Happy meals

One of the best things I've seen for sale recently is a novelty toddler T-shirt printed with the phrase: "I make dining out miserable." Unfortunately, the shirt only went up through size 2 — and so it was too small for my son, who's 3, and a big 3 to boot.

Photo by Jason Sandford

I felt a puff of cold dismay. If it topped out at size 2, that meant marketing analysts must have scientifically determined that bad behavior at restaurants only lasts through 24 months of age — that parents of 3-year-olds wouldn't relate to the slogan because their little darlings would, by then, be sitting sweetly in their booster chairs nibbling their chicken tenders instead of licking the salt-shaker tops and ripping out crucial middle slats in booth-side Levolor blinds.

Over three years' time, after many a meal abruptly funneled into to-go containers and just as many "we're never doing this again" resolutions that only stuck till the next time the fridge was empty, I began to categorize our various local eating-out experiences — and made a surprising discovery. Although Asheville abounds in supposedly "family-friendly" dining-out options, sometimes a genuinely relaxed meal only happens in the unlikeliest of places.

One for the money, but not two for the show

Fletcher is just far enough away to feel like a long haul for a lazy, insular West Ashevillean like me, but I finally couldn't resist the lure of its Blue Sky Café, a much-recommended venue whose tag line touts "creative family dining." The decor is Gypsy Lite, all cloistered brightness and festive primary hues and silky-tailed kites dripping charmingly from the ceiling.

A pure pleasure for the parent's harried brain, the menu — while packed with an impressive variety of options — is laid out as simply as a picture book, in categories including "Bodacious Burgers," "Cosmic Chicken," "Sensational Sandwiches," "Wonderful Wraps" and such. A great variety of vegetarian options is offered; these are up-to-date but not overly boutique. Among them are a black-and-blue veggie burger (also available in meat), a chipotle tofu wrap, a hummus plate and fried mozzarella sticks — lightly breaded, thank you — with marinara.

Owners Mark and Julianna Pletcher are watching out for recessionized family budgets. The prices play out as oh-yeah-now-this-looks-right — i.e., around $2 to $5 less per item than stuff on similar menus in similar joints. You know the Pletchers must truly like kids — I can't remember cinnamon applesauce, mini corndogs or "carrot sticks and dip" on the menu at too many other eateries.

That said, I was disappointed by Blue Sky's "kids' area." On the restaurant's Web site, it appears as a whole table in a cleared-out space of its own. In reality, it was a mere shelf with a bucket of Mr. Potato Heads, squeezed uncomfortably close to an occupied booth. My kid showed zero interest in it, and instead tried to divest the ceiling of one of its kites. (Apparently there's a "playhouse" on the screened-in porch, though that section was too crowded to explore when we were there — on a weeknight.)

Still, with an expanded indoor kids' area for the preschool set, this already popular destination would be just the thing. I'm reminded of the short-lived chain restaurant O'Naturals in Arden, which had a fairly spacious section housing a train table and dollhouse. Still scratching my head over why that place didn't last.

Where a migraine can be a migraine

Aggressively kid-oriented restaurants have their place, of course. We're not above the occasional visit to McDonald's. These usually happen on the mornings our son wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and refuses to go back to sleep. Inexplicably, he is rewarded for such behavior with a steaming Styrofoam tray of Mickey D pancakes and a pre-dawn spree down the Playland slide. (Somehow I don't think our grandmothers would have chosen this form of "discipline.")

The little diner inside Fun Depot was all right until they replaced their yummy steak fries with the plain old shoestring variety; also, I don't like it that you can't buy milk there, only soda. And Chuck E. Cheese is fine for a once-a-year treat, since that's how long it takes to get over the headache to be suffered therein.

I'm not forgetting the game room at local institution Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company, a unique setup with cartoons on the big screen and the full array of old- and new-school arcade games. I'd say it's best for kids five and up, though. I'm not going to be comfortable letting my son run wild in there until he can at least see over the top of the air-hockey table.

Found fun

That leaves places that aren't purposefully set up for kids but somehow work just right. We go to Westville Pub a lot because my sister works there. Besides the lure of seeing his "Nonny," my son enjoys lounging about in the couch-furnished front room and organizing the endless pieces of the board games the pub offers to patrons, including Scrabble and Risk.

But our favorite "found" family restaurant has to be Ruby's BBQ Shack in East Asheville. Though some other BBQ joints get a lot of attention (Pres. Obama visited 12 Bones), Ruby's barbecue is still stunning, and the addition of a swing set in back — the fancy wooden kind with a mini climbing wall — is the ideal complement to this laissez-faire den of good food and good times.

Before the days shortened, and still sometimes on sunny afternoons, we place our order, head out back with a toy dump truck in tow, and let our boy go. Near the swing set, there's an empty horseshoe pit that doubles marvelously as a sandbox (or an imaginary construction site). Best by far, though, is the sweet little creek (Haw Creek, I'm guessing) that runs along the side of the building.

One time, we took our plates away from an outdoor table and ate while sitting on the creek bank, watching our little one hop rocks. Thus freed from the constraints of indoor dining, he eventually came to sit beside us and docilely finished the macaroni-and-cheese that was charmingly served up in a fluted tortilla bowl. No one from the restaurant stopped us. That's just how Ruby's rolls. And us too.

[Melanie McGee Bianchi is a stay-at-home mom and freelance journalist.]

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