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.
Il Vicino makes 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, OR, likes to point out that, as recently as the 1960s, state law prohibited bars from having windows that were less than 6 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 said.
Even today, you had best check the house rules in Oregon pubs before assuming that children are permitted. They may be banned, by law, from all or part of a place in the evening. 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. Basically, Washington state 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 beyond which those under 21 should not venture.
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.
Catering to Families
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, NM) brewpub, Turtle Mountain Brewing Co. At a neighboring table, two couples enjoyed soft drinks with their lunch while their four children dined at the high-top 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 the premises.
At the high-top 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, WI, 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 name of each of the beers is written on its keg. 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. Conversation is possible, but loud enough that mom and dad aren’t worried about the kids 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, AR, just smiled when she hid his brewing boots. They let her climb around on kegs at Stone City Brewing in Solon, IA.
So maybe she’s a little more comfortable than 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, that we make it more of a homey kind of place,” Ortiz said.
Call it beer friendly, people friendly, kid friendly―or just call it friendly.
Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky are authors of The Beer Lover's Guide to the USA (St. Martin's Griffin). You'll find more kid-friendly places among the thousands listed in the book.