Yesterday The New York Times posted a story about beer garden play dates and I nudged All About Beer magazine editor John Holl on Twitter because he once wrote a story for that magazine (before he was editor) about beer gardens and of course mentioned the family friendly aspect. Later in the conversation that followed John pointed to a more recent story from AABM about the rise of family friendly breweries, proudly noting, “Seems the Grey Lady is swimming in our wake.” Jeff Bearer popped with an delightful picture and added, “for some of us, breweries have always been family friendly places.”
I will spare our daughter, who will turn 18 in little more than a week, the embarrassment of showing a photo of her in her portable car seat at her first brewery. It was Joe’s Brewery (RIP) in Champaign, Illinois, and she was about two weeks old. She’d been in more than 100 breweries by the time she was two years ago. It should be no surprise that it made sense for Daria and I to feature kid friendly places when we were writing the travel column for AABM. This appeared in the summer of 2000 and is dated in parts (some of the establishments are long gone, sadly), but it provides insight into beer culture not really long ago.
I should also add that Nico and Porter Ortiz (pictured in the story) visited St. Louis last year for a dad and son weekend. No surprise that when we met up with them it was in the beer garden at Urban Chestnut Brewing.
In a scene that will be repeated by parents across the country this summer, we glanced back at our daughter snoozing in her car seat, at the clock on the dashboard and the roadmap, and began thinking about where and when we would stop for lunch.
We were headed north on Interstate 25, and Sierra obviously was going to sleep right through Pueblo. Next stop, Colorado Springs. We knew just the spot — Il Vicino Wood Oven Pizza & Brewery. They make what Sierra considers a perfect kid’s meal, a child-sized version of Pizza Margherita with tomato sauce, mozzarella and fresh basil.
It costs $2.50, slightly more expensive than a McDonald’s Happy Meal once you pay for lemonade — but they give her pizza dough to play with while the pizza bakes … and mom and dad can order fresh beer.
Such a pleasant pit stop would have been unlikely just a few years ago. Kids and beer together, in a setting that treats both well, is a recent phenomenon in the United States. Only in places that replicated the Old World, such as the German beer gardens of the late 1800s, did this happen. Of course, there are those who will argue it still shouldn’t, and would be happy handing out the literature the Anti-Saloon League used 100 years ago in lobbying for the passage of prohibition. One of the best-selling books for the 19th century, Ten Nights in a Barroom, had a picture of a little girl on the cover, grasping her father’s arm and crying, “Father, come home!” In one of the book’s best known scenes, a little girl is trying to retrieve her drunken father from a saloon when she is knocked unconscious by a flying beer glass.
We doubt that many children were actually felled by flying glass in those saloons, but clearly these weren’t family places. The taverns and bars that emerged after prohibition in the 1930s weren’t as rough and tumble, but many still didn’t tolerate women, let alone children. Don Younger of the well known Horse Brass Pub in Portland, Oregon, likes to point out that as recently as the 1960s state law prohibited bars from having windows that were less than six feet above the ground. That didn’t exactly encourage civility. “We had nothing else to do but get drunk and say [expletive deleted] a lot. It was crazy. I don’t know how we survived it,” Younger says.
Even today, you had best check the house rules in Oregon pubs rather than assuming children are permitted. They may be banned, by law, from all or part of a place in the evening (of course, no matter where you are places tend to be kid friendlier before things get too late or too busy). The law can be just as confusing in Washington state. Basically, Washington law does not permit children to be present where beer is served. That means children — even babes in arms, we found out the hard way — cannot venture into a place that has a pub only license. Many brewpubs have both pub and liquor licenses and erect a wall that those under 21 should not venture beyond. Then there is the Elysian Brewery in Seattle. It features “taps from the sky” that hang down from the ceiling rather than sitting on the bar. Since the beer taps do not actually touch the bar, it qualifies as a “lunch counter,” and children may sit there.
Quirky laws aside, brewpubs — remember, there were none in 1982 and now there are more than 1,000 — have developed into dependable stopping places for parents, including those looking for unique food as well as beer. Although a growing number of restaurants are catering to children — 40 percent of those with an average check size of $25 or more provide entertainment for children — they aren’t always as easy to spot as something with “brewpub” and “brewery” in the name.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, we had lunch and beverages (beer for us, lemonade for Sierra) at our local (Rio Rancho, N.M.) brewpub, Turtle Mountain Brewing Co. At a neighboring table, two couples enjoyed soft drinks with their lunch while their four children dined at the hightop table next to them. They come into the brewpub about every other month, sometimes for beer and sometimes not. The kids love the pizza and soft drinks made on premise.
At the hightop next to the kids, Turtle Mountain owner Nico Ortiz was feeding his own baby son, Porter. Porter doesn’t actually spend that much time at the brewpub — only when both his mother, Liz, and father are busy working there — but snoozing behind the bar in his carrier, he makes the place immediately friendlier for everybody.
“Catering to families was a central element in our original business plan,” Ortiz said. “Part of the reason for going with the (wood oven) pizza was that pizza is kid friendly. That’s why we make the root beer and cream soda. The kids can feel like they are having a pint with dad.”
