In a pinch, almost anything that works well on a long car trip will keep your kids occupied in a restaurant (or the doctor's office, or the airport, or while you conduct a last-minute business meeting on the phone). At least for a little while. I keep these five things in my car at all times, so that I'm ready for impromptu dinners out with my kids' friends and their parents (which is pretty much the main way we all socialize these days). Even patrons at a kid-friendly pizza parlor deserve some peace and quiet while they eat.
"Look and Find: Fairies," $7.98 at Amazon.comLook and Find books. "Where's Waldo?" and "I Spy" are classics, but there are plenty of others out there, with varying degrees of difficulty.
Wikki Stix, $21.50 for 50 packages of 8 at Amazon.comWikki Stix travel packs. I keep a dozen or so of these with me and hand them out to my kids' friends when we're all out for pizza; each travel pack has 8 wax-coated yarn sticks and a small activity sheet to get kids started. Twist them into jewelry, play connect-the-dots, or build 3-D art right at the table—quietly.
"Stick To It: Pets," $11.55 at Amazon.comMagnet books. They're quiet, reusable, and sharable. They don't leave marks on the table. Look for ones that don't have famous characters on them -- you'll get more mileage out of the book if you don't have to deal with But-I'm-Too-Old-for-Elmo issues.
Fiskars hand punch, $5.39 at Amazon.comA hand-held hole punch. Sure, lots of family-friendly chain places offer up four-packs of crayons and paper place mats, but once those crayons roll under the table and the place mat is scribbled up beyond recognition you'll still need something for the kids to do. (Especially since it's likely that your meals haven't even arrived yet.) I keep a few small notebooks, a pack of cheap note cards, and extra crayons in the car, but one of my best friends handed a hole-punch like this to my 4-year-old while we were waiting for our food to arrive, and he stayed happily occupied for ages, punching holes in paper and making different designs.
3-inch magnifying glass, $5.50 at Amazon.comA magnifying glass. A classic magnifying glass really comes in handy with the younger set. Have them take a closer look at the upholstery, their clothes, their skin, or their food. Pair it with a "Look and Find"-type book and have them search for things that they wouldn't have noticed at first glance. Tell older kids to write down what they see. By the time they're bored, it'll be time to eat.
How do you keep your kids occupied in a restaurant?