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updated: 3/25/2016 6:38 AM

Kid-friendly Midwestern eateries that are worth the trip

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  • Safe House in Milwaukee works puzzle-solving into the dining experience.

    Safe House in Milwaukee works puzzle-solving into the dining experience.

  • The Cozy Dog Drive In will take you back in time. You travel Route 66 to get there.

    The Cozy Dog Drive In will take you back in time. You travel Route 66 to get there.

  • Courtesy of Super Dawg

  • Ella's Deli and Ice Cream Parlor has lots of moving parts.

    Ella's Deli and Ice Cream Parlor has lots of moving parts.
    photos courtesy of Jamie Bartosch

  • Charlie Parkers

    Charlie Parkers

By Jamie Bartosch

It's easy and predictable to head to a chain restaurant whether you're at home or on vacation.

But there are restaurants that give you more than a full tummy.

Here are some fun Midwestern restaurants that ooze with personality. Many are local legends, and they'll be memorable meals for the kids, and your whole family.

They range from places for young kids (The Choo-Choo Restaurant in Des Plaines, Illinois) to places older kids will like (Safe House in Milwaukee, Wisconsin). Every one is worth the trip.

Ella's Deli and Ice Cream Parlor, Madison, Wis.

It's difficult to describe this place. It's filled with colorful, moving papier-mâché characters, including its landmark carousel. While we ate dinner there in January, Batman slowly flew overhead, puppets manically swung on a nearby pole and a solar system moved beneath the glass on our table. The Jewish deli food includes an 11-page dessert menu.

Cozy Dog Drive In, Springfield

Freshly dipped corn dogs and Route 66 root beer are the specialties at this throwback, memorabilia-covered spot right off I-55 (also the legendary Route 66), between Chicago and St. Louis.

Charlie Parker's, Springfield

The pancakes here are bigger than the plate they're served on, which makes kids' faces light up. Featured on Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," this restaurant is housed inside a World War II Quonset hut. The interior is a '50s-styled diner.

If your arteries can take it, try a Springfield specialty known as a "horseshoe." Charlie Parker's Breakfast Shoe, for example, has eggs, hash browns and your choice of meat smothered in cheese sauce AND gravy. It's so wrong, it's right.

Warning: It's only open for breakfast and lunch. It usually closes at 2 p.m.

Ed Debevic's, Chicago

This popular burgers-and-shakes joint is currently closed, because it's relocating to a new downtown location, but should reopen in this summer.

Here, the food is good, but tussling with the restaurant's famous sassy-mouthed and dancing servers is better.

American Girl Café in Chicago

If your daughter is an American Girl Doll fan, then meals with their dolls at these cafes will be everything. Doll chairs and doll "meals" are part of the experience. Similar experiences are at the American Girl Bistros in Minneapolis, Columbus, Ohio, and St. Louis, Missouri.

Safe House, Milwaukee, Wis. (also known as International Exports, Ltd.)

Kids love the puzzle-solving that's part of the dining experience at this combination restaurant/spy museum. Just getting in and out of the restaurant is a trip. So is walking around to see all of the spy exhibits in the different rooms.

Choo-Choo Restaurant, Des Plaines

At this tiny retro diner, the food is delivered by electric train car. Wait to get one of the booths along the track, and no matter what, tell them it's your birthday. That'll give you a special train-delivered cupcake with a candle, and a song that fills the whole restaurant, "Happy birthday, woot woot!"

Betty Danger's Country Club, Minneapolis

Described as "a country club on crack," this kooky, retro restaurant has a mini golf course and a Ferris wheel with skyline views. You can go once around the Ferris wheel (which they call a "vertically revolving patio") with a drink, or go around five times while having your meal in a private car. Just remember -- this is Minnesota. It can be kind of chilly up there.

Superdawg, Northwest side of Chicago (also in Wheeling)

Hiya! That's the greeting on the box you'll get, with your Superdawg (hot dog), fries and pickle all smashed in. I think it's one of the best hot dogs in Chicago. You'll easily spot this retro drive-in restaurant, because it has two huge hot dog statues on the roof.

Tip: When you're ordering, they're not hot dogs. They're Superdawgs. And remember, real Chicagoans don't put ketchup on their hot dogs.

Jamie Bartosch is one of the 60 family travel experts whose work can be found at, the leading online family travel magazine. Have a family travel question? Use our Ask a TravelingMom feature or post your question to our Facebook page.

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