The soundtrack is of the final stages of a hostage crisis in Middle Earth: low-level shrieking, punctuated by the crash of falling crockery and the roar of a nearby dragon. Around us, children are running amok, their parents staggering behind them clutching bottles of beer. A couple of the mums are wearing pirate eye patches. The fathers look ready to mutiny. Welcome to Bricks, a restaurant for families.
This place isn't just child-friendly, it's child-mandatory. Unlike any other restaurant I've reviewed, not one customer has come here specially for the food. Bricks is all about location, and if you happen to be under 12, it's located at the centre of the universe, in the new Legoland Hotel, which opened this spring at the Windsor theme park.
With two young sons, we have been living in a version of Legoland for the past year anyway, our every journey across the living room punctuated by the crunch of plastic underfoot, our pension fund invested in mini-figures. There's so much Lego in our house, we actually found ourselves looking forward to a stay at the Legoland Hotel as a welcome break.
But nothing had prepared us for the sheer... Lego-ness of the place. The sensory bombardment is intense. The primary colours, the noise, the banked walls of mini-figures at every turn, the brick-patterned carpets, the unavoidable shop, with its opportunity to invest even more heavily in overpriced construction kits. We were already overloaded by the time we checked in to our Pharaoh's Quest-themed family room, with its inevitable box of Lego.
At 6.30 on a Saturday night, Bricks was busier than The Ivy. There is another dining option, the Skyline Bar, but why would anyone want to eat à la carte in a smart, relaxed lounge when they could plunge into a buffet-style family restaurant full of giant mini-figures?
The décor is bright, as you'd expect, and features rather a lot of Lego, including some giant tableaux of chefs made out of Lego (assume everything I mention is made out of Lego, unless you hear otherwise) seemingly inspired by Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen. There are retro-styled American diner fittings, and lots of room between tables to circulate (translation: run around shrieking). Normally, restaurants nod to child-friendliness with a bucket of crayons and a colour-in menu. Here, there's a full soft play area, complete with castle, animatronic dragon and Lego play-pit. The only thing I could see that was designed specifically to appeal to adults was the wine list.
If you've ever holidayed in an all-inclusive family hotel, you'll know how the buffet works: there's a carvery, a pasta station, a salad bar, and some other options I've blanked out. But here's the twist – at Bricks there's also a special, low-rise kids' buffet, offering a wider than usual selection of healthy, non-fried foods, including salad (untouched), veg batons (scorned) and individual Yorkshire puds filled with mashed potato and a little sausage (are you kidding?).
To be honest, I can't quite recall what anyone else in the family ate. It was every man for himself in there. After a nasty jostling incident at the wok station, I retreated to the counters with the smallest queues, which is how I ended up with a plate holding vegetable curry, piri piri chicken, a Yorkshire pudding, and chips shaped like Lego bricks. It was all pretty decent. The chicken was Nandos-worthy, the curry seemed prepared from scratch rather than snipped from a bag, and the brick-chips tasted fresh.
The great thing about the buffet system is that the kids don't have to sit patiently until the food arrives. The drawback was that ours had already finished eating while we were still waiting for our drinks. We managed to string out the meal by sending them to the ice-cream machine, then they went off to watch a puppet show while we polished off our profiteroles.
For a restaurant supposedly designed with children in mind, there is one glaring design error. The tablecloths protrude well beyond the perimeter of the tables. And the tables are fairly small and crowded. The first water glass hit the floor before we'd all even sat down. "Don't worry about it, mate," beamed our unflappable waiter Conor, as a swat team of floor swabbers materialised table-side. If they gave Michelin stars for service, these guys deserve one. Empty plates were whipped away within seconds, waiters circulated with brick-shaped cakes and sang "Happy Birthday", and everyone smiled.
Our boys couldn't have loved it more, and when a pirate with a giant yellow foam head made an unsteady tour of the room, their evening was complete. "It's Captain Brickbeard!" they squealed. Jamie Oliver couldn't have created a bigger sensation.
Our bill for four came to £60, and we splurged an extra £22 on a bottle of Pinot Noir, for medicinal purposes. "Do you want to keep the cork," mouthed Conor over the racket, as another full plate went flying. It was 7pm. The meal was over. We were slightly drunk. Upstairs, a room full of Lego awaited. And tomorrow, the promise of another day of fun.
Bricks, Legoland Hotel, Windsor (01753 626311)
Buffet: £19.95 (adults), £9.95 (kids). Under 3s eat free
Ambience (adults): **
Ambience (kids): *****
Tipping policy: "No service charge; all tips go to the staff"
Side orders: Yummy, mummy?
The Three Fishes
Hardens named this the UK's most family-friendly pub – kids will love the minced rump steak burgers with chips cooked in dripping (£4.50).
Mitton Road, Mitton, Lancashire (01254 826888)
Pasta with homemade pesto and cheese (£4) is among the children's meal offerings at the newly reopened café at this brilliant inner-city farm.
Mudchute Farm, Pier Street, London E14 (020-7515 5901)
Try the parmesan chicken schnitzel 'Kiev' – parmesan-crumbled chicken breast with garlic and herb butter, mash and rocket (£10.75) at this popular UK chain.