A kindergarten kitchen

Egon Ronay is supporting a new culinary trend: enfants cuisine

Colin Noble does not seem surprised when one of his customers scoops up some cauliflower cheese from another customer's plate. Nor does he look unduly worried when a third falls asleep over his dessert. He does confess, however, to feeling a little relieved that none of the salmon fish cakes has ended up splattered over his curtains.

As Jordan helps himself to yet more of Alice's mouth-watering main course, Katrina, Alice's mum, buzzes with excitement: "It's great, really great." She has never taken her 15-month-old daughter to a place with a baby menu before. Debbie says it makes a nice change for her Jordan, a month younger than Alice, to feel welcome. "We're trying to be different," says Noble. "We're trying to be interesting." Different? Interesting? These are kids we're talking about. Second-class citizens. Beryl the Perils and Dennis the Menaces. "Oh no: important little customers," Noble insists.

His Number 9 restaurant, an end-of-terrace house in Newmarket, is at the forefront of a new trend, one that recognises the existence of children's palettes and challenges the notion that restaurants are adult preserves.

Until recently, only brewery-owned family pubs and McDonald's catered specifically for youngsters. But the gospel of child-friendliness and "enfants cuisine" is spreading far and wide from pubs to brasseries, motorway service stations to hotels.

Less enlightened hosts still sport "No children" signs. One landlord's view, reproduced in Egon Ronay's 1996 And Children Come Too guide, is typical of such residual ageism: "Our pub is a peaceful retreat which I will not allow to be ruined by children.

There is no music, no jukebox, no darts, no draught lager, no yobbos - a pub for discreet dining, not burgers, ketchup and karaoke."

"I love the word `no'," says Colin Noble. "In all customer service things it's not meant to be a word you use. It's ridiculous, a stupid state of affairs."

More and more parents are consulting family welcome guides before dining out; next February, the 1997 And Children Come Too (ACTT) will be published, announcing another crop of Henry the Duck and Young Customer Care awards. The Osh-Kosh-Big-Nosh age is upon us, with parents demanding their offspring be seen, heard and - shock, horror - be fed in public.

ACCT editor Nigel Edmund-Jones believes proprietors are finally "getting real", wising up to the change in the market. "I'm 42 and I was part of the generation that was left in the car with a bottle of pop and a bag of crisps," he says. "But social mores have changed. Kids are no longer treated as pariahs."

Belinda Mitchell, whose Original Fresh Babyfood Company is supplying Waitrose stores with "natural and delicious products", thinks babies' taste buds should be stimulated so as to more readily accept adult food later in life. Her recipes for four-month-old babies include sweet potato and carrot, and courgette risotto with banana; babies of seven months and up can enjoy fish with fennel and potato, or mushroom and sweet pepper risotto.

Children are not just being catered for in the culinary sense. Good facilities are considered as important as good food: restaurateurs realise that they need to keep small children interested from the start of a meal. ACCT recommends balloons tied to the back of seats, bread and butter or other nibbles, colouring menus, placemats, indoor or outdoor safe play areas and speedy service.

Colin Noble proudly quotes the two sentences at the bottom of his baby menu: "Britax high chairs, special cutlery, trainer cups, baby dishes and bibs can be provided. Baby changing and nursing facilities are available with a baby-changing table and baby-wipes etc."

But isn't there a danger of over-stepping the mark? One customer's child- friendly haven might be another's idea of hell. How can you enjoy a nice, quiet, possibly romantic evening when spoiled brats are screaming their heads off at the next table?

Noble does not recognise this scenario. With the right approach, he argues, children behave responsibly. Admittedly, some try to wind up their mums and dads, but these are usually the eating-out novices. "You can pick out those who regularly go to restaurants and those who don't. The wind- up merchants don't. But, generally, kids are relaxed because their parents are. It used to be a British taboo that you never took your kids out because they'd misbehave. But we try not to be over-formal; we don't like the hallowed-hall-of-gastronomy style of service here."

Regis Crepy, French owner of The Great House in Lavenham, Suffolk, has noticed a sea-change in attitudes during the 12 years he has been living in Britain. "Parents are now proud to be seen out with their children. It's so important that families get together, it creates respect in youngsters. It brings life to a restaurant."

Regis, an ACCT Henry the Duck award-winner, is nevertheless sceptical of marketing puffery. "There is no point doing it unless it's from the heart. Just promoting for money is very bad. I love children, so I do it naturally. But just looking at it as a new market is not so good."

Back at Number 9, Alice is merrily chomping away on her finely chopped roast chicken served with a white sauce, Jordan has nearly finished his tiny-diced cauliflower cheese and Zac has eaten up his forest fruits and fromage frais mousse.

The big-hearted restaurateur waves off all the babies, toddlers and mums, sighs loudly and declares that the first day of his baby menu launch has gone swimmingly. "Of course, it could be viewed cynically," says Noble. "But it's a commercial business. I want them to come back when they're older. If they have a relaxed, enjoyable time, they will come back."

The kids certainly seemed to have enjoyed the food. "Not kids," he reminds me. "Important little customers" n

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