Plenty busy, playful and penny-wise — savvy parents know you don’t have to shovel out the dough to live the good life around here. This year’s “best of” survey reflects what we love best about you local moms and dads: You bring the thrifty — without scrimping on the fun! Read on for the results of our biggest survey ever — and a few editors’ picks that will have you reaching for your car keys.
Best kids-eat-free deal
They eat three bites and shove the rest onto the floor, so getting ’em fed for free has a lot of appeal. Good news! There’s a kids-eat-free deal on offer ’most every night of the week. Some faves that offer free kids’ meals with the purchase of an adult meal are West Seattle’s Charlestown Street Café (every day after 5 p.m.), Pallino (Sunday and Wednesday, all day; six Eastside and Seattle locations), Desert Fire Southwestern Grill in Redmond (all day Monday); and Renton’s Whistle Stop Ale House (Monday nights). Here's a list of many more.
Best place for picky eaters
Free doesn’t matter if your kids won’t eat! We asked parents where they take their little parsley-phobes. The responses range from Tutta Bella (four locations in Seattle and Issaquah) to The Old Spaghetti Factory (five locations around Puget Sound), natch. But if you’re looking to bust ’em out of a pastafarian rut, try the Greek food at Seattle’s beloved Vios Café (two Seattle locations) or bite a burger at local chain (and hands-down winner in this category) Red Robin (a dozen locations around Puget Sound).
Best place for a parents’ night out
You earned it — now make it count! That treasured night out sans enfants means the most when you can bring romance and great food together. Our readers love The Triple Door (216 Union St., Seattle) and watching a movie in a plush cocktail lounge at The Big Picture (in Seattle and Redmond). And they love to roam free in Ballard, which offers a dozen see-and-be-seen faves, such as La Isla (Puerto Rican food! 2320 N.W. Market St.), Hattie’s Hat (with “unique dive ambiance”; 5231 Ballard Ave.) and Ocho (Spanish tapas! 2325 N.W. Market St.).
Best place for a birthday party
By a landslide, local parents plan their bashes in the backyard or indoors at home. “We don’t need to spend $400 on a birthday party,” writes one local mom. But if having someone else do the work for you appeals, readers vote in droves for their local children’s museums (Children’s Museum of Seattle, Children’s Museum of Tacoma, KidsQuest Museum in Bellevue, Olympia’s Hands on Children’s Museum, Imagine Children’s Museum in Everett) and for crazy bouncy fun at Pump It Up (in Kirkland, Lynnwood and Tacoma).
So … much … research … and such a close race! The cake fight’s winner: Trophy (Bellevue and Seattle), but just by a frosting-covered nose. Cupcake Royale (four Seattle locations) put up a regal fight. Up-and-comers PinkaBella (Guinness cupcakes! In Redmond) and Tacoma’s Hello, Cupcake scored loads of sweet love.
Best playdate—that’s fun for parents!
Need a break from rainbow parachutes and talking pizza-mice? Check out the Pacific Science Center (pictured below; Seattle), the go-to place for parents who want to have fun themselves while delighting their kids.
The Seattle Aquarium, Woodland Park Zoo (Seattle) and Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium (now with meerkats! Tacoma) all netted high scores in this category, as did Woodinville’s Tot Spot Café, where parents gather to commiserate and caffeinate while their kids play.
Best public play structure
Sure, it’s in Kenmore, but when a play structure is this cool, it’s worth the trek. Medieval village–like peaks and gables and a fenced-in tot area make Saint Edward State Park’s (14445 Juanita Drive N.E.) structure a slam dunk; the park’s bald eagles, beach and heated indoor pool push it to the top of our poll every year. Farther south, the structure at Powell Barnett Park (352 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Seattle) gets a shout-out for its spider-web rope pyramid, “spinny things” and lots of great things to climb. On Bainbridge Island, Battle Point Park (11299 Arrow Point Drive N.E.) includes 90 acres of trails, plenty o’ playfields and a terrific turreted wooden play structure.
Best toy store
Seattle parents don’t play around — they head straight for Top Ten Toys, beloved for its vast selection of violence-free options. A close second: the wonderful Izilla Toys (two Seattle locations), which offers a once-a-month “allowance day” discount to kids spending their own money. South End parents are wound up about Wind Up Here (Olympia); Eastsiders picture themselves at Bellevue Art & Frame (new location starting May 1) and White Horse Toys (Issaquah).
