A table for toddlers, please: Family-friendly restaurants put to the test

An evening out with decent food, good ambience – and young children in tow. Is that too much to ask?

Nick Duerden
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:29

Anyone who has had even a fleeting experience of eating out with children on the Continent will know that they do it differently over there. Across the Channel and beyond, toddler chaos in a public place is not a necessarily bad thing. In fact, it's almost encouraged. Why else would restaurants have their tables set up all in a row if not for young children to slalom between them?

Over here in the UK we conform to a more buttoned-up stereotype and take an altogether dimmer collective view of eating out with our children in tow. In short, we shouldn't; and if we really must, then we should at least do so lumped together, en masse, in the kind of restaurant that caters solely for our type, and in the kind of atmosphere that has more in common with a cattle pen than something low-lit and nicely Frenchified.

This means, in effect, permanent relegation to McDonald's or Nando's, thereby leaving the rest of us to dine in peace – peace being the only thing any self-respecting British diner really craves. It's not just children we object to in restaurants, but anyone who draws overt attention to themselves. I once interviewed Amy Winehouse in a Pizza Express. The moment she stood up, swore, grabbed at her chest and hollered, "I've got my boobs back!", a great many customers complained.

"People here seem to be so much more – what's the word? – so much more disciplined than they are in Europe," says Aldo Zilli, the celebrity chef and restaurateur born and bred in Italy but a resident of England for the past three decades now.

In Italy, he continues, it's commonplace for people to eat out with their children late into the evening, especially during the summer months. Why coop them up at home with the au pair when they could be out enjoying dinner with us?

"And if they don't eat until nine or 10 o'clock at night," he says, "then so what? They'll sleep later the next morning. But here, we have this obsession with them being in bed by seven, so that they can get their precious 12 hours sleep. Why?" He shakes his head. "How else are we supposed to teach them how to behave in social situations if we don't actually introduce them to social situations early on?" The man has a point. In the UK we still prefer our children to be seen and not heard, especially in public. Lola Borg, features editor of Mother & Baby magazine, concurs. A decade ago she, with her children, spent a year living in France.

"All very different, as you can imagine," she says. "In France, and I'm sure in Italy and Spain as well, there seems to be a much more collective attitude towards parenting: everybody gets involved, and the waiters speak directly to the children as well, they involve them. And they will also, if necessary, tell them off. They wouldn't be able to get away with that here."

So, though our restaurants may have the facilities – the nappy-changing stations, a place to park the buggies – we don't quite yet have the mentality. It's a shame, for this means that those of us who do dare to dine out en famille in anywhere but fast-food emporia risk the kind of opprobrium that will likely give us indigestion before we have even ordered our first course.

"When we moved back to England and attempted to eat out here," Lola Borg says, "I remember getting so many tuts from everybody around us that I gave up in the end. It was a bloody nightmare. The food was worse as well."

Before starting a family ourselves, my wife and I would eat out regularly; most of what we earned we frittered away on overpriced Mediterranean fancies and ornate Japanese exotica. But after our first daughter was born, we, like all new parents, stopped going out altogether. She was many months old before we introduced her to the concept, and we did so with the necessary trepidation of a bomb-disposal expert, with early weekend lunches in the kind of restaurants that advertised its kiddie-friendliness by blowing up balloons and handing them out upon entry.

But our daughter was already something of a free spirit, and didn't take kindly to the constraints of a high chair. Within minutes, she would have breast-stroked her way across a table littered with plates, while dessert would invariably end up all over the floor like some kind of dirty protest. As she exhausted our patience, our very presence exhausted the patience of everyone around us. We took note. For the next couple of years, we ate in.

But at some point, as Aldo Zilli recommends, you do want your children to grasp at least the broad brushstrokes of social etiquette. And so we started again. By now, we had two daughters, aged four and two, the elder having relinquished her free spirit to her sister, a tyrant in pull-ups, who seemed to view such occasions as an opportunity to make us squirm.

