Restaurants, surely are no place for child’s play? Not so, as some of London’s finest establishments strike the right balance
A few weeks back, I took lunch at the Langley branch of Harvester. Why, I hear you cry? Is London so bereft of edible excitement that I have to motor 20 minutes down the M4 to get my culinary thrills from a nationwide chain of half-baked grills? Of course not. I was reviewing the place for The Mail on Sunday, and the food was predictably depressing. Even my two children, open-minded, junk-loving veterans of every level of eating, were unanimous in their disdain.
But forget about the flabby chicken wings, with their limp skin and utter lack of taste (while ignoring those pathetic ribs, with their soft, pappy, over-sweet mush) and the place was fantastic. Seriously, the service was warm, smiling and charming, and the children were allowed to scribble and snivel and spill to their hearts’ content. If it weren’t for the filthy tucker, Harvester would be a fine family restaurant. But then again, what exactly is a proper family restaurant?
Is it one of those ‘hi guys, here’s a cheap badge, some bad typeface and flaccid balloon’ sort of place? There’s a chain in London that makes a lot of noise about how child-friendly they are. But having eaten in one branch – where every other dish seemed to contain sweetcorn, plus a side order of teeth-grindingly irritating banter – I’d decided to never subject my children to such mendacious claptrap. In fact, anywhere that sells themselves as a place ‘for all the family’ should be avoided like the Harvester burger.
Because most decent restaurants don’t panic at the sight of a brace of under sixes. Nor do they feel a need to construct a separate menu, cooked by the plongeur in the few seconds between fag break and the next crashing load of crockery. In Europe, children in restaurants is no big deal, as there’s a food culture that treats all with equal adoration. And I have no problem with places that say no thanks to the kids. Sometimes, you want to eat in hushed peace and restaurants that deal in the more ‘haute’ end of gastronomy often resent endless requests for chicken nuggets and chips (although The Ledbury welcomes the young ‘uns, despite its pair of Michelin stars). This, I totally understand.
My two, though, have been dragged all the capital in search of lunch. There have been failures – great, tear and snot soaked disasters – where we’ve had to leg it minutes after the first course in order to avoid a lynching from both punters and staff. But on the whole, most decent places are, well, decent towards the children. From Bayswater Chinese dim sum joints to Marylebone Japanese, children are broadly welcomed. Well, unless they set up a Marvel Avengers camp by the entrance to the kitchen, causing all sorts of totally justified anger. In exchange for the restaurants being civil to our offspring, we must ensure they don’t get in the way of running the place.
Our favourite place is Le Café Anglais (lecafeanglais.co.uk), a place they pretty much grew up in. Wonderful staff, huge room, lots of crayons, proper children’s food. And a magician on Sunday. There’s nowhere better, for children and adults alike. And despite Locanda Locatelli having a Michelin star, the restaurant, from Giorgio downwards, positively embrace the young ‘uns. That’s the Italian way. The same can be said for all those wonderfully old fashioned Chelsea places, from La Famiglia to Zianni, where children are not just endured, but adored.
Pubs that serve decent grub are another reliable option. We spend most Saturdays eating in either The Princess Victoria (princessvictoria.co.uk) on Uxbridge Road, and The Anglesea Arms (theangleseaarms.com), just by Ravenscourt Park. Perfect pasta, and lovely front of house too. For a birthday treat, you can’t ever do better than The Wolseley (thewolseley.com), where high tea becomes high art and the kids are treated like A-listers. As they are at The Delaunay (thedelaunay.com) and Colbert (colbertchelsea.com), other restaurants in the same glorious group. And lunch at Balthazar is as much a joy with children as it is without. These are serious places, run by brilliant restaurateurs who welcome children with open arms.
Byron (byronhamburgers.com) is ever reliable, where our two eschew the kid’s menu in favour of having one cheese burger, medium rare (hold the tomatoes and lettuce), cut down the middle and munched with a great grin plastered across their face. Pizza Express (pizzaexpress.co.uk) keeps them happy too, along with Pizza East (pizzaeastportobello.com) in Notting Hill.
In fact, there are relatively few decent restaurants that DON’T welcome children, as long as the parents know how to behave. So don’t let your little darlings swing from the chandeliers while lobbing pats of butter at any passer by. Just as much as we, the parent, expect a smile and good service, so too should our children learn to respect, as well as love, the restaurant. They are not prissy temples, where even a sneeze is seen as sacrosanct, but neither are they no-holds-barred playgrounds. Once this balance has been established then lunch out with the kids, so often a chore, becomes a joy. Well, most of the time, anyway.