The Golden State is home to some of the best restaurants in the world, partly because of the long list of acclaimed celebrity chefs—Thomas Keller, Tyler Florence, Alice Waters, to name a few—who call the state home. 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.
The playground-like Jelly Belly Factory in Fairfield, about an hour’s drive from San Francisco along I-80, is a candy mecca. It offers free quarter-mile-long, self-guided tours on an elevated viewing platform that lets you see the candy making in action. You also get to play with interactive exhibits and nosh on free samples, from fruity-sour-apple and birthday-cake jelly beans to treats with such intriguing flavours as skunk spray and stinky socks. For a master’s class in candy making, you can, for a fee, take the Jelly Belly University tour, led by a Dean of the Bean. You’ll suit up in a white lab coat, hairnet, and gloves—no sandals, flip-flops, or high heels allowed—to go behind the scenes and watch master confectioners at work.
Afterward, head to the Jelly Belly Café for bean-shape pizzas, bean-shape burgers, garlic fries, and more.
In the mid-1800s, James Lick and Domenico Ghirardelli established the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company in the Fisherman’s Wharf area. That site, now known as Ghirardelli Square, has become a must-see when visiting San Francisco. In addition to other shops and restaurants, it now houses the Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop.
On the dessert-only menu, you’ll find indulgences like the Ocean Beach, which was named after one of the Bay Area’s top surfing spots: it’s a vanilla ice cream sundae with creamy caramel, hot fudge, sea salt, and whipped cream. Chocolate-loving families should go straight for the colossal Earthquake, a bowl filled with eight scoops of ice cream, eight different toppings, and fresh bananas.
Looking for the perfect San Francisco souvenir? Don’t miss the emporium stocked with everything from dark chocolate–covered honeycomb to milk chocolate squares housed in cable car–shaped red tins.
If a California road trip takes you north on Highway 101 or Interstate 5, plan a lunch stop at Pea Soup Andersen’s and be sure to try the namesake family recipe. The eatery has two locations: The original, opened in 1924, is near the bucolic Danish town of Solvang off Highway 101, and the second location is just south of Stockton off Interstate 5 in Central Valley.
The restaurant was initially named Andersen’s Electric Café after Danish-born couple Anton and Juliette Andersen purchased a coveted electric cookstove. The couple later added the family soup recipe to the menu. Now the famous restaurant—replete with an inn and marketplace—serves up gallons of the vegetarian and gluten-free green soup every day. Not in the mood for soup? Other options range from Danish sausage in a tomato-and-onion sauce to Hap-Pea’s monster burger with American cheese on a grilled sesame-seed bun. Kid-friendly selections include grilled cheese sandwiches, buttermilk pancakes, and Belgian waffles.
Post-meal, comb the adjacent marketplace for saltwater taffy, Danish cookies, chocolate-covered sunflower seeds, kids’ T-shirts, and pans for making aebelskiver, the spherical Danish pancakes.
Looking for just about any type of donut imaginable? You just might find it at Surfside Donuts in Pismo Beach. Founded in 2015 by surfer Andy McKay and his wife, Carin, the joint is appointed with a surfboard collage and photos of popular surf spots and piers in Southern California.
The daily-rotating donut menu might include the Strawberry Clam Shell with fresh strawberries and cream; the Mexican Hot Chocolate topped with toasted marshmallows; the glazed Maple Bacon drizzled with bacon bits; and the Dirt Surf, a brown-sugar crumb donut. Other drool-worthy fried rings for kids (or just kids at heart) have toppings like Fruity Pebbles and Oreos.
Surfside also offers healthier options, like frozen acai or pitaya (dragon fruit) bowls mixed with granola and your choice of fresh fruit. And to accompany your breakfast—or to carry down to the nearby Pismo Beach Pier—order a Stumptown coffee.
This cosy spot, situated in a Tudor Revival–style chalet overlooking Lake Arrowhead, first opened for business in 1982. Now a local landmark, the husband-and-wife–owned eatery serves an expansive menu for kids and big kids alike, with sandwiches, burgers, salads, and, of course, savoury 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.
Kids (ages 12 and younger) can also choose from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, served on bread or a waffle, or the Chicken in a Basket with two chicken tenders served with waffle fries and fruit.
Can’t get enough of the dreamy waffles? Buy the house mix and re-create them at home.