That hasn’t hurt Turtle Mountain’s beer business a bit. Nearly 40 percent of its sales are beer — on the high side for a brewpub. “Rio Rancho tends not to be kid friendly restaurant-wise,” Ortiz said. “We knew that if the kids like to come to Turtle Mountain that would play a real big part in the decision.”
In fact, James McNeal, a professor of marketing at Texas A&M University, points out, “When it comes to selecting restaurants, children typically make these decisions about 75 percent of the time.”
It takes more than providing a children’s menu, having high chairs or a place to park a stroller. At Fox River Brewing in both Appleton and Oshkosh, Wis., the tables are covered with white paper and crayons are set out. When a server first appears at the table, he or she writes his or her name upside down on the paper. At the Appleton pub, a conveyor track runs through the pub with kegs hanging from it, and the names of each of the beers are written on the kegs. There’s plenty to do and look at until the food arrives, and there usually isn’t somebody constantly telling kids to be quiet. The best of pubs achieve a particular noise level — below the din of a noisy bar with loud background music, so conversation is possible, but loud enough that mom and dad aren’t worried the kids are annoying the people at the next table.
Because we sometimes visit breweries before they are open when working on stories, Sierra has been afforded more latitude than most children. Brewer Dave Raymond at Vino’s Brewpub in Little Rock, Ark., just smiled when she hid his brewing boots. They let her climb around on kegs at Stone City Brewing in Solon, Iowa.
So maybe she’s a little more comfortable then most kids in a brewpub, and maybe not. We were in Turtle Mountain on a busy Friday night in February, waiting for a table to open up when she struck up a conversation with another 3-year-old from the next town over. Pretty soon they were making plans to get together.
“It’s a matter of instead of being a chain of making it more of a homey kind of place,” Ortiz said. Call it beer friendly, people friendly, kid friendly or just call it friendly.
More examples of what we mean
We’ve taken Sierra to places that were perfectly friendly — particularly since we often traveled with a portable high chair — but weren’t exactly geared toward children. For instance, the Balcony Bar in New Orleans, which had 75 draft beers for us to choose from and French fries Sierra really enjoyed, was a great place to sit on the balcony and watch Saturday afternoon traffic drift by on Magazine Street. And there was Four Green Fields in Tampa, an Irish pub we visited with Daria’s brother, Ricky, and his son, Michael. When Michael missed the board a few times in the course of shooting darts, nobody flinched.
With that in mind, here are more places, brewpubs and otherwise, where you and the kids can relax with the beverage of your choice:
Mews Tavern, Wakefield, R.I.: Plenty of places have no interest in being kid friendly, and their patrons like it that way. The Mews, which was a men-only club when it opened in 1947, calls the bar itself a “kid free zone” but also has an intimate, woody tavern area with booths that are perfect for containing a precocious child. The Mews has 69 beers on tap, 200 single malt Scotches and maybe the best sweet potato fries we’ve had anywhere.
Redfish Brewing Co., Boulder, Colo.: The New Orleans-style menu is on the upscale side for a brewpub, and the beer lineup is diverse, often featuring Belgian-influenced ales. When Sierra managed to free the first purple balloon they tied to her high chair and watched it float to the ceiling more than 20 feet above, the server simply smiled and gave her a new one.
Sam Choy’s Breakfast Lunch & Crab Shack, Honolulu, Hawaii: The servings are so large here that when a plate was delivered to a neighboring table a customer at another table got up and took a picture. Kids love the show. There’s also a boat in the middle of the restaurant (with a dining table inside).
Die Bierstube, Frankfurt, Ill: Not every German restaurant-bar caters to children, but they are nearly as good a bet as brewpubs. Booths to the side of the bar here are like small rooms.
Parting Glass, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.: Irish establishments are not nearly as good a bet as German spots. The menu may not be as diverse and the patrons may consider the bar their own. The Parting Glass, though, is more restaurant with a broad menu and separate music room.
Last Chance Saloon, Columbia, Md.: This is more British pub than wild west saloon. Not only does the dining area cater to families, but it seems perfectly reasonable to bring children into the bar area. We once saw a man plop a young child right on the bar top while he had a beer. More than 50 draft choices.
Redbones, Somerville, Mass.: It’s crowded all the time and they won’t take your name for seating until they can see everybody in the party. The darker downstairs and small bar area upstairs are best left to adults, but kids are welcome in the main dining room. This place passed the 2-2-2 test (two kids under two, time to enjoy two beers). The 24-tap lineup is as good as anywhere, but the barbecue might be better.
ESPN Zone, Baltimore: If you are going to go for the video-and-more gaming experience you might as well go all the way. This is a great spot for when the kids get a little older (or you want to be a kid). We still recommend spending the afternoon wandering around Fells Point before the crowd arrives at great spots like the Wharf Rat Bar, but you can get interesting beer here while the kids play.
Barclay’s, Oakland, Calif: A little rowdy on Friday nights, but very pubby and with a menu adventurous enough for parents who want something new and tame enough for kids. Barclay’s has served an astonishing number of beers from 30 taps since opening in 1991, rotating them often and adding at least three new ones every week.
Mickey Finn’s, Libertyville, Ill.: Regulars loved this place when it was “just” a bar, but when it converted to a brewpub in 1994 the menu got broader and it became more appealing to the suburban family crowd. We’re partial to the operating electric train the chugs around just below ceiling level.