An 8-year-old boy sits with a napkin as a bib holding a fork and knife in his hands in front of a plate bowl of plain spaghetti noodles and a side of sauce at Fatapple's in Berkeley.
Leo Della Penna, an eight-year-old with a particular palate, enjoys his spaghetti plain with a side of sauce at FatApple’s in Berkeley. Photo: Joanna Della Penna

For some Bay Area families, the answer to “where should we go out to eat?” is, amazingly, “anywhere.” These are the children and their carefree caregivers for whom all food is a fun adventure, be it spicy, saucy, sour or unfamiliar. Green stuff? Delicious. We’ll take two. Check, please!

For the rest of us, choosing a spot for a family meal can be a little… trickier. Notice I did not say pickier — and not just because I have promised not to use that word. After years of frustration that my kid does not exactly share my palate for dining out, I’ve come to a realization that has finally brought peace — but not peas — to our table.

In short, I have decided to think of my son as a very selective foodie. Picture your most discerning adult foodie friends, the exacting standards with which they judge and compare each restaurant and dish. “If I don’t love it,” says Anton Ego, the elite restaurant critic in Pixar’s Ratatouille, “I don’t swallow.” Sound familiar? Such behavior from a grown-up is not only accepted, it is respected and might even land the offender a gig as a food writer. But for a very young palate that for now dislikes all seasoning except for sugar, salt and melted cheese, such strong opinions are likely to be met with disapproval.

The truth is, dining out should be a treat for everyone, and even less-than-adventurous kids deserve a seat at the table. In fact, those same small people might have authentic insights on local eateries that put the trend-following hipsters to shame. Considering the somewhat alarming amount of burgers and cheese pizza mine has eaten in his lifetime, the fact that he has the following favorites is no small thing.

Presented with zero hype, the below is a round-up of local, child-friendly menu items that are just plain good, recommended by and for the discriminating kid. Reviews in quotes are by Leo, age 8.

Plain cheese pizza

The place: Jupiter, 2181 Shattuck Ave. (between Allston and Center), Berkeley

The favorite: The Andromeda, a Neapolitan-style pizza with four cheeses — Asiago, sharp cheddar, fontina and mozzarella. The 9” pie is is $11.75

Why it’s good: “The pizza itself is really soft — good soft — and there are a lot of air bubbles. The sauce is what I’d call squishy, and it brings a lot of flavor to it, and the flavor is good. The cheese is pretty gooey, so it’s normal for it to come off, all chewy and gooey.”

Why Jupiter is fun for kids: “I like the outside feeling of just being outside and eating some pizza, and I like the band and the space heaters. The inside is nice with all the multicolor lights and I like the patterns on the walls and the dim lighting makes it look cozy. The upstairs bathroom is a little small, but the staff is really nice.”

Good for grown-ups?: Absolutely. Parents can enjoy craft beer, salads and their own wood-fired pizza as they join their kids in enjoying “that outside feeling” at this classic, consistently good Berkeley beer garden and casual pub.

Second favorite: The thin-crust cheese pizza at Zachary’s on Solano, a family favorite that truly earns its accolades. All Zachary’s locations are worth visiting, but Solano’s crowds are manageable and there’s always the kid’s section at Pegasus Books next door for browsing if there’s a wait.

Plain spaghetti (with sauce on the side)

The place: FatApple’s, 1436 MLK Jr. Way (at Rose), Berkeley

The favorite: Kid’s spaghetti (with meat sauce requested on the side), $6

“There’s paintings on the walls but I don’t know of what. You should go there.”

Why it’s good: “I like how you can order the meat sauce as a side dish so you can pour it on yourself and put just the right amount on there. The meat is all crushed up, which I also like — if you get the meatball kind [the Matterhorn] it’s too big and you have to smash it up yourself. I also like to get the kid’s chocolate milk. If parents don’t allow that I would recommend either juice or milk.”

Good for grownups?: This sleepy diner-style restaurant and bakery with a Jack London theme is a comfortable, comfort-food spot for all ages. Psst, grownups: A slice of the house-made olallieberry pie, warmed, a la mode, is a must.

Why FatApple’s is fun for kids: “It’s a really good after-school place because it’s by a couple of schools. The staff is really nice, too. Every time I go to FatApple’s I see at least one other family. A kid can easily find their way around the place. There’s paintings on the walls but I don’t know of what. You should go there.”

Second favorite: It’s not spaghetti, but Leo will deign to eat the pancetta (“bacon!”) and amazing pasta from the much fancier casoncelli dish at Belotti, and what he doesn’t eat his parents get to finish for the win.

Plain Burger, fries and a milkshake

The place: Smokehouse, 3115 Telegraph Ave. (at Woolsey), Berkeley

(Note: We join many families in mourning the temporary closure of Smokehouse after a Valentine’s Day roof fire. We have since dried our tears and will stay strong as we wait for the new and improved reopening, though we hope they don’t change too much.)

