Prezzo. Zizzi. Strada. Jamie's Italian. Bella Italia. Frankie & Benny's. Pizza Express. Harvester. That's the list one invariably gets on Googling "family-friendly restaurants" alongside the name of any decent-sized town.
So what's the harried mother/aunt/kindly friend to do when she wants to take a child out for lunch? (Yes, yes, fathers/uncles too; this is an equal opportunities problem.) What would be nice is a family-friendly restaurant that's an independent and makes you feel less like a unit on a bottom line and more like a potential regular.
The chance to try one comes when I meet my niece and her three-year-old in Beaconsfield, in Buckinghamshire. I want to avoid the aforementioned chains so opt for The Cape, an all-day, family-run "grand café and restaurant". The online menu sounds promising: brunch fare and an intriguing South African flavour to some of the dishes.
The pretty shop window shows plenty of cakes among the jaunty handwritten signs and vintagey mismatched chairs and tables. Not that I have much chance to admire them from where we are placed – behind a work station, close to the dishwasher. This despite the café being only about a quarter full. We have a hungry mite to hand, so resignedly sit down and order, from the children's menu, a picking platter (£3.95).
The grown-ups have a lamb skewer and "The Mandela". This last curiosity is two poached eggs on a potato rosti with chorizo, bacon and rocket (£6.95). The rosti is burnt on one side, undercooked on the other. The back-bacon is flabby and the rocket undressed. The eggs are OK, but it's not the bold melange of flavours and textures I was hoping for.
However, this dish is three-star Michelin compared with the picking platter. Children have palates too, but Matilda is presented with a slice of bog-standard white bread with blobs of margarine on top, two rolls of nondescript ham, and grated cheese and carrot. Shoddy is the word. We eat just enough to take the edge off our hunger and wait, and wait, for the plates to be cleared. Eventually, I stack them myself.
The whole experience vexes me. If I was a Beaconsfield resident with a young family, I'd like somewhere decent for a weekend jolly. This is, emphatically, not that place.
Do "family-friendly" places have to mean "family-fleecing"? The following weekend I visit Bishop's Stortford, on the other side of the home-county radius, having found an equivalent to The Cape. The South Street Pantry could be The Cape's cousin. Jaunty bunting, mismatched furniture and crockery, a counter laden with cakes… It, too, is family-run. There the similarity ends.
Enthusiastic young waitresses bustle through the long, narrow room, where every table is taken. There are sandwiches, quiches, salads and soups on the menu. Nothing to push the culinary envelope, nothing named after any of the world's leading statesmen. Everything is homemade. Mr M has Welsh rarebit with bacon, I have smoked salmon and scrambled egg. Our daughter has mac'n'cheese from the children's menu, which is a scaled-down version of the adults' (why doesn't everywhere do this?).
The rarebit is burnished and tangy, with a prickle of mustard to offset the cheese, thick-cut, crisp bacon heaped on top and a generous dollop of homemade chutney on the side – £6.75 well spent. My dish is a corker: a double stack of well-buttered granary toast, a mountain of wobbly, rich eggs and copious amounts of salmon. Meanwhile, Miss T works her way through a bowl of macaroni cheese that has oodles of flavour. There's some dressed salad and grilled tomato slices to assuage a mother's carb-fest guilt.
We waddle over to the counter to pay and encounter vast cakes under glass domes – raspberry sponge, lemon drizzle, chocolate, Eton mess, Victoria sponge, and coffee and walnut. Doorstop slices of the last two (£3.50 each) find their way home with us.
It's hardly scientific as a sampling exercise but the excellent, comforting South Street Pantry shows that it's possible to be family friendly (and become a favourite, if all those customers are as regular as they appear). Independents can go into battle with the ubiquitous chains, but they should remember that an army marches on its stomach.
South Street Pantry, 70 South Street, Bishop's Stortford, Herts, tel: 01279 659 510. £40 for three
Three more for all the family
An all-round crowd-pleaser and a safe place to eat in a culinary desert. The menu has nice twists to trad dishes.
2 Hatfield Road, St Albans, Herts, 01727 730 777
Fab food and amazing value. It’s quite formal in the evening, but very welcoming to children at the weekend.
1 Forbury Square, Reading, Berks, 0118 957 4044
Chef Andrew McLeish sends out superb, reasonably priced food at this classy spot.
Farnborough Common, Locksbottom, Kent, 01689 854 848
Reviews extracted from 'Harden’s London and UK Restaurant Guides 2013', www.hardens.comReuse content