Big Spaces And Happy Faces: Best Family-Friendly Restaurants in San Francisco

Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy
By Tom Molanphy, San Francisco Local Expert

Those who have traveled with family know the joys and challenges of such a trip. Everything - the good and the bad - is amplified. Watching a child enjoy his or her first sourdough bowl of clam chowder or gobble down some Ghiradelli chocolate can actually bring tears to the eyes. Dragging screaming kids up a San Francisco hill in a desperate search for food, however, can bring tears of a very different kind.

Stick with tears of joy by considering our list of best family-friendly restaurants. These restaurants are large and roomy enough to allow kids to expend that unfathomable energy, and the staffs are friendly and experienced enough to know that family meals take a certain touch. Whether it's the general zaniness of Buca de Beppo that brings out the kid in everyone, or the nearby access to Golden Gate Park of Park Chow to allow ample room for play, these restaurants will keep your whole family satisfied.

Since San Franciscans take dining-out extremely seriously, the last thing you want is to force your family into a small place that's just not well-designed for families. Let's face it: tiny, somewhat snobby restaurants are far from a child's "happy place." To keep everyone happy, consider one of our family-friendly restaurants, below. 

8. The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen
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If you still have savory dreams from childhood of two slices of perfectly buttered toast squeezing out melted cheddar cheese, this restuarant is for you. And, even though the recipe is simple, they take their one product very seriously, with "Commander in Cheese" Heidi Gibson dreaming up delectable sandwiches such as "The Mousetrap," which has an unforgettable mix of Tillamook Cheddar, havarti and Monterrey jack. And since grilled cheese should go hand-in-hand with tomato soup, be sure to order a to-go cup of their house-made Smoky Tomato Soup. If you think you know grilled cheese sandwiches, swing by The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen and get an education about this simple American masterpiece.

7. Zazie
Photo courtesy of Zazie

While Bay Area brunch restaurants are not hard to come by, Zazie's is one of a few local gems that keeps customers coming back despite its long, out-the-door lines. The eatery is renowned for its gingerbread pancakes but also features more savory options like scrambled egg plates and chicken-apple sausage. It's easy to customize your order with one, two or three pieces, and there are plenty of attractive sandwiches and salads to choose from, too. Zazie's is tucked away in central and idyllic Cole Valley, just a few blocks from Haight Street and golden Gate Park and right along the convenient N-Judah line.

6. Sotto Mare
Photo courtesy of Sotto Mare

Sotto Mare's old-school Italian ambiance and incredibly fresh fare receive rave reviews from North Beach natives and Bay Area visitors alike. The restaurant is known for its traditional baccala, savory crab cioppino and Boston-style clam chowder, but the menu also features oysters and clams on the half shell, seafood risotto and daily fresh fish selections. Imported beer and wine parings round out an excellent meal. Patrons can also purchase fresh fish for retail value. Sotto Mare is a wonderful example of San Francisco's bountiful bay meeting up with the Italian joy of cooking, so you'll get a healthy bite of both cultures at this memorable restaurant.

5. Pacific Catch San Francisco - Marina
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Specializing in fish, Pacific Catch combines innovative cooking styles from Asia, Latin America and Hawaii with fresh, local ingredients to create a California-style cuisine all its own. Patron favorites include the raved-about island fish tacos (also available with chicken or steak), as well as the pan-Asian rice bowls. The signature sweet potato fries are a must-have accompaniment to any of the seafood baskets, which feature Thai coconut shrimp, crispy oysters or a mixed catch. The staff is very responsive to your specific order, including gluten-free options. Locations in the South Bay, North Bay and two in San Francisco - including one right next to Golden Gate Park.

4. Yank Sing

On the hunt for top-notch Chinese food? Check out Yank Sing, one of the city's most popular spots for authentic Asian fare. Here, deem sum carts laden with enticing, freshly made offerings make their way to each dining room table, affording patrons such must-have options as spring rolls and pot stickers, barbecued meats, Peking duck and soft-shell crab. For those seeking quick noontime eats, the combination lunch is a terrific option. Although they take their food very seriously, the service is efficient and friendly enough for everyone from business people to large families. As Yak Sing puts it, they have "seduced the palate of all ages."

3. Brick Yard Restaurant and Bar, The
Photo courtesy of The Brickyard

The Brick Yard, located in San Francisco's Cow Hollow district, is a local's haven and includes family style seating and an elevated outside patio facing Union Street. The restaurant also features high-definition TVs and a full-service kitchen offering a menu geared toward healthier eating options. The Brick Yard was also designed with private events in mind. Choose from a variety of menu options that will suit all of your needs, whether you're looking for hors d'oeuvres or a full service seated dinner. For those with small children, the staff of the Brick Yard are specifically trained to attend to your unique needs.

2. Waterbar
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Waterbar knows its a beautiful restaurant in a beautiful city - and makes the most of it. Designer Pat Kuleto spared no expense to insure diners will walk away with a complete ocean experience, including floor to ceiling aquariums full of Pacific Marine life. Some of what's swimming in the tanks might look tasty, too - including the calamari, "dip net" caught in nearby San Pedro. Although the atmosphere at night can range from somewhat casual to very formal dining, Waterbar does make an effort to cater to families. Since the Embarcadero is a hotspot for families, the Waterbar staffed is well-trained for that specific clientele.

1. Urban Putt
Photo courtesy of Tom Molanphy

Urban Putt opens at 4 p.m. on weekdays, 11 a.m. on weekends; a round of golf for adults is $12 and just $8 for kids five through 12. Besides the mesmerizing, hand-crafted course exhibits, Urban Putt has a full restaurant and bar in case you need that break on the back seven. The bar bites menu is available all day, and the full restaurant upstairs opens at 5:30 p.m. Fried chicken and waffle skewers highlight the bar bites menu, and the sea scallops and white prawns in almond romesco sauce with sides of garlic lemon / herb potatoes and sugar snap peas is a favorite on the dinner menu.