Carluccio’s, just about everywhere…

There are some places that provide a kind of culinary comfort blanket.  They cosset you in a warm and safe space.  And they never, ever give you a nasty surprise.  For us, Carluccio’s is such a place.

They manage to pull off a seemingly impossible feat of appealing equally to adults and children.  You know exactly what you’ll get: simple, authentic Italian food and generally cheerful, friendly service.

Now, I know that Carluccio’s isn’t everyone’s plate of spaghetti, but the sheer number of restaurants, means that if you find yourself somewhere with a hungry toddler and need a quick, good value, child-friendly meal you could do a whole lot worse.

They have a children’s menu which doesn’t compromise on flavour at all, yet goes down really well with all the kids I know.  All branches have high chairs and most have baby changing facilities.

If you’re shopping in the West End the branch in St Christopher’s Place is handy; if you’re at the Museums in South Kensington there is a branch just opposite the Tube; the one is Covent Garden is the ‘flagship’ and handy for the Galleries in Trafalgar Square; the one in Bluewater has a queue at the weekends so stick to weekdays if you can; we’ve even been to the ones in Bath and Tunbridge Wells.

But my favourite is the one in the basement of Fenwick’s on New Bond Street.  It’s perfectly located for lunch on a Sunday inbetween a little sneaky shopping.  Fenwick have a delightful toy section packed with unusual things.  And it’s right next to the restaurant: perfect for bribes and distraction…

Rating:

Stylishness: 3.5/5 (you’ll never be caught short with a hungry toddler again: what could be more stylish for a yummy mummy?)

Friendliness: 4/5

Feeding Facilities: 4/5

Changing Facilities: 4/5

Food: 4/5

Overall rating: 19.5/25   £-££

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Dean Street Townhouse, Soho, London W1

Birthdays in our house, you’ll not be surprised to learn, are opportunities for eating out.  Last weekend was my husband’s 40-something birthday and we celebrated by having lunch at the Dean Street Townhouse.  As Nick Jones’ (he of Soho House and Babington House fame) latest offering, The Dean Street Townhouse has been getting quite a bit of attention so it was our way of pretending we are entering that fourth decade still as hip and on trend as ever.

It also, we discovered, allowed us to indulge our love of all things New York: as soon as you step inside you could as easily be in SoHo as Soho.   We had booked the table for three but not indicated that our third was in fact a three year old.  The host took this in her stride and a great fuss was made of taking Jack’s coat and seating him in the best spot with a view across the room.

Jack asked for bread and some water before we’d even had a chance to open the menus and was genially indulged.   Whilst no children’s menu was offered, when I ordered the fish and chips for Jack the waiter immediately suggested a children’s version of the adult dish.

The restaurant was almost full but there was no sense that they were over stretched.  Dan’s chicken pie, my salt beef and Jack’s fish and chips arrived just as we’d managed to clock a couple of broadcast journalists and a former Downing Street staffer.  The blackbird steam vent in the chicken pie brought on a rendition by Jack of Four and Twenty Blackbirds which was the cause of some amusement (and thankfully not a hint of annoyance) from the staff and diners around us.

Since it was a birthday celebration we all had dessert.  Ice creams for the boys and sherry triffle for me.  The food is simple but perfectly prepared and presented.

There isn’t a baby changing table but the disabled loo is enormous and absolutely spotless, so as long as you have a good changing mat I wouldn’t let this put you off because this is a great place for a relaxed and thoroughly enjoyable lunch.   We left vowing to come back for a more romantic ‘diner a deux’ as soon as we can get a baby sitter…

Rating:

Stylishness: 5/5

Friendliness: 4/5

Feeding Facilities: 4/5

Changing Facilities: 3/5

Food: 4/5

Overall rating: 20/25   ££-£££

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Gaucho, Canary Wharf, London E14

On the spur of the moment last weekend we decided to go out for lunch.  As we rang round unsuccessfully trying to get a table, the realisation that it was Valentine’s Day slowly dawned.  Our excuse for our lack of awareness of it being simultaneously the most romantic day of the year and the day you are least likely to get a spur of the moment table at a decent restaurant?  We eschew the crass commercialisation of love…obviously.

We finally got a table at The Gaucho at Canary Wharf – a mere 15 minutes drive from us.  Result.   Chancing upon a restaurant with a free table on such a day really ought to arouse suspicion, however hunger and toddler demands for ‘sausage and mash now’ got the better of us and off we went.

The Gaucho don’t have a children’s menu but we figured that they had mash on the menu and a sausage platter which would fit the bill.  We figured wrong.  Despite offering to pay for the whole platter but just be served the least spicy sausage from it, the waitress said that was not possible.  Jack settled on a burger and mash instead.

The pasta dish which I decided on, was, the waitress informed me, made with a different pasta, but ‘still good’.  Done.

The restaurant is dark.  Not cosy, romantic dark, but dark enough to make it difficult to see your food.  So when my pasta arrived, though I thought it didn’t look quite right it was not until I tasted it that I realised not only was it a different shape pasta, it was a completely different dish to the one on the menu and not a particularly tasty one at that.   My query was met with bemusement by the waitress.  No doubt I was being punished for having the temerity to order pasta in a steak restaurant.

