Dining out doesn’t have to be a snooze fest. There are lots of places to let your kid’s imagination truly run wild. If you’re looking for fresh ideas for fun family time in Chicago, immerse yourself in different worlds that range from an American Girl Doll immersion to a delightful meal in a rainforest. Sure, we know these themed restaurants in Chicago can sometimes be sensory overload, mostly for parents, but embrace the silliness. Who says you have to be serious all the time, anyway?
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APPEASE THE SPIES & AVIATORS
SafeHouse, Chicago’s super-secret, spy-themed restaurant, is packed with family fun, food, missions and even a "spycial" menu for junior spies. While your agents-in-training wait for their food, they can investigate secret passageways and interactive gadgets. But first up, you have to crack the code to enter or be subjected to whatever shenanigans the gatekeeper requests. It’s an incredibly fun covert mission the family won't soon forget.
COVID-19 UPDATE: We are happy to announce SafeHouse has reopened its doors as of May 19.
60 E. Ontario, River North; Online: safehousechicago.com
It’s a bird, it’s a plane . . . wait it actually IS a plane. This aviation-themed restaurant is located at the Schaumburg Regional Airport and the windows give a panoramic view of the bustling runway where your kids can be mesmerized by take-offs and landings. The bright interior is also dotted with model planes and other flying things that are fun for kids to point out. The made-from-scratch menu is extensive with everything from “World Famous” chicken tenders with top-secret honey mustard to fall-off-the-bone ribs with a mango guava BBQ sauce.
905 W. Irving Park Rd., Schaumburg; Online: pilot-petes.com
A LITTLE SOMETHING FOR THE SWEET-TOOTHS
JoJo's Shake Bar
JoJo's Shake Bar brings a nostalgic take on creative desserts and a reimagined and elevated approach to classic diner fare. Along with deliciously whimsical desserts, you'll find delightful tongue-and-cheek decor and their River North location regularly hosts over-the-top seasonal pop-ups, including their current Retro Summer patio.
Locations in River North, Water Tower Place & Naperville; Online: jojosshakebar.com
The sweetest of the sweet-tooths will be satisfied when meal time leads you to Sugar Factory. The nearly 40-page menu makes a separate kid's menu unnecessary, as several food options can be prepared in smaller portions if requested. Kids will think they're on a trip to heaven with drinks served in goblets — with and without alcohol for the parents — candy galore, milkshakes, ice cream and chocolate fondue. And, oh yes, the insane milkshake that includes a chocolate-covered glass and anything from a burger to a Twinkie on top.
Calling all Chocolate lovers! Every dish at this adventurous eatery in Gurnee includes chocolate as an ingredient. The pastry and chocolate team is always at work, so request a table near the action to keep the kids entertained as the splendid chefs work their magic making homemade cakes, puddings, truffles and more. The real entertainment, however, is the dessert menu. A magical chocolate fountain flowing with your choice of white, milk or dark chocolate will be brought directly to your table, as well as an assortment of dipping items.
5101 Washington St., Gurnee; Online: thechocolatesantuary.com
EXCITE THE GAMERS
Kings Dining & Entertainment
Kings Dining & Entertainment features everything you need to keep the kids entertained, including luxury ten-pin bowling lanes, a full-service restaurant, HD projector screens for all the sports action, billiards tables, shuffleboard, foosball and air hockey tables. Call ahead to make a Dine Then Bowl dinner reservation. If everyone in your group orders an entrée or equivalent, your party will be moved to the top of the bowling waitlist.
Formerly Pac-Man Entertainment, Enterrium is a contemporary American restaurant and arcade located at Woodfield Mall. They pride themselves in their elevated craft bar and upscale restaurant experience, while still be a cool place for kids to play. The space includes boutique bowling lanes, classic and modern arcade games and private event space.
Woodfield Mall, Unit A, Schaumburg; Online: enterrium.info
Lucky Strike Social
This Lucky Strike Entertainment creation has sweet views of Wrigley Field. The 30,000-square-foot social space brings together chef-driven food and craft beverages with eight Lucky Strike Lanes, over 100 electronic gaming systems including the exclusive Daytona Championship USA Motion SDLX, a first in the world of its kind, ping pong and pool tables, air hockey, board games, a very addictive basketball Connect Four and more.
