One of the city's first "theme" restaurants, Ed Debevic's, 640 N. Wells St., at Ontario Street (tel. 312/664-1707), is a temple to America's hometown lunch-counter culture.
The burgers-and-milkshakes menu is kid-friendly, but it's the staff shtick that makes this place memorable. The waitresses play the parts of gum-chewing toughies who make wisecracks, toss out good-natured insults, and even sit right down at your table. It's all a performance -- but it works.
Two national chain spots in River North that do big family business are Rainforest Cafe, 605 N. Clark St., at Ohio Street (tel. 312/787-1501), and ESPN Zone, 43 E. Ohio St., at Wabash Avenue (tel. 312/644-3776). Rainforest Cafe creates a jungle feel with the sounds of waterfalls, thunder, and wild animals. Sports-loving older kids will find plenty of entertainment at ESPN Zone, including a game room and an endless array of TVs flashing the latest scores.
One of the best all-around options, and a homegrown place as well, the Southern-style restaurant Wishbone has much to recommend it. The food is diverse enough that both adults and kids can find something to their liking, but there's also a menu geared just toward children. Another all-American choice in the Loop is South Water Kitchen, which offers a kids' menu and coloring books.
A fun breakfast-and-lunch spot in Lincoln Park, Toast, 746 W. Webster St., at Halsted Street (tel. 773/935-5600), serves up all-American favorites (pancakes, eggs, sandwiches) and employs an age-old restaurateur's device for keeping idle hands and minds occupied: Tables at this neighborhood spot are covered with blank canvases of butcher-block paper on which kids of all ages can doodle away with crayons. But be forewarned: this is a very popular spot for weekend brunch, so showing up with ravenous kids at 11am on Saturday -- only to be told there's an hour wait -- is not the best idea.
At Gino's East, the famous Chicago pizzeria, long waits can also be an issue during the prime summer tourist season. But once you get your table, the kids can let loose: Patrons are invited to scrawl all over the graffiti-strewn walls and furniture. For fun and games of the coin-operated and basement-rec-room variety, seek out Dave & Buster's, 1024 N. Clark St. (tel. 312/943-5151), the Chicago location of the Dallas-based mega entertainment/dining chain.
With heaping plates of pasta served up family style, Maggiano's, 516 N. Clark St. (tel. 312/644-7700), in River North, and Buca di Beppo, 521 N. Rush St., right off Michigan Avenue (tel. 312/396-0001), are good choices for budget-conscious families. These Italian-American restaurants (both parts of national chains) serve up huge portions of pasta and meat to be passed and shared.