The Golden State is home to some of the best restaurants in the world, thanks in part to a long list of acclaimed celebrity chefs who call the state home: Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, and Tyler Florence, to name a few. So it should come as no surprise that California also boasts countless kid-friendly eateries fit for burgeoning young gourmands. From a chocolate factory serving up colossal hot fudge sundaes to a children’s afternoon-tea service in a rose garden, here are some don’t-miss spots to take the kids on your next California vacation, listed north to south.
Jelly Belly Factory, Fairfield
Come to the candy-making playground at the Jelly Belly Factory, about an hour’s drive from San Francisco in Solano County. Take the free self-guided tour on an elevated platform to watch the jelly beans being made, or upgrade to a behind-the-scenes guided tour. Either way, enjoy the free samples and finish up with a meal at the Jelly Belly Café for jelly-bean-shaped pizzas and burgers. (More: Jelly Belly Factory)
Ghirardelli Chocolate Company, San Francisco
Here’s a history lesson kids will love. In the mid-1800s, James Lick and Domenico Ghirardelli established the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company in the Fisherman’s Wharf area. Today, that site at Ghirardelli Square houses the Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop, along with other shops and restaurants. Browse the dessert-only menu for themed indulgences like the Ocean Beach Sundae (caramel, hot fudge, sea salt, and whipped cream) or the colossal Earthquake, with eight scoops of ice cream, eight toppings, and fresh bananas. Don’t miss the emporium stocked with everything from dark chocolate-covered honeycomb to cable-car-shaped tins of sweets. (More: Ghirardelli Chocolate Company)
This drive-thru hamburger stand, first launched in 1948, is a must-stop on any road trip across California. It’s known for no-nonsense burgers, but you could also go big with a Double-Double (two beef patties plus the fixings) or items from the Not-So-Secret Menu, such as a grilled cheese sandwich (also topped with lettuce, tomato, and onions) and the bunless “protein-style” burger. Wash it all down with an old-fashioned vanilla, strawberry, or chocolate milkshake—and ask for a free paper hat for the kids. (More: In-N-Out Burger)
Surfside Donuts, Pismo Beach
You can find almost any type of donut imaginable at Surfside Donuts, a surfer-owned shop near Pismo Beach Pier that’s decorated with a surfboard collage. The daily menu might include the Strawberry Clam Shell with fresh strawberries and cream; the Mexican Hot Chocolate topped with toasted marshmallows; and the Dirt Surf, a brown-sugar crumb donut. Surfside also offers healthier options, like frozen acai or pitaya (dragon fruit) bowls mixed with granola and your choice of fresh fruit.
Pea Soup Andersen’s, Buellton
This Highway 101 restaurant near the bucolic Danish town of Solvang was initially named Andersen’s Electric Café when the Danish-born founders purchased a coveted electric cookstove in 1924—but then they added the family soup recipe to the menu. Today Pea Soup Andersen’s—which includes an inn and market—serves up gallons of the vegetarian and gluten-free green soup every day, along with burgers, Danish sausage, breakfast, and more. Post-meal, comb the adjacent marketplace for saltwater taffy, Danish cookies, and pans for making aebelskiver, the spherical Danish pancakes. Pea Soup Andersen’s has a Central Valley location, too, just south of Stockton off Interstate 5.
Belgian Waffle Works, Lake Arrowhead
The chalet-style Belgian Waffle Works, overlooking Lake Arrowhead, offers an expansive menu for kids and big kids alike: sandwiches, burgers, salads, and, of course, savory and sweet waffles, including more than 15 different dessert waffles. Standouts include the Hot Apple Annie (topped with a mound of cinnamon ice cream, warm spiced apples, and whipped cream) and the Belgian S’more, a campfire-inspired concoction with chocolate ice cream, marshmallows, and graham cracker crumbs. On your way out, pick up the house mix to make more at home.
Huntington Rose Garden Tea Room, Pasadena
Dress up in your finest fascinator or party dress for an afternoon at The Huntington, with its botanical gardens, art collections, library of rare books, and cafes. The Huntington Rose Garden Tea Room, framed by winding paths lined with roses, gives the traditional British afternoon snack a nice California twist for kids. Along with decaffeinated tea, kids can nosh on finger foods such as Nutella sandwiches, Fire Ants on a Log (celery with peanut butter and dried cranberries), homemade scones and crumpets, and an assortment of petite desserts. For more kid-friendly treats, check out the Huntington’s Red Car coffee shop, which carries ice creams from local favorite Fosselman’s. (More: The Huntington Rose Garden Tea Room)
The Albright, Santa Monica
The mellow, family-run The Albright, named after a nautical knot, is just steps from the beloved Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier. Parents will appreciate the al fresco dining and the view of the ocean; kids will love the nearby games and rides. The menu emphasizes quality, local, and sustainable fish, made into lobster rolls, Hawaiian poke, and black tiger shrimp tacos. Kids, meanwhile, might favor the fish-and-chips, along with the grilled cheese, corn dog bites, and chicken tenders.
Cheeky’s, Palm Springs
Situated along the heart of Palm Canyon Road, the colorful Cheeky’s is the spot for brunch in Palm Springs, but its innovative menu is a kid-pleaser, too. The house-made cinnamon rolls and bacon flights are two of the most popular items, but don’t overlook the eggs Benedict served with a cheddar scone, or the coconut waffles topped with fresh mango. Since it's popular, try going on a weekday morning for quicker seating. (More: Cheeky’s)
Corvette Diner, San Diego
The retro Corvette Diner, located in Liberty Station near downtown San Diego, offers a 1950s fantasy: Bubblegum-pink walls are adorned with black-and-white checked flags, and waitresses in poodle skirts sing and dance when they’re not serving burgers and milkshakes. The playful menu also includes the Elvis-inspired Rory burger (topped with peanut butter, bacon, and lettuce) that comes with money-back guarantee. Kids will love the Gamers Garage, an arcade with more than 60 games. If you saved time for more, browse the Liberty Public Market a few blocks away; the converted naval complex now houses more than 30 food, beverage, and artisan vendors.