Insider's Guide to Exploring River Oaks With Kids
When you think of River Oaks, you might instantly envision its streets lined with majestic trees and luxurious homes. The neighborhood, established in the 1920s and located in the loop, boasts more than just impressive foliage and houses. Within this little pocket of Houston, you'll find a diverse array of restaurants that appeal to both kids and parents, as well as unique shops for baby and kid clothing, toys, and books. While you're in the neighborhood, check out the carriage playspace at Pumpkin Park or stop in for storytime at the Rienzi Museum.
This casual eatery from famed-Houston restaurateur Johnny Carrabba is a must. On any given day, you'll find the patio filled with families and Little League Teams. The chicken strips might be some of the best in the city - and the kid's meal includes a generous-serving of them too. Sub mashed potatoes (don't forget the jalapeno gravy) and green beans for the fries. Kids and adults alike will be delighted with the free self-serve ice cream. Parking in their lot is limited but, there a garage across the street.
One of Houston's top breakfast & brunch (really, anytime) spots, IMHO. Their menu is described as a take on Indian street food. I haven't traveled to India, so I can't verify that, but the flavorful dishes with gluten-free options keep my family coming back. We usually opt for the morning oats - a perfectly cooked bowl of steel cut oats, sprinkled with jaggery and cinnamon and topped with fruit and granola, or the morning thali with an extra fried egg (from the menu: "our rendition of a traditional sampling with lamb keema, uppma, coconut salad, morning oats, carrot paratha, fried egg & potato cake"). The coffee is strong, but if you feel like changing things up, try their masala chai. And don't leave without a bag of goodies from their Bake Lab upstairs. Personal favorites include the mint basil cookie, cloud cookie, and chai pie.
You won't find pizza on the menu here, but don't be deterred - Giacomo's has you covered for an authentic, casual Italian meal that's kid-friendly as well. Order an assortment of little cold and hot dishes to share - the meatballs are as close as you can get to Mama's recipe and the gamberi al diavolo are not to be missed. Most of the pasta dishes feature in-house, hand-made pasta (cue the drooling). Top off your meal with hazelnut pudding or espresso granita with whipped cream. Prego.
Devouring an ice cream sundae at Avalon Diner.
If you haven't jumped on the cold-pressed juice or matcha tea latte trends, now's the time to do it and Bebidas is the place. This cute little spot is on Edloe, across from Pumpkin Park. Seating inside is limited, but your little ones will probably be more at home outside, away from the millennials on their laptops. The outdoor seating area is hedged-off from busy Westheimer and is the perfect place for a game of tag in between bites of avocado toast.
River Oaks Donuts
No morning playdate at Pumpkin or Levy P ark is complete without a box of donuts and kolaches from this convenient drive-thru spot. Located on Westheimer (also across from Pumpkin Park), River Oaks Donut's menu boasts not only the traditional options like glazed and with sprinkles, but the latest croissant-hybrid, novelty toppings such as Fruity Pebbles and Captain Crunch, and personal favorite, Nutella-filled donut holes. Their Prasek's sausage and cheese kolaches are standouts as well. Have a birthday or special celebration coming up? Their whimsical alphabet donuts (24-hour advance notice required) are a delicious way to spell out your sentiments.
Some things never change, and in the case of Avalon Diner, that's a good thing. This River Oaks institution has been serving classic American food since it opened in 1938. Think omelets with crispy hash browns, fluffy pancakes, and thick chocolate milkshakes. Open early, only for breakfast, lunch and of course, an afternoon school snack of french fries and ice cream sundaes.
Things To-Do and Places to Visit
Mister Car Wash and House of Pie's
No, this one isn't a joke. We all know how boring it is to wait at the car wash. Well, problem solved. At the Mister Car Wash on Kirby, kids can literally get in on the action by using water guns to spray the cars. My husband, who grew up in the area, recalls this activity with nostalgia. Once the car is clean, pop next door to House of Pie's for a slice of their famous strawberry or bayou goo pie.
River Oaks aka Pumpkin Park
This neighborhood gem, built in 1938 and renovated in 2016, is one of our weekly haunts. My daughter could spend hours swinging or pretending to drive Cinderella's carriage. In addition to the playground, you'll find tennis courts, plenty of picnic tables, and lots of shade. At the entrance, be sure to fill out a card for the whimsical wishing tree or grab a book from the little lending library.
If you've read any of my other articles, you know that I frequently wax poetic about the Rienzi. It's a mansion-turned-museum nestled in the heart of River Oaks. And although it seems an unlikely place that kids would enjoy, you'll be pleasantly surprised to find otherwise. Visit the museum on any Monday holiday or during spring break for a kid-friendly day of arts, crafts, and storytime. Or check out Rienzi and Bayou Bend together on Family Day for loads of games and activities.
Azalea Trail and Christmas Lights
During the month of December, River Oaks is a spectacular sight to behold. Pack up the kids, fill your Swell bottle with hot chocolate, and enjoy driving through a winter wonderland. For even more of a Norman Rockwell-experience, hire a carriage or hay ride! Then, during one weekend in March, grab your stroller and take a walking tour of the neighborhood's vibrant blooms during the Azalea Trail. In addition to Rienzi and Bayou Bend, usually four to five private homes are featured on the tour. Tickets can be purchased at area retailers and at the event.
Swinging away at River Oaks/Pumpkin Park.
This venerable purveyor of home and beauty products also touts an expansive and well-curated children's section. You'll find everything from organic clothing to nursery decor to specialty toys and books. Personal favorites include the Oh Baby! Brand clothing line with darling metallic tutus and tees. Novelty items such as rhinestone swim goggles and unicorn "snot" (glitter face gel) make for out-of-the-box birthday party gifts! Bonus points for the complimentary gift wrap in brightly hued kraft paper.
Itsy Bitsy Boutique
For picture-perfect outfits, Itsy Bitsy is a one-stop shop. Owner Susan Rice Watt stocks unique, hard-to-find European brands, like Mini Rodini and Louise Misha, as well as designers of traditional clothing such as Cocolie (so sweet for baby). You'll also find shoes and fun accessories as well. Subscribe to their email newsletter or follow the store on Instagram and be the first to learn of holiday sales (those Kickee Pants pjs go fast!).
River Oaks Theatre
Pop into this River Oaks landmark for an indie-flick or midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Stepping into the theater feels like stepping back into time. Art deco marquee sign, red upholstered seats, and best of all, the upstairs "lounge" serving beer, wine and cocktails (that you can take into the show!) The theater opened in 1939, and despite developer-led efforts to tear it down in 2006, it still stands. I can't remember ever seeing a children's movie featured, so get a babysitter and make it a date night!
River Oaks Bookstore
The first time I stepped foot into this charming little book shop, I did so nervously. I had both kids with me and the sugar high from our stop at Baskin Robbins (next door to the store) had just kicked in. Not only that, but the owner and several customers were enjoying tea and cookies on the sofa at the front of the store. I needn't have worried. Owner Jeanne Jard could not have been more welcoming or helpful with her recommendations (check out the store's website for her book reviews). She's created a quaint little place in the neighborhood for friends and book lovers to gather and share stories. As we left, I eyed an empty spot on the sofa and silently wished I could have claimed it - and the accompanying tea cup - for the rest of the afternoon.
All photos by the author