There are dozens of restaurants within walking distance of my granddaughter Amalia's apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side, but not all of them welcome the sight of a 3-year-old coming in the door. Maitre D's take one look at Amalia and have visions of food dropped on the floor, water spilled on the table and melt-downs that cause other diners to ask to have their table moved. (She's done it all.)
So, after canvassing the neighborhood for child-friendly restaurants, Amalia has narrowed down her list of eating-out favorites to about ten. Here's her Toddler's Restaurant Guide to the Upper East Side.
Strawberry ice cream at a table outside of Eli's, on Third Avenue near 80th, is a daily favorite. It HAS to be strawberry ice cream, Amalia's favorite, because it's pink. And she doesn't want chunks of strawberries in it -- just uniform pink color.
Amalia often eats with her grandfather at his favorite restaurant, Dué, at 1396 Third Avenue. It's as a serious, non-toddler kind of restaurant, especially at night, but during the day, when it's not crowded, the staff lets Amalia in as long as she's with her Papou. They know to immediately bring her a basket of Italian bread with butter and/or olive oil to dip it in and she won't ask for anything else.
At Tandoor Oven, at 175 East 83rd Street, the staff greet Amalia by name and always bring her pistachio ice cream for dessert. For dipping, she likes naan just as well as Italian bread, and will share the Tandoori Chicken with whichever adult orders it.
Big Daddy's at 1596 Second Avenue calls itself a "blast from the past." It's a favorite with all the kids in the neighborhood because it provides crayons and pages to color, trivia game cards (for older customers), penny candy machines and really big portions of glorified diner food. Amalia usually orders the mac and cheese from the kids' menu.
Every weekend, early in the morning, Amalia likes to go to her most favorite restaurant, Alice's Tea Cup III, at 220 East 81st Street, which has over 150 kinds of tea as well as children's books to read. Here, as soon as Amalia comes in the door, she gets sprinkled with sparkly fairy dust and handed a pair of wings to wear. At Alice's Amalia always orders, in a loud voice, corn pancakes, which need to be slathered with butter and syrup and then cut into pieces.
On a recent Saturday, Amalia and Papou, Grandma and Mommy walked to Alice's, where Amalia put on her wings and Papou told her scary stories.
Because Amalia visits Central Park almost every day, she highly recommends the Dancing Crane Café at the Central Park Zoo, Kerbs Boathouse Café on the Model Boat Pond, Le Pain Quotidien just North of Sheep's Meadow and the Boathouse restaurant (and less fancy Express Café at the Boathouse) at East 72nd St and Park Drive North. There you can feed the fish in the lake or even rent a rowboat or hire a gondola and gondolier.
But Amalia's most favorite restaurant in Central Park is the Petrie Court Café and Wine Bar in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has a moderately priced ($37 with a glass of wine) prix-fixe three-course dinner keyed to one of the current exhibits, and although it's an elegant restaurant, Amalia behaves because when she gets tired of sitting still, she can walk around and look at the statues or enjoy the panoramic view of Central Park. Or turn her napkin into a hat.
On a recent Saturday night, Amalia took her Mommy and Grandma up to the roof of the Met, where she likes to run around through the reflective glass walls of the Roof Garden Commission by Dan Graham with Gunther Vogt, which the museum describes as "part garden maze, part modernist skyscraper façade."
The Roof Garden Café and Martini Bar is there, but it was too crowded, so Amalia led us downstairs to the Egyptian Wing with the Temple of Dendur -- where she always has to say hello to her favorite crocodile and throw coins in the water while making a wish. Then it was off to the Petrie Court for dinner.
Finally, it was time for Papou and Yiayia to load up the car and head home to Massachusetts, while Amalia took a power nap, dreaming of crocodiles and fairy wings and bottles labeled "Drink Me" that make you very big, and pancakes with lots of butter and syrup.