The favorite: Hamburger ($3.30), fries ($2.85) and chocolate milkshake ($3.35)

Why it’s good: “The milkshake is divine. (Wait, does that mean very good?) And it goes really well with the burger and fries. The salt is really good on the fries — there’s a lot of crispy salt on there. The burger is really awesome because the bun is soft and the meat is really flavorful.”

Why Smokehouse is fun for kids: “The staff is great, and there’s a little grassy area for kids to play on while they’re waiting for their food. [Looks thoughtful, stressed.] Smokehouse is almost perfect. But if you need to use the bathroom, it should be more of a take-out place. Because…they have no bathrooms.”

Good for grownups?: There’s a reason this place has lasted since 1951, and we can’t wait for it to reopen. Sure, kids love simple, flame-grilled burgers and hot dogs with heaping portions of fat fries eaten at picnic tables, but doesn’t everyone? In a town full of fussier, fancier spots, Smokehouse offers all-American fast food done well.

Second favorite: Barney’s Gourmet Hamburgers on Shattuck for the kid’s burger, delicious fries and the genius kid’s-sized chocolate milkshake. It’s hard not to love the fireplace in winter, the patio in summer and kid-friendly, full-service dining year-round.

Not-spicy burrito

The place: Best Coast Burritos, 1400 Powell St. (at Peladeau), Emeryville

The favorite: Kid’s California-style carne asada burrito, with french fries inside (and topped with absolutely nothing else), $6.45

Why it’s good: “I love the mix of meat and french fries together in a burrito. This is a perfect alternative to a hamburger and French fries. The meat is juicy. The french fries are really soft. The tortilla is basically the bun that wraps it all together, and just like a bun it has to go with it or it isn’t good. Also it’s not spicy. I’ve been there a lot of times and there has never been a spicy bit in my food, which I really like.”

Why Best Coast is fun for kids: “The owners are really nice and they like to talk to kids. It’s right by a gas station, so if your parents need gas and you want a burrito, this is the perfect place.”

Good for grownups?: It might not have the crowds of Berkeley’s family-friendly hot spots Picante and Cactus Taqueria, but we love supporting Emeryville-local Best Coast’s attempt to bring San Diego-style burritos to the Bay. Plus — french fries.

Second favorite: If his parents are craving Casa Latina’s juicy burritos al pastor, Leo will kindly consent to a carne asada taco or two, hold the spice.

Sushi (Yes, sushi)

The place: Shimizu, 4290 Piedmont Ave. (at Echo), Oakland

The favorite: JUST SALMON, NO RICE, sashimi appetizer, 8 pieces $13.95

Why it’s good: How raw fish snuck on the yes list of a kid who won’t eat mashed potatoes or jelly on a PB&J, no one knows, but, lucky us, somehow it is the dinner treat of choice. (“I love Japanese stuff,” he shrugs.) That said, the order is always exclusively salmon sashimi. “I like the pink-orange color with the white stripes. It definitely has a fishy taste, because it is fish, but I can tell that these are good fishermen because it is really good sushi.”

Why Shimizu is fun for kids: This simple Japanese restaurant is a family magnet, where polite kids join their parents in scarfing tofu-heavy miso soup and plates of sushi, and quietly thrilling to dragon rolls wrapped in foil and set alight. When asked why he thinks Shimizu attracts so many children, Leo’s answer is unexpected. “There are a lot of cats,” he explains.“The little ones that wave.” Maybe it is the lucky maneki-neko that encourage people of all ages to dine here together in peace — or maybe it’s the prized stamp cards that give discounts to repeat customers.

Good for grownups?: Despite its loyal family clientele, Shimizu somehow manages to retain a date-night vibe. Relaxed, good quality sushi dining is always a pleasure here, with or without the kids.

Second favorite: None yet.

Plain Croissant

The place: Tribu Cafe, 6501 San Pablo Ave. (at 65th), Oakland

The favorite: House-made croissant, $3

Why it’s good: “It’s very, very buttery but still light and airy and there’s an extremely good level of butter. When it’s warmed up, it gives off that buttery flavor even more.”

It’s very, very buttery but still light and airy and there’s an extremely good level of butter.

Why Tribu is fun for kids: A solid neighborhood cafe, Tribu is welcoming to families, but attracts mainly grown-ups. That said, when Leo had his first taste of its house-made croissant, he went voluntarily to give his compliments to the chef.

Good for grownups?: The cafe’s loyal, local clientele appreciates its quality breakfast and lunch menus, in particular the house-made baked goods and spicy breakfast burritos, as well as good coffee drinks and free wi-fi.

Second favorite: Hopkins Street Bakery croissant, also soft and buttery, and perfect for tiding kids over during a lengthy shop at the Monterey Market.


“I will eat any donut, I don’t care where it’s from.”

Two children holding donuts with donut holes placed in the middle of each.
Leo Della Penna and friend Lyle test whether donut holes fit with their bounty from Happy Donuts in Berkeley. Photo: Mike Della Penna

Where does your discriminating kid like to eat and why? Let us know in the comments. (Donut suggestions welcome.)