It wasn't hard to find somewhere suitable to review for this special issue. I was holidaying on the Suffolk coast, also known as Boden-on-Sea, where most dining spots aren't so much child-friendly as child-obligatory. The Brasserie at The White Lion Hotel, in the upmarket seaside resort of Aldeburgh, seemed like a promising destination, offering a decent-looking kids' menu, and a great beachfront location opposite The Moot Hall, setting for the opening of Britten's Peter Grimes (though we won't get into that in an article about child-friendly dining).
The White Lion reopened this Easter after a designer makeover which has taken years off it, transforming an old-fashioned seaside hotel whose reception area was dominated by a Stannah Stairlift, into a cool, 38-room boutique hotel. The townhouse-meets-driftwood décor makes the brasserie easily the most sophisticated-looking lunch spot for miles around, if not exactly ideal for the younger customer, with its cream leather chairs and velvet-upholstered booth seating. But the White Lion sailed triumphantly through the first test of child-friendliness, the smiley manageress barely flinching when she realised that our party of six would include four boys aged between five and 10.
Our visit coincided with Aldeburgh's annual carnival, complete with funfair and fancy-dress parade. The White Lion's big windows offered a ringside view of floats, and the hotel was doubling as mission control for many of the participants. A pirate queued next to Robin Hood at the bar, and Charlie Chaplin, or it may have been the Fat Controller, waddled past our table.
Reviewing a restaurant with children is just like eating in a restaurant with children, only with added jeopardy. It's stripped down, fit-for-purpose, guerrilla dining – just get in and out as quickly as possible and pray that nobody gets hurt. So, no starters, no wine list, no lingering conversation over coffee. The quote from Peter Grimes which decorates the memorial to Britten on the nearby beach – "I hear those voices that will not be drowned" – could equally well apply to lunch with four small boys.
As far as I could tell, from a 10-second scan of it, The White Lion's menu looked good – some brasserie classics, plenty of local fish, and a better-than-usual vegetarian choice. But by the time I'd settled in my sons David and Alec, plus their friends Charlie and Spike, and got them fixed up with menus (and notebooks for their own reviewing comments) the waitress was upon us. Which meant that even though the kids' menu offered more than just fish and chips and burgers, they ended up ordering fish and chips and a burger.
"What do you think of the children's menu?" I asked them. "It looks like a children's menu would look," mused David, then started to read it out, loudly, item by item. With merciful swiftness, the bread and drinks arrived. Second tick for The White Lion – service was impressively quick, even on their busiest day of the year.
The boys' drinks were greeted with suspicion. They'd ordered Cokes, but began swirling their glasses around and sniffing, like clubmen assessing a dubious claret. "It's Pepsi." "It's definitely Pepsi." And with professional relish, they all grabbed their pads to make a condemnatory note. "Soft and nice bread" was Spike's written verdict on the warm hunks of granary loaf which came with oil and balsamic for dipping. Alec, the youngest, experimented by tentatively dipping his bread into his Pepsi. David and Spike started wiping their olive oil-soaked bread on each other. I started thinking about ordering a glass of wine.
Our food followed speedily, with just one point deducted when the grown-ups were served before the youngest child. Every parent knows that each second spent sitting with a cooling plate of food in front of you while your child waits is the equivalent of a full week of normal time. The cries of WHEN'S MINE COMING? soon threatened to drown out the carnival PA system. But finally, condiments dispensed and chip wars resolved, silence descended, just at the point when I needed them to say something useful.
What do you think of your fish and chips, Alec? "Nice." What's your burger like, Spike? "Nice." David, who had ordered fishcakes and sauce gribiche from the adult menu, felt they were marginally underseasoned and too biased in favour of potato. Just kidding. He said they were nice. Charlie was the only dissenting voice, expressing reservations about his baked salmon with buttered samphire, also from the adult menu. "The fish is quite... strong," he ventured. "Yes, we're by the sea, they like to make it strong," explained David knowledgably. Charlie's samphire went down better: "Salty, but enjoyable," according to his notes.
In a town with a famously good fish and chip shop, The White Lion's cod and chips stood up well, the chips so crunchy they might have been triple-cooked. The burger, too, was excellent, "giant", as Spike noted, and loaded with melted Monterey Jack. My roast skate wing was covered with so many extras, it resembled a tapas selection, but our other adult choice, coq au vin, was simple and well-made, drawing out the full flavour of a superior Sutton Hoo chicken.
A certain tension hung over the ordering of puddings – our next stop was the bouncy castle. Again, the children's menu ranged widely: ice-creams from local producers Parravani's, fresh fruit with yogurt (not a hope) and, tapping in to the current trend for nostalgic sweets, a fruit trifle covered with Smarties. This last was the poshest dish I've ever encountered on a kids' menu, served in a square glass with a cigar-shaped wafer, on a coulis-swirled plate. Alec loved it, working his way doggedly down through the Smarties, whipped cream and custard, and stopping just in the nick of time, before he reached the fruit. A chocolate fudge brownie was rejected by all four of its young tasters for being too sweet, which is a bit like Rod Stewart rejecting a girlfriend for being too blonde.
Overall, though, our lunch at The White Lion was a roaring (sorry) success, and we got the feeling that the staff actually liked, rather than tolerated, children. "Very welcoming," was Charlie's jotted verdict, along with "clean toilets". My own notes are a little patchy, for some reason. But I did absorb enough about The White Lion to know that I'd definitely like to go back. Preferably next time without the children.
The Brasserie at The White Lion Hotel, Market Cross Place, Aldeburgh, Suffolk (01728 452720)
Around £30 a head for three courses before wine and service
Tipping policy: "No service charge; all tips go to the staff"