1027 W. Addison St., Lakeview; Online: luckystrikeent.com
Punch Bowl Social
Schedule a date, in fact, make it a double. Punch Bowl Social in West Loop is no-fail fun for family date days. You’ll find made-from-scratch dishes and craft beverages paired with throw-back social activities like shuffleboard, Ping-Pong, marbles, 80s video games, bowling, virtual reality and skee-ball in an urban and eclectic atmosphere. The fun is family-appropriate until 10 p.m. and then it’s big kids only.
310 N. Green St., West Loop; Online: punchbowlsocial.com
TRAVEL AROUND THE WORLD
Take your kids for the smiley-est meal in Chicago at Wow Bao, which specializes in steamed bao (aka Asia's most favorite portable Chinese snack). Children under ten can enjoy the Lil’ Bunz Meal ($5.99) with their choice of 1 cheeseburger or pizza bao or 2 chicken potstickers with rice.
Locations throughout Chicago; Online: wowbao.com
It's just about everyone's favorite theme in food — Mexican! The 3,500-square-foot restaurant close to Naperville's riverwalk features retractable garage doors creating an indoor/outdoor space that's perfect for fun, warm-weather eats. Their menu covers everything from empanadas to enchiladas in addition to the much-loved margaritas and free chips and salsa while you wait to feast. Kids that need distracting will get a kick out of the sombreros available for photo opps and the stuffed donkey over the bar that engages diners at random.
47 E. Chicago Ave., Naperville; Online: fatrosies.com/naperville
MUSIC SERVED AS A SIDE DISH
House of Blues
Are you ready to rock n’ roll? Then this Marina City concert venue and restaurant is the place to be. Of course, you’d be amiss to bypass the Sunday morning Gospel Brunch for a true taste of Southern cooking — chicken and waffles for the family — and live gospel music that will have your kids up and clapping between bites. Tickets must be reserved through Ticketmaster and everyone needs a seat. If you call and reserve (you can’t do it online for the littles, unfortunately) kids under 5 can be seated for free. And, a portion of the proceeds supports the arts and music for underserved youth.
COVID-19 UPDATE: Gospel Brunch has not returned, and no date has been announced. Keep up-to-date via their website.
329 N. Dearborn St., Downtown; Online: houseofblues.com
DATE NIGHT WITH YOUR DOLLS
American Girl Cafe
If your child is forever with doll in tow, their mind will be blown by this cute cafe inside the mega downtown flagship of American Girl Place. Dolls have their own “treat seats” with a place setting and bright centerpieces. Every meal starts with welcome cinnamon buns and there are healthy choices for the kids and yummy entrees for the parents. The store also has a doll hospital and salon so you can schedule a bit of make-believe pampering and a free wellness check. This spot is incredibly popular with out-of-towners, so book weeks in advance if you're looking for a weekend or take advantage of less crowded weekday times.
835 N. Michigan Ave., Mag Mile; Online: americangirl.com
TRANSPORT YOURSELF TO THE JUNGLE
For a kid-free date night, you’ll want to run far away from this spot, but it’s one of those joints that every kid needs to experience. The behemoth frog on the outside of the building is unmissable and the inside is larger than life too. There is no stone left unturned when it comes to catering to kids, including an expansive kid menu, various mascots and even an exploding volcano dessert.
6170 Gurnee W. Grand Ave., Gurnee; Online: rainforestcafe.com
PIZZA, PIZZA, PIZZA
Try ALL the Pizza
Nowhere else in the world makes a deep-dish pizza like Chicago does. We have the market cornered. Finger Licking Foodie Tours offers a 2 1/2-hour, self-guided deep-dish pizza tour that intros foodies to four landmark pizza places in one outing: Gino's East on Superior, Giordano's on North Rush St., Pizzeria Uno on Ohio St. and Malnati's on Wells St. Skip the lines and get seated immediately with VIP service and pizza delivered fresh out of the oven in only 10 minutes.
CHICAGO’S FAVORITE STREET FOOD
Our Favorite Hot Dog Spots
Love ’em or leave ’em, hot dogs are foot-long big in Chicago, and if your kids haven’t begged for one yet, they will soon. We love the on-the-go ease (no silverware!) and colorful condiments (kids get a pass on the sacrilege of using ketchup). Grab one at a legendary local spot and turn eating into an adventure. From classic drive-ins to counter-service icons, Chicago knows how to do dogs.
— Maria Chambers & Amy Bizzarri