Dress up in your finest fascinator or party dress for an afternoon at the Huntington Rose Garden Tea Room in Pasadena. Located at the Huntington, known for its library of rare books and manuscripts, art collections, and botanical gardens, the tea room is framed by winding paths lined with roses. The children’s tea service gives the traditional British afternoon snack a nice California twist. Along with decaffeinated tea, kids can nosh on sandwiches filled with Nutella; grilled ham and Swiss; or peanut butter and raspberry preserves. Next up is a course of Fire Ants on a Log (celery with peanut butter and dried cranberries), followed by berries, homemade scones and crumpets, and an assortment of petite desserts. For more kid-friendly treats, check out the Red Car coffee shop, which carries ice creams from Fosselman’s, the old-school ice cream parlour in nearby Alhambra.
Opened 68 years ago in Los Angeles by Harry and Esther Snyder, this drive-thru hamburger stand has become a California institution, easily recognizable by the yellow arrow in its logo. With locations throughout the state, In-N-Out is known for no-nonsense hamburgers, such as the cheeseburger topped with lettuce, tomato, and an onion slice—but it does add a secret sauce that hasn’t changed one iota since 1948.
Go big with a Double-Double—with two beef patties and all the fixings—or do like the locals and order off the Not-So-Secret Menu, which includes the grilled cheese sandwich (also topped with lettuce, tomato, and onions) and the bunless “protein-style” burger. Order some fries, too, and wash it all down with an old-fashioned vanilla, strawberry, or chocolate milkshake. If you’re traveling with kids or want your own California souvenir, ask for a free paper hat.
Dreaming of your next road trip? Consult In-N-Out’s location map to check for stops along your route.
In 1977, a young Korean couple opened Santa Monica Pier Seafood right on the city’s pier. They ran the restaurant for 35 years before turning it over to their daughter and her husband, Greg and Yunnie Kim Morena, who gave it a revamped, modern look and renamed it The Albright—a nod to a nautical knot that symbolizes tying two paths (or, in this case, generations) together.
Forty years later, The Albright preserves the original restaurant’s casual, low-key vibe—appropriate for an eatery located steps from the beloved Santa Monica Pier Ferris wheel. Parents will appreciate the al fresco dining and the view of the ocean; kids will love the nearby games and rides.
The interior is appointed with industrial pendant lamps, communal picnic tables, and a chalkboard that highlights daily specials. While the atmosphere is laid-back, the menu emphasizes quality, local, and sustainable fish: Lobster rolls, Hawaiian poke, black tiger shrimp tacos, and fish-and-chips for grown-ups, and grilled cheese, corn dog bites, and chicken tenders for the kids.
Situated on Palm Canyon Road, the main drag in Palm Springs, Cheeky’s is the spot for brunch. The colourful bistro is right at home in the trendy Uptown Design District, where you’ll find artist-owned galleries next to coffee shops and stores selling mid-century modern furniture and vintage clothing.
Cheeky’s menu, which changes weekly, takes an innovative spin on breakfast classics. The house-made cinnamon rolls and bacon flights are two of the most popular items; other creations include eggs Benedict with a cheddar scone and coconut waffles topped with fresh mango. All of the produce is locally sourced, and the juices are freshly squeezed. The kids’ menu—which offers simple breakfast staples done right—doubles as a placemat with puzzles to keep little ones occupied.
The restaurant accommodates only about 30 people and is first come, first served, so expect lines on the weekends and during big event weeks. (The coffee garden and bar make the wait time pass pleasantly.) Try going on a weekday morning for quicker seating—the restaurant opens at 8 a.m.
At the retro Corvette Diner in Liberty Station near downtown San Diego, you’ll embark on a delightful journey back to the 1950s. The pink bubblegum walls are adorned with black-and-white checked flags, and waitresses wearing poodle skirts sing and dance when they’re not serving burgers and milkshakes. Corvette’s playful menu includes the Garbage Plate with sliders, chicken fingers, onion rings, and mozzarella wedges; Hoochie Coochie calamari fries; and the Elvis-inspired Rory burger with peanut butter, bacon, lettuce, and mayo (the menu calls it the “our money back, guaranteed to please burger.”)
Although fun-loving adults will appreciate the lively atmosphere—and likely want to snap a photo in front of the shiny Corvette—the kids will be busy in the Gamers Garage, an arcade under the same roof. It offers more than 60 games, ranging from pinball to air hockey, with prizes up for grabs. Before you go, check the restaurant’s promotions page for arcade and dining combo deals.
If you saved time for more, browse the Liberty Public Market a few blocks away. The 25,000-square-foot converted naval complex showcases the diverse flavours of San Diego, with more than 30 food, beverage, and artisan vendors.