SUCCESS!: The most simple explanation is that most kids love chicken. Chick-fil-a has chicken pieces (as opposed to nuggets) which makes the food at least identifiable as a real meat. The service is always friendly and helpful. They have free placemats which ROCKS!!! The decor is fun and family friendly and there is a play structure inside (I have yet to be brave enough to let my kids venture into these though.) The have regular family nights with crafts and activities that are really cute and fun.
Cons: They are closed Sundays (which for us might be prime time to be able to head over there). The food is more expensive than other fast food, but I always attribute this to the fact that it is actual food so you pay for the quality of what you are eating and the service they provide.
Similar options: Farmer Boy's, Subway, Baja Fresh,
SUCCESS!: Red Robin has been a place we have enjoyed several times out with family. They have the basic crayons and color on menu which is always helpful. What is good is the atmosphere. There are fun posters everywhere and things to look at (for my kids age 2 and 4, it is really easy to get them interested in searching the walls for funny things.) The food is kid friendly (burgers, pizza, chicken fingers, etc.) and they have substitutes for fries so they aren't eating a huge amount of fatty food. The restaurant itself is not quiet so the giggles and games kids get into will not be an issue to the other diners. The service is usually good and friendly. This is about as close to a real restaurant as we have had success with.
Cons: The only one I can think of is that the wait for food is often longer than "fast food". I think it would be a great idea to have your selections for kids picked out first and order that with the drinks while everyone else decides. Better yet, go online and pick your food (have everyone with you do this) so you can eliminate the 10-15 minute menu gazing session. This will help the whole thing go faster and you can get the kids walking around outside to get out all the energy they saved from sitting. :)
Similar options: Outback, Applebee's, Chili's, Claim Jumper's,
*Denny's has always been quick and easy (albeit unhealthy lol) but if you gotta go out and are panicking about it, Denny's is a good start.
*Local family restaurants and diners. We have one Mexican restaurant that we have gone to since I was a kid. It is casual and serves quesadillas (which again, most kids love) and you don't have to tip because you aren't waited on (sort of like other fast food places where you get your drinks and stick a number on your table for food.) So those places are great. Think fast service and uncomplicated food choices.
*Starbucks can work for short sit downs and if you grab a good spot. It also helps to have a grandpa along to run around with the kids outside when they get antsy (as my dad often does after church.) I also pack a lunch and have them eat there while we enjoy our drinks.
*Ikea. Weird I know, but there is a lot there that is super kid friendly. If its a rainyday and you want to get out have them play pretend house in Ikea for awhile then head to the restaurant where you can get them a meal for under $3. A hot dog or a slice of pizza at the exit bistro is even less.
*Beni Hana type restaurant. This is like a show and food at the same time. Though expensive the food is cooked right in front of you and served right away. I wouldn't suggest it for a kid under 2 unless they are really well behaved and can focus on that type of thing but if you have a kid that will be into the spectacle, you might have a fun nice dinner with the family for a "special occasion."
FAILURES: Oh so many....
*Any place that is even slightly for grown ups DOES NOT WORK. If you can't hear people talking and chatting when you walk in (meaning that the noise level is buzzing and there isn't likely to be serious dates or anything going on) I would turn around and walk out.
*Any place that takes longer than 10 minutes to seat you at a table DOES NOT WORK. If reservations are needed, DO IT. Also the best times to head out to a restaurant seems to be late afternoon/early evening. 4:00-5:30ish. Beat the dinner rush and you won't have to wait long for seating or food.
*Any place with unfamiliar food should be avoided until they are more mature.
*Any place with cloth napkins (unless you have a nice little girl who will go to a cute tea restaurant for an hour...that is an exception.) :)
WHEN IN DOUBT: Order the food and take it to a local park or even home for a treat. This is awesome with so many places offering to go options and then you don't feel weird about splitting up entrees to share with the kids and you save on tip. :)
SEE THIS BLOG FOR A REAL AND FUNNY ILLUSTRATION OF EATING OUT WITH KIDS>