Correction: In a previous version of this column, the name of the owner of Mr. Henry’s restaurant was misspelled. It is Alvin Ross, not Alvin Rodd.
Going out to eat with children is a double-edged sword. Sure, you get the night off from cooking, but you also know the hazards. The coloring sheet might lose its appeal before the food arrives. Your 2-year-old might dump his dinner on the floor. The mac and cheese might not be the right texture for your picky eater.
Before you throw in the kitchen towel, consider several area restaurants that welcome families and feed the kids for free. And we’re not talking about a pancake house. Several local chains or neighborhood restaurants — and even a few places you and your spouse would otherwise consider for a date night — offer one or more days a week on which kids eat for free. So if it’s a less-than-perfect evening, at least your wallet won’t take a beating. (Unless otherwise noted, one free kids meal per paid adult entree.)
Surfside: This casual Glover Park eatery lets kids pick the fillings for their taco, quesadilla or burrito. The free meal comes with side orders of fruit and vegetables as well as a drink. 2444 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-337-0004. Monday 5-9 p.m. Age 12 and younger. www.surfsidedc.com.
Mr. Henry’s: This Capitol Hill pub goes a giant step beyond a free dinner and provides entertainment for the kids. “We show movies,” said owner Alvin Ross. “Parents can schmooze with each other and not really worry what the kids are doing.” Menu options include corn dogs, grilled cheese, fried fish and decadent fried mac ’n’ cheese wedges. 601 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-546-8412. Tuesday 5-8 p.m. More than one kids meal (within reason) per paying adult is allowed. Age 8 and younger, “but we’re flexible,” Ross said. www.mrhenrysrestaurant.com.
Eventide: This grown-up-looking restaurant welcomes young children. There’s no set kids menu, but the chef might offer a pasta or a chicken breast with a side of vegetables or fruit. The good news is that it’s likely to be more healthful than the typical fare. The bad news is that surprise dinners don’t sit well with some kids. 3165 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-276-3165. Tuesday-Saturday 5:30-9:30 p.m. Age 6 and younger. www.eventiderestaurant.com.
Pizzeria Orso: This Neapolitan pizza purveyor isn’t expansive in its kids offerings: cheese pizza, fried cheese sticks or pasta with butter or marinara sauce. Nudge your child to pick the Bambino Pizza. He might not appreciate the buffalo mozzarella, but you won’t mind finishing his last piece. 400 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church. 703-226-3460. Tuesday 4- 9:30 p.m. Age 10 and younger. www.pizzeriaorso.com.
Austin Grill: It’s not free, but it’s close. For a buck, your little buckaroo can try a taco, enchilada, rice and beans, or several typical kids offerings. 8430-A Old Keene Mill Rd., Springfield. 703-644-3111. Tuesday 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Two $1 kids meals per paid adult meal. Age 10 and younger. www.austingrill.com.
Whitlow’s on Wilson: This Clarendon hangout gives parents a break most nights. Choices include a meatloaf platter and roast turkey and stuffing. Not that those options will steer your munchkin away from a burger. 2854 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-276-9693. Tuesday-Sunday 4-7 p.m. Age 10 and younger. www.whitlows.com.
Red, Hot and Blue. Give your kids the thumbs up to lick their fingers if they try the ribs or barbecue sandwich at this location of the Southern fare chain. 2403 Centreville Rd., Herndon. 703-870-7345. Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. www.redhotandblue.com.
Lebanese Taverna: Adventuresome eaters can try the lamb, beef or chicken shwarma or kibbeh; comfort food for 5-year-olds (breaded chicken strips) are also available. 7141 Arlington Rd., Bethesda. Monday-Thursday 5-7 p.m. 301-951-8681. Age 12 and younger. www.lebanesetaverna.com.
Jackie’s Restaurant: Healthful but playful is the theme of the kids menu at this Silver Spring restaurant. The quesadillas y arroz are made with Amish chicken. Fish sticks are tilapia covered in panko and served with seasonal vegetables. “Everybody that we’ve gotten in is really happy that it’s not just fried and frozen food,” said chef Diana Davila-Boldin. “All these things are delicious if they’re done right.” 8081 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring. 301-565-9700. Tuesday 5:30-7:30 p.m. More than one free kids meal per paying adult is allowed. Age 10 and younger. www.jackiesrestaurant.com.
Hard Times Cafe: Even if a bowl of chili is too exotic for your children, Hard Times has the familiar offerings — noodles, chicken nuggets and burgers. And, yes, there’s chili: a Tenderfoot portion of any variety. Maybe one day they’ll try it. 4920 Del Ray Ave. Bethesda. 301-951-3300. Tuesday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. (Also Thursday after 4 p.m. in Rockville, 1117 Nelson St. 301-294-9720. Age 12 and younger.) www.hardtimes.com.
California Tortilla: This isn’t haute cuisine, but it’s fun. Strictly Tex-Mex territory: tacos, burritos or quesadillas. 3941 Evergreen Pkwy., Bowie 301-464-6405; 2329 Forrest Dr., Annapolis. 410-897-0333. Thursday after 5 p.m. Age 12 and younger. www.californiatortilla.com.
THE BOTTOM LINE: There is such a thing as a free lunch, er dinner, especially if your child is fond of pressed chicken. It’s heartening to find local restaurants that are trying to expand young palates with healthful and international menus. All the better that kids can sample them for free. But occasionally, in the name of familial harmony, breaded dinosaurs are just fine.