As someone who thinks the dining table is the true centre of the universe and that eating should be as civilised, enjoyable and life-enhancing as possible, there are several types of restaurants I avoid.
First is The Chain Gang, the ubiquitous high-street chain with its designer logos, cookie-cutter décor, casual staff, and lollo-rosso salads. Next there are Tourist Traps, lavishly appointed with dinky memorabilia, velvet booths, and Caesar salads. Then there is the Restaurant in a Public Place, an institution-within-an-institution that is run by an out-sourced catering company, with its refrigerated sandwiches and aerosol-cream cakes. And finally, there is the Family Restaurant, with its easy-wipe tables, plastic highchairs, chicken nuggets, and, necessarily, children.
Today I hit the jackpot, at the newest branch of a Chain of Family Restaurants in a Public Place in a Tourist Precinct.
Giraffe is not your regular, everyday, Chain/ Family/etc restaurant, however, in spite of its special kids' menu, balloons and colouring-in pictures, and cutesy-pie giraffe-themed mementos for sale. It's more of a grown-up place for the ungrown-up. This could explain why the restaurant guide Harden's voted it Best Brunch last year and why Time Out gives it the kind of reviews that many sophisticated, serious restaurants would kill for.
Like its 10 London siblings, the just-opened Giraffe at Royal Festival Hall is a bright, modern, upbeat space, decked out in hot orange and hot pink. There is a large terrace outside, a front chill area with low chairs and tables, and a separate oval "surf skewer bar", as well as a buzzy central dining area of smart dark wooden booths. Cuban salsa fills the air, and the place glows with that sunny confidence that comes when a clever formula is intelligently implemented. Although it is only 12.30 on a Sunday afternoon, a queue is forming.
Currently, there are children at 13 tables. I know this by the orange child-indicator balloons that float over each one. Now there's a public service: look for the balloons and you can tell exactly which tables to avoid. In between the nuclear, separated and blended families are plenty of good-looking young couples treating the place like a gastropub. In fact the place is full of shiny, happy people, well-served by a menu that's so flexible it practically bends over backwards to please. It's like a love-in with cutlery.
There is an all-day brunch menu, six different burgers, salads, and a global-roaming selection that runs from jerk-spiced grilled chicken skewers to Thai green chicken and squash curry.
Staff are good-humoured, even when they get it wrong. A shared starter of a Mediterranean mezes platter (£5.95) gets lost in the kitchen, and comes 30 minutes later with a smile and a shrug. It's simple, but good, with its splodges of creamy hummus, stewy aubergine salad, garlicky tsatziki, a crisp-skinned felafel, tabbouleh, and naan bread for dipping and mopping.
Main courses are a lot speedier. Free-range scrambled eggs and smoked salmon (£7.50) is a madly generous serving, with enough silky, lightly smoked salmon to feed a small family, great sourdough toast, and a soft, curd-like, lightly golden scramble that is far superior to the yellow gravel of most British breakfast tables.
Sichuan lamb noodles, dubbed Chinese Spaghetti Bolognese (£8.95) is a variation of the classic northern Chinese classic, zha jiang mian, which combines minced meat, brown bean sauce, shredded cucumber and thick Shanghai noodles. Here, the more common stir-fry noodles have been used, but it delivers a good belt of spicy, if overly sweet flavour.
To drink, there are cocktails, fresh fruit smoothies, juices, beers, "softies" and a small but lovely list of a dozen wines that should win Junior Wine List of The Year Award. Channelled into Happy, Cheerful, Lovely, Fab, Gorgeous, Pink and Fizz, every wine is worth drinking, from a fresh and grassy New Zealand Spy Valley sauvignon blanc (£19.95) to a very berry American De Loach pinot noir (£15.95).
A tall rocky-road ice-cream sundae (£4.50) of chocolate and vanilla ice cream, chocolate brownie, marshmallows and chocolate sauce, sends me into my second childhood, thankfully without the accompanying orange balloon. Of course it's too sweet, too rich, and too everything else, but the quality of the Wiltshire-based Hill Station ice-cream saves it from being crass and me from being embarrassed.
Other good bits: the crate of bottles and relishes, the non-smoking, the range of teas, and the decent coffee. Bad bits: the "crunchy" chicken for kids, and grilled tomatoes that are pale and dull.
Giraffe, appropriately enough, sits head and shoulders over its competition. Go without children, and it's great value and great fun. Go with children, and it's a brilliant way to get them used to the civilising, life-enhancing influence of the table.
14 Giraffe Riverside Level 1 & 2, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, tel 020 7928 2004. Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, around £50 for two with drinks and service
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Second helpings: More child-friendly restaurants
Frizzante @ City Farm Hackney City Farm, 1A Goldsmith's Row London E2, tel: 020 7739 2266 Hackney's urban community farm is a real eye-opener for city kids who think milk comes from bottles and eggs from cartons. One of the great attractions, apart from talking to the animals, is this friendly, Italian-ish café dishing up all-day breakfasts, good pizza, lamb roasts, and chicken and mushroom pies. Sensitive types can order vegetarian.
Simply Heathcote's Liverpool Beetham Plaza, 25 The Strand, Liverpool, tel: 0151 236 3536 Paul Heathcote's modern Liverpool outpost really does have something for everyone. As well as holding a coveted Michelin bib gourmand, it was also recently judged the most family-friendly restaurant in Liverpool. Grown-ups can do the glazed fish pie or roast beef with Yorkshire pud, while ungrown-ups have their own menu.
Betty's Café Tearooms 1 Parliament Street, Harrogate, tel: 01423 877 300 Eighty-six years old, this Yorkshire icon is still a family-run café catering for families with its Billy Bunter array of cakes, pastries, all-day breakfasts, afternoon teas and good old-fashioned Yorkshire-Swiss cooking (Swiss roesti, Alpine macaroni). Kids can choose from their own Little Rascals menu.
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