It takes about ten minutes to get to the table, walking slowly and deliberately, with two or three items dropped along the way, which means other diners are bumping their heads trying to help. Once we reach the table, there's much deliberation over whether this time we need booster seats -- they'll be vehemently declined, only to be needed on an emergency basis fifteen minutes later -- and who's going to sit next to Mommy. The unusual physical attributes of other diners are loudly acknowledged -- "Why does he have that thing sticking out of his neck?" -- and then the crayons appear, and a battle ensues over who has cerulean and who gets burnt marshmallow. Sippie cups are filled, and we put in an order for appetizers -- "Can we get those quickly, please?" -- and then someone knocks over a water glass. Simultaneously, everyone discovers that they have knives, which are then flung at the adults, point first, because "they're very dangerous."
"When is our food going to get here? I'm starving!" is said 75 times before the food does arrive, and then all of the icky items are removed from the plates and thrown onto the table. Someone knocks over another water glass. Someone announces that she's not really hungry. Someone drops her fork and, in trying to reach it from a booster seat, tips over the cup of crayons, and each one lands so that it is glued to the table by a piece of icky food. After three bites, everyone wants to know if it's time to leave yet. The server has rolled her eyes so much that they are permanently stuck looking up toward her eyebrows. There's enough food on the floor to feed a Third World country. Someone has made a sculpture out of all of the forks on the table by entangling the tines so that it looks like some newfangled toy, except these will never come apart.
Most restaurants would rather you bring your flatulence to dinner than your kids, but a few brave, foolish ones tout themselves as family eateries. The test of these establishments is whether they really know what they've gotten themselves into, because serving kids is only slightly less tricky than, say, trying to get a big hunk of bloody meat into a lion's mouth: It's noisy, it's messy, they're easily distracted, and they have been known to bite.
Ed Debevic's, 2000 South Colorado Boulevard, 303-756-0600. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Mimi's Cafe, 9155 Park Meadows Drive, Littleton, 303-799-1211. Hours: 7 a.m.-11 p.m. daily
Some places, like Ed Debevic's, try to fight fire with blowtorches. Bring the kids, they say, and we'll be louder, sloppier and talk back to you far more than your little angels ever could. And there is some appeal to that. At a place whose motto is "Eat and get out," your kids aren't going to ruin someone's marriage proposal or interfere with the big merger.
Except that places like Ed Debevic's actually exacerbate the situation. What's going to whip kids into a frenzy more than music encouraging them to do the mashed potato in a restaurant? And who wants to be waited on by incipient thespians who are so needy that they turn sullen if you don't go along with their witty repartee? It's hard to say which visit to Ed's was more exhausting: the first, when we tried to keep up with what was going on, or the second, when we tried to ignore what was going on -- which only made the staff pursue us more relentlessly.
The concept is '50s diner; the first Ed Debevic's opened in Phoenix in 1984, and not long after that, I visited the one in Chicago (the ownership company is still Debevic Diners of Lettuce Entertain You fame, but Bravo Restaurants manages the eateries now). Back then, when I was single and less harried, it was a novel spot to hit for a burger. Maybe my memory's going, but I seem to recall that the only annoying thing about it was the way the servers purposely tried to be as rude as possible by snapping their gum and answering any request with a snide remark. But now the servers are hired via "casting call" and are required to dress and act like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis -- except none of these folks look even remotely like them, so the results can be kind of painful to look at.
These "actors" do a fairly reasonable job of impersonating waiters, and periodically they are summoned to the middle of the restaurant to dance while a loud DJ spins the platters and eggs everyone on. Sometimes the servers are summoned while you're in the middle of conducting business, but they always come back. You have to admire their spunk, but you also wonder why on earth anyone would choose to make his or her living this way. But some of them seem to enjoy it, and that, at least, makes the whole routine easier to swallow.
The food isn't too hard to swallow, either. Most dishes are of the high-fat, road-food type that appeals to the lowest common denominator, and it works in this setting. Some of it, like Ed's Mom's Meatloaf ($6.75), was actually tasty: real meat, with nary a squishy blob of greasy bread filler to be found, was sided by honest-to-goodness mashed potatoes, and everything was smothered in a respectable gravy that had been thickened without the use of chemical additives. And the chicken pot pie ($6.95), despite a previously frozen pastry crust that sat on the bowl like an ill-fitting hat, was full of big pieces of chicken and crispy vegetables swimming in another respectable gravy.
