for places that are delicious, efficient and accommodating. On a weeknight, we often get an assortment of Salvadoran pupusas and sandwiches from Samantha’s Pupusas in Hillsborough – we have their menu hanging in our pantry for quick reference. We also love to order pizza from The Village Diner – whether we take out or eat in. On the weekends or midmorning, we often enjoy the sourdough chocolate babka or morning buns from Hillsborough Bakeshop & Pasta Co. Having so many options for good eats in Hillsborough – and seeing friends at every stop – is one of our favorite things about living in a small town.” – Elizabeth Poindexter, parent of Mary, 3, and Cora, 6

“Flexibility is key! With a 2-year-old daughter, we like to have a green space or somewhere to walk around nearby in case she gets the jitters. Brixx Wood Fired Pizza in Meadowmont fits the bill for lunch or dinner. Their menu options are outstanding for adults and kids alike, and we can play outside around the fountain. Their staff is quick and accommodating. For a casual brunch, we love Merritt’s Grill. Ample places to explore outside and casual enough to make a quick exit in case of a meltdown!” – Beth Ann Wilber, parent of Mia, 2

“Living close to downtown Hillsborough gives our family of four the opportunity to walk downtown for dinner on a regular basis. Our go-to spot is always The Wooden Nickel. Our two kids are loud and active, and we usually acquire more friends as we sit around. The Nickel has outdoor seating, which is great for how loud we are. They have a simple kids menu with tasty and well-made options my kids will actually eat. The regular and special menu are both delicious, and we can always get a fun new beer. The best thing about the Nickel though is the staff and atmosphere. They truly treat everyone like neighbors and are always gracious and happy to feed people. Any time I’ve apologized for my kids being crazy, I’m told they belong just as much as any other customer. It just feels like everyone is accepted, welcome and cared for there and that relieves a lot of stress of going out to dinner with littles.” – Dana Mary Clar, parent of Lyla Peach, 5, and Oakley, 6

“Dining out with children, especially picky eaters, can be a challenge. What we look for when visiting restaurants are kid-friendly menu items, price and atmosphere. In Hillsborough, J&F Kitchen is a small place with big taste! Our kids loved their personal pizzas and got to take home a reusable kids cup. Our picky 6-year-old son even ate their hummus! Plus, the owners are a delight. In Chapel Hill, one of our favorite restaurants is Nantucket Grill. The staff is courteous, and service is quick. There is something on the menu for all of us. On Sundays, kids under 10 eat free with the purchase of a $15 entree. Our 8-year-old daughter is also a big fan of the banana pudding. Our other Chapel Hill favorite is Mediterranean Deli. Our kids enjoy watching the pitas being made, but they enjoy eating them more! We hope they will be able to rebuild soon so we can get our baklava fix.”  – Ashley Psioda, parent of Michael, 6, and Ellie, 8

“My wife and I have twin 5-year-olds who aren’t exactly “adventurous” eaters at this stage in their lives. We are so lucky to live in a town that has an assortment of options for everyone in the family. Working at The Carolina Inn allows me to meet the family for a number of quick lunch spots on Franklin Street. Sutton’s (which is also the name of one of my girls) is a staple for delicious comfort food, their friendly staff and to be a part of the UNC pulse. My girls love looking at all the pictures on the wall and the Tar Heel gear. They often wonder why their picture isn’t up there yet. We also love to sit in the front windows at Armadillo Grill to people-watch or on their side patio to enjoy a taco and cold beverage when the weather allows.” – Josh Walters, parent of Finley, 5, and Sutton, 5

“We love taking our girls to Amante Gourmet Pizza in Carrboro. Sitting on the patio and watching the happenings around town is a lot of fun. The food is delicious, and the girls love getting their individual pizzas off of the kids menu. The staff is incredibly friendly and makes us feel more than welcome any time we go! Squid’s has been a longtime favorite restaurant for us, and as the girls have grown a bit older, we love bringing them along! Our 5-year-old loves to visit the fish tank, and they have a great children’s menu. The atmosphere is fun and laid-back, and the patio seating is a plus!” – Lindsay Weldon, parent of Natalie, 5, and Olivia, 9

“We love restaurants with outdoor seating options. One of our favorite lunch and dinner spots is bartaco. It’s so nice to have lawn games, like cornhole and Jenga, while we’re waiting on a table on a weekend evening! As the kids have gotten a little older, we’ve also enjoyed biking from our house nearby to Alpaca Chicken and grabbing a table outside. At Alpaca, you can eat family style, and it’s a great bang for your buck! Lastly, we always love Al’s Burger Shack. The food is delicious, and the kids enjoy watching as students are walking along Franklin Street.” – Molly Garlington, parent of Aven, 8, and Max, 10

“My family and I live in Southern Village so, for us, Al’s Burger Shack and Town Hall Grill are definitely my go-to restaurants. Both have a variety of tasty options for kids and adults, as well as outdoor eating spaces (a MUST for energetic little ones). The staff at Town Hall Grill always goes out of their way to engage with my kids, and the macaroni and cheese from the kids menu is a consistent hit! At Al’s, we enjoy the laid-back atmosphere, and my kids love looking around at the unique decor. We never pass up a chance for cheeseburgers, tater tots and milkshakes when we go!” – Samantha Stockwell, parent of Weston, 5, Quinn, 8, and Audrey, 11

“With 3- and 5-year-old picky eaters, we’re always in search of a family-friendly option where we can easily work with their likes and dislikes. Monterrey Mexican [Grill] is always a great choice for us. We’re able to “deconstruct” a meal like fajitas to give everyone something they’ll like. The laid-back atmosphere is also a bonus because we always feel comfortable during our meal. We also love taking them to Sutton’s for similar reasons. The food is simple and approachable while the restaurant itself delivers a fun, nostalgic atmosphere we can all enjoy!” – Tricia Holtz, parent of Brooks, 3, and Hallie, 5

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