Like all sensible parents, we'd conferred beforehand with friends about the safest places to visit, those establishments that welcomed our kind. The mostly unwritten rules of family dining seem to be these: choose a place of hustle and bustle, its natural noise level so loud that one more wailing child is unlikely to bother anyone. Booths are good, as inevitable spillage remains effectively self-contained. Speedy service is also an absolute essential, as the child prepared to patiently wait half an hour for a plate of chips hasn't been born yet.

Because there is no such thing as an independently owned restaurant any more, we head for the high street option. Pizza Express and Carluccio's, both nominally – or at least historically – Italian, are pretty fail-safe, as is the comparatively new kid on the high street block, Giraffe, an aggressively colourful place that manages toddler tantrums with school ma'am ease and serves surprisingly decent food. "Our staff are specially trained to deal with children," says Giraffe director Juliette Joffe. "They are patient, and understanding, and accommodating." I tell her that the last time we visited a waiter complained about my two-year-old (though, frankly, she had it coming).

"Yes, well," Joffe says, "children who run around too much can pose a very genuine hazard and so of course we will point this out if necessary."

But ultimately Giraffe remains a thoroughly British institution. A family restaurant by day, it prefers a more grown-up clientele by sundown. "We mostly stop serving children's menus at six o'clock," Joffe says. "We try to tone it down in the evening..."

But where does that leave those of us craving an authentic continental experience, late nights, plus genuinely good food?

According to Marco Pierre White, amongst the greatest of British chefs, you go to Frankie's, the chain of restaurants he founded a few years back with former jockey Frankie Dettori. Frankie's, he has claimed, is the most welcoming restaurant of its kind outside of Italy. Here, bedtime is a concept daringly unobserved. Children are free to slalom, while adults can sit back and graze. It boasts a wine list, too. Reason enough to visit.

And so last Sunday I took my family to its Chiswick, west London, branch. It was early evening on the hottest day of the year and we arrived, pink-cheeked and sunstroked, to find a restaurant completely – and rather ominously – empty, the rest of Chiswick's denizens apparently happy with the no-frills pizza joints further down the high street.

If the best child-friendly environment is the one that boasts the most hustle and bustle, then its diametric opposite is also a safe bet: if there is no one else here, there is no one to upset. We ordered pork belly and duck and, for the children, spag bol the way Nonna used to make it.

But the food took a while to come, and the children were hypnotised by the gaudy mirrorballs that hung from the ceiling, and the sparkly patterns they threw onto the marble floor beneath. Consequently, they spent most of their time running around in pursuit of light-fantastic snowflakes.

Afterwards, when our waiter arrived to clear away the messy remains, he noted that the spaghetti had hardly been touched. "Did you not like your pasta?" he asked my four-year-old.

My daughter, shy around strangers, directed her typically four-year-old response to me.

"They do it better at the crèche," she announced.

Before I could apologise, the waiter held up an ameliorative hand. He understood. Perhaps he has children himself.

Five family-friendly restaurants:

Wagamama: Arguably the best fast food in the country. Clean and healthy rice and noodles served in essentially a posh canteen. Chopsticks provide the fun factor; a mop cleans up the mess.

Pizza Express: Rightly a national treasure, offering reasonably priced Italian fare. Far tastier than its stuffed-crust competitors. Endlessly popular with families.

Belgo's: A potential risk, but this Belgian chain's mussels and frites put the fun into food, and the place is as noisy as any school – or prison – canteen. Arrive early for the budget menu.

Carluccio's: A firm favourite, judging by online bloggers' posts, with yummy mummies, Carluccio's offers an authentic taste of traditional Italy, nicely priced, impeccably served. They also provide crayons.

Nando's: Though ostensibly Kentucky Fried Chicken with knobs on, this is fast food with a healthier bent. It's quite possibly one of the most popular choices in the country today.

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