Downtown with Kids: Kid Friendly Restaurants in the Ped Mall

Downtown Iowa City is kid friendly.

Sometimes this community’s robust, cultural hub can get a bad rap as a college bar district, upscale restaurant scene, or a no man’s land for minivan parking. These are myths.

The Ped Mall is an oasis for family fun.

It’s home to the Iowa City Public Library, a wonderful playground, and several seasonal festivals and events. But most importantly, it features many delicious local establishments where you and your kids can enjoy a tasty meal.

These are my family’s five favorite local restaurants to enjoy with kids in tow in downtown Iowa City.

Kid friendly restaurants in downtown Iowa City

Bread Garden Market

225 S. Linn St., Iowa City 

This is the place to visit for even the pickiest of eaters. This local market serves everything, featuring a hot food bar with kids’ favorites like chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese, and fruit. A salad bar is also stocked, with homemade, zesty dressings and a full smorgasbord of soups (with all you can eat fresh baked breads– yum!).  Pizzas, sandwiches, and even tex-mex favorites can be custom ordered by visiting a kiosk designed for ordering. For dessert, stop by the coffee counter for a latte (who are we kidding–shot of espresso!) and one of the delicious cake or cookie offerings, or on a hot day splurge for gelato.

The food here is delightful, but added perks are little-to-no wait to eat (for you and your hangry toddler), and it is located right across from the library and play structure. And we cannot forget–Bread Garden Market has its own parking lot, too.

Z’mariks Noodle Cafe

19 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City 

Mac and cheese, please! Or butter noodles. Both are checks for the kids here. Plus, the menu features many options for mom and dad from Italian pastas to Japanese noodle favorites. Z’mariks has an open, airy feeling with bright blue walls and a large canvas of painted noodles with catchy phrases. This spot is a local favorite, located on Dubuque Street sandwiched between Daydream Comics and Prairie Lights bookstore. This is a great place to stop while on an afternoon literary date in this wonderful UNESCO City of Literature.

Bo James

118 E. Washington St., Iowa City 

I know. I know. This establishment is probably best known among University of Iowa alumni as a college bar famous for big mugs of beer and country night, but it’s actually one of my favorite places to take our daughter.

The patio here is vast and overlooks beautiful Washington Street, and for a Friday evening in the summer, it is easy to get a table. Bo James offers several kid menu options like chicken fingers, grilled cheese, and a PB&J. It also uses glassware with a reusable cover for kids drinks–which is a big plus to me as the kiddie menu plastic cups really start to add up (hello landfill!). We love to visit this patio on Friday nights before heading over to the Ped Mall for the Summer of the Arts Friday Night Concert Series on the ped mall’s Weatherdance Stage. Additionally, it is centrally located with street parking (you can pay on your phone!) and at least three nearby parking ramps.

NODO Downtown

5 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City

I’ll warn you – Nodo does not feature a traditional kids’ menu. But it does have several kid-friendly options including a melty, mouthwatering grilled cheese, deli sandwiches, and a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich. Their french-fries and sweet potato fries (with house made aioli) are also scrumptions. This is a favorite lunch stop for us on a lazy day before heading over to the Iowa City Public Library.

Bluebird Diner

330 E. Market St., Iowa City

Located off the beaten path in Iowa City’s Northside Neighborhood, this joint is best known for its fabulous breakfast and brunch scene with large pancakes (add your favorite fruit or chocolate chips!) and eggs for days. We love to sit at a table in front of its large, picture windows and people watch while we color the provided picture of–you guessed it–a bluebird. Although ours rarely ends up blue…

This delicious diner offers all of your breakfast staples, served up savory or sweet. It’s great for the kids (pancakes, waffles, HUGE cinnamon rolls…), while offering some unique egg dishes and the best bacon in town. Enjoy the strong coffee, or a variety of espresso drinks, and maybe even a breakfast mimosa or bloody.  

Bonus: Dessert!

This list wouldn’t be complete without a nod to a few of the best local stops for dessert. Be sure to visit Molly’s Cupcakes for a gourmet, flavor filled (literally stuffed with crème) cupcake, or Yotopia for a build it yourself fro-yo treat featuring a bar full of candies and cookies (…and fruit for the healthy types).

What is your favorite kid friendly downtown Iowa City eatery?


Katie is a spouse, mother, and professional communicator. She became acquainted with Iowa City as a student at the University of Iowa, earning degrees in Journalism, Political Science, and most recently her MA in Strategic Communication. Katie and her husband met and fell in love in Iowa City, deciding to never leave. Their family can often be found eating their way through downtown, walking their dog in City Park, or cheering on their beloved Hawkeyes at live sporting events.


  1. Mickey’s!! Earlier than later so you avoid bar crawls now that the students are back, but they have free popcorn while you wait for your food, their mac & cheese is a family favorite and they have chocolate milk. Not to mention, they also have patience with the kids! 🙂

  2. We have been taking our almost 2 year old daughter to downtown IC restaurants since almost the beginning. We have cut back on one of our favorite places though. The staff at Basta are wonderful with her. She loves the special kid cups, and the simple pasta with a little butter and Parmesan cheese.

    What we don’t love, however, is the lack of a changing table of any kind in the men’s room. Dads change diapers too!


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