But most of the fare was middlin'. The cheeseburger ($5.65), one of the most crucial indicators of a diner's grill prowess, was heavy on the charbroil and light on grease, making for a dry eat that wasn't helped by the thin, boring bun. The chicken finger basket ($6.75) featured planks o' fowl that had obviously been thawed before cooking, so there was more dry chewing, and the thin French fries were nothing special. We appreciated that the menu description of the Kitchen Sink nachos ($6.75) revealed that their "atomic mix" included jalapeños -- anyone who's ever seen a kid bite into a spicy surprise knows that ain't pretty -- but the adults found the whole thing to be a bland, unwieldy mess. The hot dogs ($3.50) were fine, and the grilled cheese ($4.25) was standard, but the open-faced hot turkey sandwich ($6.45) was all cheap bird and white bread that smelled funny.
The best thing, according to the diners of all ages I took there, was the World's Smallest Hot Fudge Sundae ($1.09), a tiny brownie with a teensy scoop of vanilla ice cream and a spoonful of hot fudge sauce. You get to keep the little plastic sundae glass, and my daughters still use them to play "Ed Debevic's," which seems to involve a lot of hip gyrations that the under-five set wouldn't ordinarily be familiar with.
Also on the good side is that kids -- and their parents, for that matter -- can throw world-class temper tantrums at Ed Debevic's and no one will hear it. But frankly, I don't want to work that hard to feed my family.
Mimi's Cafe takes a much more civilized approach, and the food's better -- if a bit more expensive -- although parents will feel as though they need to be a little more careful about spillage and open-mouthed eating. Tucked behind Park Meadows Mall, Mimi's has a built-in audience constantly streaming out of a nearby movie theater (there's also a Mimi's in the Denver West Village in Lakewood), and it, too, makes a deal about being a family place.
This concept was born out of a World War II vet's brief love affair with a French woman named Mimi. Air Force pilot Arthur J. Simms eventually lost contact with Mimi, but thirty years later when he and his son, Tom, wanted to start a New Orleans-themed restaurant with a French flair, they decided to name it after the French gal from the war (it's not clear how Tom's mother might have felt about this). In 1978, the pair opened the first Mimi's in Anaheim, and now there are at least three dozen, with the chain boasting that a new one opens every other month.
There's a reason they're so popular: The food's good, the atmosphere is inviting without being overly conceptualized -- different rooms are based on New Orleans-type eateries, such as bistros and cafes -- and they do truly cater to families. In fact, the only complaint I had about the treatment of my kids was that the lidded cups were too small, so the girls spent a lot of time whacking the straws onto the floor. Otherwise, this place uses one of the best activity-filled menus I've seen -- plenty of things to color and draw and an enormous "find the object" puzzle that keeps kids busy well through dessert. And the food for all ages was consistently top-notch.
We started with the spinach and artichoke dip ($6.75), which is one of the place's most popular items, although I confess I wasn't as thrilled about it as the folks at the next table, mainly because the flavor was too dominated by the sun-dried tomatoes, which tasted sort of like pimientos. And the blue-cheese dressing on my green salad (one comes with the entrees, or you can get a Caesar or soup) was on the watery side.
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But everything else rang true. The crust on the chicken pot pie ($9.50) was so flaky the chef's grandma must have made it, and its cream sauce was thick and chickeny, loaded with fat vegetables. The slow-cooked, beef-stock-braised pot roast ($9.75) was chock-full of carrots and onions, and the salmon ($11.95) was nicely blackened. Portions were very big -- but not so big that we took home four more meals' worth of food -- and everything smacked of just-made home cooking.
The kids were happy with their choices, too, with the extra-thick grilled cheese sandwich and the mini-corn dogs (all kids' meals are $3.50 and include French fries, fruit or smashed potatoes, a drink and dessert) getting the most votes. And dessert was a huge hit: worms in the dirt, otherwise known as Gummy worms buried in a muck of chocolate pudding and Oreo cookie crumbs.