Being a parent can be hard and lonely work, but how fortunate it is that we live in a world where taking children out to dinner is no longer frowned upon. And where some restaurants are practically falling over themselves to entice young families through the door. We can take our hard-earned cash to places which understand what we need and cater accordingly. But this is not without challenges.
Since the boy was little, we have had a "table for three please" policy. Babysitters are expensive, a luxury to be afforded only on special date nights, so we have always just taken the boy with us. When he was really little, he would happily sleep in his buggy - or sometimes even in the car seat, under the table, in particularly busy establishments! But since he has been old enough to sit in a high chair (or more often now his "BenBat" booster chair), he has eaten with us. So I've had a fair bit of experience judging children's menus, and the "child friendly" credentials of the London restaurant scene.
Fine dining does not have to equal adult-only dining
I'm just going to put this out there: on a recent holiday to Italy we took our one year old son with us to a 3-starred Michelin restaurant ("Osteria Francescana", in Modena, as featured on Masterchef last year). It was sublime. We had a ten course tasting menu for lunch and the boy sat quietly (for almost three hours) eating the spectacular (and unlimited) grissini.
The waiting staff were accommodating and the other diners did not seem to either notice or mind at all. Friends and family were shocked, but we all had a genuinely good time. I'm not sure we would have found a similar reception in any of London's Michelin restaurants, so I am glad we had this chance in Italy.
My top tips for taking toddlers to "posh" restaurants are:
- always ask well in advance if children can be accommodated. Check if they will provide a highchair or if you need to bring your own. Ask if the chef can prepare something for children, or if you can bring your own supplies.
- request a table in the corner, which is well spaced from others but still provides your little one with a good view of the room.
- bring with you any toys or books that might keep your little one quietly occupied. An iPad on silent mode is ideal. Also bring raisins, smarties - whatever your child enjoys picking at!
- take your child to the park to burn off plenty of steam beforehand. Ideally he may then nap in the buggy for a while, by your table.
Kid-friendly restaurants aren't always parent-friendly
One of the most child-focused chains of restaurants in London is Giraffe. They have branches across town, all serving young families with breakfasts, brunches and antipodean-style fusion food. They were a pioneer of the smoothie trend, and are genuinely great at what they do. They are conveniently located near to many of London's children's attractions. They dish out crayons and balloons, and never run out of high chairs. However... The husband refuses to set foot in there. The reason? It's hell on earth, basically. Unless you get there by about 10.30am (for lunch!) there are queues of families snaking out of the door. It's noisy and chaotic, full of other people's screaming infants. The food is ok, but often a bit tepid (great for babies, not so much for grown up meals!) and it never quite lives up to its billing. This is a real shame, as they do have great service and a fantastic children's menu (more on these later).
Here are my top food outlets which we reckon caters well to both children and grown ups:
- Wahaca. This chain of Mexican street food restaurants was begun by MasterChef winner Thomasina Miers and it has always proved extremely child-friendly. It is large and noisy enough for toddlers to fit right in, and does a good range of child-friendly food such as refried beans and cheese quesadillas. There is a kids menu, but if you order sensibly from the adult menu you can all share and enjoy lots of different tastes. It's two thumbs up from us!
- Yo! Sushi. We all know the main peril of taking a toddler to a restaurant is the dreaded wait for the food to arrive. Here you have the perfect solution: entertaining conveyer belt of food items, and food that is ready when you are. There are plenty of child-friendly options - try the cucumber and avocado rolls, for example. Our boy is also a fan of gyoza!
- Vietnamese street food kitchens. There are loads of these across London - Banh Mi Bay, Pho, as well as the originals in North Shoreditch. The husband and I love the Vietnamese/French fusion food, the banh mi baguette. But I recently discovered that the boy loves Vietnamese steamed pork buns. These are soft white buns, filled with a sticky slow-cooked pork mixture. Perfect toddler finger food. Everyone is a winner!
- Pizzerias. Take your pick, from Pizza Express to Zizzis to Franco Mancas. Everyone loves pizza, and it's a great treat for a little one.
- Indian restaurants. I'm not recommending that you take your toddler down Brick Lane on a Friday night. No way. But there are a growing number of genuinely family-friendly places which cater well to young children. Our current favourites are Lahore Kebab House (the Norbury branch, not Brick Lane!) and Dishoom in Covent Garden.
Children don't have to eat chicken nuggets
One of the reasons we eat out is to try new and interesting food, which we perhaps might not be able to recreate at home. We don't buy chicken nuggets, but I reckon if I wanted the boy to eat reconstituted mechanically-recovered breaded chicken pieces I'd know where to buy a bag of them, open said bag and throw some in the oven for ten minutes. So it makes me sad when I arrive somewhere new, and see that the only items on the children's menu is variously shaped fried things with chips. Noooooooooooo!
Restaurants, please take a look at Dishoom's children's menu. They encourage parents to choose off the main menu for the little ones. But they also offer a number of child plates. For £7.50 the boy had a fresh squeezed apple juice, and a plate of mahi fish tikka (beautifully cooked but not spicy), Bombay potatoes, and a tomato and cucumber salad. Yum!
What are your top tips for eating out with little ones? Any restaurant recommendations you would add to the list?