At Insa, dinner is the show.
The Anna Karenina principle — which holds that an entire enterprise can fail if any of its unique parts are deficient — applies not just to happy families and domesticated animals, but to nice dinners with the kids, too. To ensure success, many conditions must be met: Time is an enemy. So, too, are easily pulled tablecloths. Ditto general stuffiness. Intimacy must be avoided and probably overly challenging menus, too. Children, of course, vary by age and temperament. Contra, for instance, might be great for a precocious 10-year-old. But for my children, a pair of rambunctious 3- and 5-year-old shrimp eaters, each course would result in deeper and deeper misery. The trick, to the extent that there is one, is to find the middle way, a restaurant that is neither too tight nor too loose. Err too far toward permissiveness, and you’ll end up eating chicken fingers at Guy Fieri’s Times Square Hellscape. Get too strict about it, and you’ll be paying for therapy for years to come. Luckily, there are places where success is more likely than failure. These are the best kid-friendly restaurants in New York.
The Absolute Best
328 Douglass St., nr. Fourth Ave, Gowanus; 718-855-2620
Screen time is cheating. It’s best if there’s some entertainment embedded in the meal itself, and place mats (even nicely drawn ones) plus crayons (even dope-ass unbroken Crayolas) only go so far. Enter Insa, a Korean-BBQ fantasia in Gowanus, with its diorama of a small village at the entrance, and Korean grills nestled in the heart of mahogany-wood tables. On a recent Saturday evening — early, of course — the large wood-paneled space bounced with the laughter of children and the sizzle of thinly sliced meats on the grill. The restaurant is run by the Good Fork’s Sohui Kim and Ben Schneider (themselves parents of a 9-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy), and it offers within the meal the possibility of theater. Like a concours d’elegance, tiny, brightly colored dishes of banchan offer low-risk, high-impact tastes. Then the main course: meat! Shrimp sizzle and go pink. Short ribs — off the bone — char. Thin slices of brisket crinkle with what seems like time-lapse energy. The kids are rapt. The food is eaten. There are no leftovers.
2. East Harbor Seafood Palace
714 65th St., nr Seventh Ave., Sunset Park; 718-765-0098
My son has considered the lobster. Through the scuzz-covered glass of the aquarium, a pile of crustaceans feebly waved their antennae. “Daddy,” he asked me, “what’ll happen to them?” Lessons in impermanence are just one of the many things on offer at this large banquet-hall Szechuan restaurant in Sunset Park, known mostly for dim sum, and underappreciated for dinner. Pan-fried noodles with just the right give provide a vehicle for Buddhist-style steamed vegetables, while balls of shrimp come with a sweet lime sauce that necessitates dipping. Though one misses dearly the frisson of dim-sum carts as they eternally wend, thinly populated dinner is an altogether more relaxed and no less delicious foray. Get there early enough and you’ll find a blazered waiter sitting at a table full of identical chopsticks, combining them in pairs. Another lesson, perhaps, in the futility, or inevitability, of love.
The Redbury hotel; 29 E. 29th St., nr. Madison Ave.; 212-651-3800
If you need a bougie, nice night out at a place that will make you seem like the subject of an aspirational lifestyle blog, but which is also essentially a pizza place, you want Marta, Danny Meyer’s midtown Italian emporium headed by the talented Nick Anderer. Anderer covers the basics like a Margherita and Coppa Cotta (essentially a fancy Hawaiian), and then wilds out with things like fennel-spiced veal sweetbread with duck offal and lemon; a pizza topped with pig-head terrine; and a luscious dish of duck with sour cherries. Marta is a pizzeria in midtown and inside of a hotel, so its capacity to deal with loudmouths, of any age, is trebled.
4. Brooklyn Crab
24 Reed St., nr. Conover St., Red Hook; 718-643-2722
On a spring night, the sun sets as the water glimmers from its rays. There is the soft smell of lobster and drawn butter. Within your grasp: A Montauk Driftwood Ale and something like happiness. For a moment, it’s almost like you could afford that house in Maine after all. But this isn’t Kennebunkport. It’s Red Hook, Brooklyn. But the kids are happy with their plastic basket of fried stuff — chicken tenders and fries, popcorn shrimp, whatever — and you are, too.
5. Nibble + Squeak
Nibble + Squeak isn’t a restaurant; it’s a dining club for breeders. The group, founded in 2016 by Melissa Elders, holds regular events — many lunch, but some dinner — at places to which no sane parent would ever have the courage to bring their own kids: the NoMad rooftop, Upland, the Breslin, or Nix, for instance. The ticketed events cost more than a regular à la carte, but kids eat free — and with the cost of a babysitter factored in, it’s not terrible. Plus, the organizers run interference for you, and not having to apologize for bringing your kid to dinner is pretty much priceless.