On August 24, neighborhood parks and pools will grow quiet and still as thousands of Houston-area children head back to school for the year. Which means you, dear parent, only have a couple of short weeks left to entertain and/or spoil your kids before they head back into that awful place where they force you to sit still all day and try to make you learn things.
My own mother used to assuage my anxiety at heading back to school each year with a much-anticipated shopping trip to Chocolate Soup. The children's clothing boutique has since closed (to the great distress of Memorial housewives from Bunker Hill to Frostwood), but Houston's full of other sweet ways to treat your kids—some of which involve actual chocolate (though not soup; soup is not a treat). Here are five of our suggestions for sending your kid back to school with a smile:
Frozen Cafe + Fit
Start at Chinatown's Dun Huang Plaza with a trip to Frozen Cafe, where the speciality gelato flavors please both kids and adults alike (though I'd recommend coming back sans enfants to sample the boozy flavors such as Fuzzy Navel and Grand Marnier). Inside the shop, icy cases are filled with gelatos tinted a rainbow of colors, each with an "inspiration toy" on top: banana cream pie topped with Despicable Me's Minions; a sandy-colored vanilla topped with Spongebob Squarepants; a blue raspberry featuring Olaf from Frozen; and the list goes on, with characters and flavors changing almost daily.
If the variety of flavors doesn't keep your little ones occupied, the kids' corner filled with toys and games will. And when you're ready to walk all that gelato off, head across the parking lot and upstairs to Fit, the second-floor Japanese "dollar store" that's filled to the brim with kid-friendly back-to-school items. Look for everything from colorful pens to cute pencil cases, folders and binders, backpacks and lunchbags—and all of it inexpensively priced. (And if you're looking for lunch or dinner selections in the area to accompany your trip, you literally can't go wrong with any single restaurant in Dun Huang.)
Natachee's + Sig's Lagoon
The kids' menu at Midtown favorite Natachee's is more thoughtful than most adult menus I've seen. The chicken tenders—a requisite item, of course—are made with breast meat and come fried or grilled; peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are served slider-style (as are cheeseburgers); and the mini corn dogs or mac 'n' cheese or whichever dish your kid orders will come in an adorably retro lunchbox, which will surely prompt just the sort of mealtime polemic your children love about how school was so different back when you were young and carried a lunchbox just like that and drank room temp Gatorade made from a powder mix out of your He-Man thermos.
Make an afternoon out of teaching your children how things used to be so much cooler back in the day by taking them around the corner to Sig's Lagoon to browse old records. Depending on your kid's age and interest level, this may finally be the right time to start helping them build a music collection—Sig's sells both CDs and vinyl—of the non-digital format. There's something about the pure tangibility of an album or two that makes it a better back-to-school gift than an iTunes gift card anyway.
Hugs & Donuts + Fat Cat Creamery
Nothing goes better with a warm, fresh donut than a glass of ice-cold milk. Heights-area shop Hugs & Donuts knows this; that's why they installed tap lines dispensing whole milk, chocolate milk and strawberry milk (as well as iced coffee for the grown-ups). On weekends, the donut shop has over 20 different varieties available to please every palate, including gluten-free options such as blueberry, powdered sugar and Oreo.
If you really want to sucker-punch your life by double-dosing your kid with sugar, head next door to Fat Cat Creamery. The adorable ice cream parlor offers plenty of sweet treats of its own, but in true neighborly fashion it will take whatever donut(s) you bring in and make a sundae, topping the pastry with the ice cream flavors and toppings of your choice.
Pinewood Cafe + Pedal Boats
Sure, the cute cafe in the middle of Hermann Park has a kids' menu, complete with hot dogs, hamburgers and chicken tenders. But that's not why you come to Pinewood Cafe; you come to make your own $6 grilled cheese sandwich, an activity that's fun for adults and kids alike. Choose from seven breads, seven cheeses, seven vegetables, eight proteins and a handful of "specialty" add-ons such as avocado and grilled onions. If you're trying to balance out such indulgences, Pinewood Cafe has you covered on that front too, offering healthy side options such as veggie sticks, hummus and fruit.
Afterwards, paddle around McGovern Lake in one of Hermann Park's many pedal boats, which can hold up to four people and cost only $10 for a 30-minute trip. Rather someone else was in charge of the locomotion? Hitch a ride on the classic Hermann Park railroad, which departs Kinder Station every half-hour and takes you on two-mile journey around the park that lasts around 20 minutes. When you're done, let the kids run wild at the nearby Buddy Carruth Playground for All Children, which provides play equipment for children of all abilities and even features a splash pad for these dog days of summer.
Alamo Drafthouse $5 Flicks
If braving the park is the last thing you (or your kids) want to do on a hot day, take it indoors to the cool climes of Alamo Drafthouse, where all summer movies are only $5 every day before 2 p.m. Tickets are even cheaper for the final weeks of the Alamo Kid Camp series: $1 to $3 for How to Train Your Dragon 2 and/or Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird. You just have to be sure to reserve your tickets online ahead of time. The kids' menu has your standard selections on it, but it's hard to go wrong with bottomless popcorn for $7—especially when it comes topped with real clarified butter.
Kids at the age where they're no longer allowing you to accompany them to the movies? Just drop them off at the Back to School Sing-Along this Thursday, August 13, where they'll be encouraged to dance and sing to the biggest hits of the last few years from Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, One Direction, Taylor Swift and other artists your children love and you hate. If your kids aren't the teeny-bopper types, take them to this Sunday's screening of The Sandlot, which will celebrate the childhood classic with props, giveaways and specials on hot dogs, the natural culinary partner of baseball, movies and summer.