Best shoe store
Hoof it to Shoe Zoo Northwest (just north of University Village, near Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood) if your tots need treads; the 20-year-old shoe institution garners raves every year for its helpful staff. Thrifty families love the Stride Rite outlet stores (North Bend and Tulalip); and, no surprise, Nordstrom is a shoe-in, with its mall convenience and wide selection.
A crazy-fun clip shop that kids absolutely love is Dooz 4 Kids (pictured at left; Mercer Island, Bellevue). Go in for a trim, come out with braids, sparkles and a prize from the talking prize machine. Beach Comber gets raves for its huge playroom and new teen room (Seattle). South Enders stay spiffy at Wild Child (new location in Tacoma), where cornrows, up ’dos and mini-pedis are de rigueur.
Best kids’ bookstore
On the Eastside, Mercer Island’s Island Books wins again this year for its fab staff and great kids’ section — complete with playhouse and kid-friendly bathroom.
In Seattle, Ballard’s Secret Garden Books gets high marks for its staff, selection — and rescued wall-kitten Wally. Up-and-comer Mockingbird Books (Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood) has a café, loads of story hours, and discounts for teachers and librarians.
Best way to give back together
When it comes to volunteering, we start ’em young around here — and why not? Picking up litter is a fave family activity — it’s spontaneous and immediate, and a great way for tots to learn about service. Readers tell us they love to grab the gloves and head out to clean up local parks . . . or volunteer with projects at their church or synagogue. Want more? Check out kidServe Seattle for a list of volunteer opportunities for fams with kids ages 5–12. The eco-conscious can check the Green Seattle Partnership and Washington Trails for ways to give back in the great outdoors; and Volunteer Match has a huge database of all kinds of volunteer opportunities, organized by ZIP code.
Best day trip
Mosey up the North Cascades Highway to Diablo Lake (search “Diablo” on website) and paddle out into the milky-green water with a naturalist from the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center (NCELC). Or hike through pristine forest in search of native plants and wildflowers, waterfalls and resident critters. The NCELC offers free, drop-in day trips on May 22, June 5 and July 31; all you have to do is be there by 8:30 a.m. to sign up (sorry, no advance registration). It’s a three-hour drive from Seattle, so you’ll have to start out early, but it’s worth it.
Best nearly-free outing
Play tourist at Seattle’s Pike Place Market this spring, before the annual horde of real tourists clog the sidewalks. Pack a bag to carry your finds — you don’t think you’ll be able to resist all of that gleaming produce, do you? — and bring some small bills for a chocolate macaroon at French bakery Le Panier or a tiny treat at Daily Dozen Doughnuts. Hit the classic tourist stops: Perch the kids atop Rachel, the bronze pig, for pictures; watch the tossing of the salmon at Pike Place Fish; and make a pilgrimage to the too-gross-to-pass-up gum wall. Fun quotient: high. Cost: up to you and your appetite.
Best local kindie rocker you’ve probably never heard of
Johnny Bregar is a Ballard dad with a great rootsy voice who plays traditional American folk tunes, little-kid classics and sweetly witty original compositions. It’s just the right speed for the kiddos, but the level of musicianship is so high that any adult within earshot will be drawn in. It’s been five years since the release of his first CD, “Stomp Yer Feet” (which was followed by “Hootenanny” in 2006 and “Dragonfly” in 2008), but he keeps a low profile. Seek him out! Check his website for future appearances.
Best local factory tour
Love chocolate? C’mon, sure you do, and so do the kids. Tour organic chocolate roaster and producer Theo Chocolate, located in a vintage brick building in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. You’ll get a feeling for the process from nibs to bar form; watch the cacao beans in the roaster, taste a cacao nib, follow the progress of the chocolate-in-process to the holding tank and taste the finished product. Tours are conducted daily throughout the day; if you want to see the machinery in action, visit during the week, when the factory is in operation. Reservations: 206-632-5100.
Best place to take wild things
At Sky High Sports in Bellevue, kids can bounce in their own version of a padded room until they fall over — without the safety worries that can accompany home trampoline setups. Trampolines line the floor and slanted walls, and springs and frames are padded, making for super-active fun for all ages. (Little ones have their own court, so they won’t be bowled over by larger kids and out-of-control adults.) Bounce for $11 per hour per person, and call to make reservation — weekends get booked right up. If you have a toddler, head over for Munchkin Mondays: Toddlers jump for $7 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.