The toilets are cramped but there’s just enough room to get a toddler in with you.  There was a couple with a baby sitting not far from us but I decided not to spoil their meal by informing them that there is no baby changing table, though there is a disabled loo with a floor which would do if they had a changing mat.  They might have thought I was a mad woman.

Rating:

Stylishness: 0/5

Friendliness: 3/5

Feeding Facilities: 2/5

Changing Facilities: 0/5

Food: 2/5

Overall rating: 7/25   ££

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Giraffe, South Bank, London

Being half–Italian and a (complete) foodie, I knew that when I had children I would want to instill in them a love of good food and the ritual of eating together.  Well, here I am with a 3 year old who loves olives, garlic, capers and salami.  Of course, he likes those Brit staples of chips and sausages too, but he has a well developed love of really flavoursome foods.

As soon as Jack showed interest in food when we started weaning I encouraged him to taste a bit of what we were eating too.  Eating out has been a big part of developing his love of food and sharing the pleasure of eating together with him.

On a recent day out with Jack and his grandparents we found ourselves on the South Bank at lunchtime.  It was school holiday time so there were queues for all the restaurants.  We plumped for the one for Giraffe.   What a mistake.

Now, I know that there is a place for restaurants which cater specifically for families – especially when you’ve got a gaggle of kids to feed.  But if you want to actually enjoy the experience of eating out together rather than use it purely as a refuelling stop, don’t do it.

The noise level is conversation-stifling.  If MacDonald’s did table service this is what it would be like.  There are baby changing facilities and there is plenty of room for buggy parking, but, frankly, why you would want to bring a baby here unless you had no other choice is beyond me.

If you’re in the area and need somewhere to eat you’d be much better off in Canteen or Wagamama’s.

Rating:

Stylishness: 0/5

Friendliness: 3/5

Feeding Facilities: 3/5

Changing Facilities: 4/5

Food: 2/5

Overall rating: 12/25   £

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Chapters, Blackheath, London

When I was on maternity leave there were days I felt like everyone else was busy at work and I was the only person – in the world – sitting at home longing for an adult conversation.  On days like those, the only way to keep my sanity, was to get out and about.

At the very least, walking down to Blackheath Village for lunch would be enough to lift my spirits a little.   We have the obligatory high street eateries like Pizza Express, Cafe Rouge and Strada but I give them a wide berth.  Bursting at the seams with mums, babies and children and a decibel level which would not be out of place on the flightpath of a jumbo jet, they instill in me a mortal fear that I have morphed into ‘the middle-aged mum’.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Pizza Express and other mums and their babies.  Just not all in the one place at the same time.  Places that specifically aim themselves at mums and children seem to assume that children will only eat plain (and sometimes downright poor) food.  There is a kind of culinary lowest common denominator at work.

Thankfully, a handful of great independent cafes have established themselves in the Village.  A recently reinvented Chapters is currently our bistro of choice.  The food is beautifully prepared, generously proportioned and as good as you would expect in the West End.  The children’s menu is well edited without compromising on taste.  The staff are unfailingly friendly and helpful.  The baby changing table is in the disabled loo which is also handy for toddler needs.

And best of all?  On any given day, at any given time you are as likely to be eating alongside young couples, famous children’s TV presenters from the 70s, ladies (and laddies) who lunch, as you are other mums.  Good enough to save your sanity.

Rating:

Stylishness: 3/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Feeding Facilities: 4/5

Changing Facilities: 5/5

Food: 4/5

Overall rating: 21/25   £-££

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5th Floor, Waterstone’s Piccadilly, London

Browsing leisurely in a bookshop, working my way from one interest or passion to another, is a luxury I rarely have time for now I have a 3 year old as well as a job.   Occasionally, my husband and I, in some reckless desire to behave as we did BC (before child), torture ourselves by popping into Waterstone’s in Piccadilly.

The miles of books wink, whisper and call to us.  Read me.  Read me.  Read me…

Ah, if only.  As we make our way to the children’s department something displayed by the entrance or the stairs will catch my eye.  Otherwise I rely on recommendations, reviews and Amazon.

We must be doing something right though, because Jack regularly asks to go to ‘the book shop’.  He could spend hours looking at the books and demanding to be read to.

Luckily, they do have a small family room on the same floor, complete with changing table, loo and chair for feeding.  For toddlers and adults in need of refreshment the 5th floor eaterie beckons.

The tables and chairs are not too closely packed so it feels quite relaxed, even when it is busy.  The food is ok, but nothing to write home about.  Then again, one doesn’t come for the food; one comes for the books.  The staff are efficient and, sometimes, friendly.

Any minor shortcomings of the eaterie are absolutely forgiven for what it creates: the time and space to enjoy the books.

Rating:

Stylishness: 4/5 (Come on, it is a HUGE bookshop, what could be more stylish?!)

Friendliness: 3/5

Feeding Facilities: 3/5

Changing Facilities: 5/5

Food: 3/5

Overall rating: 18/25   ££

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Village East, Bermondsey Street, London

The Saturday morning we were due to visit our friends in Bermondsey dawned as wet as a very wet thing. It was definitely a bad sign.

Bermondsey is home to a cool mixture of creative and NYLON types and sits cheek by jowl with Borough. The plan was to drop by and see our friends, exchange belated Christmas presents for their 4 month old and our 3 year old, then wander over to Roast in Borough Market for a nice lunch.

The rain put paid to the second half of the plan. Village East on Bermondsey Street was a mere stone’s throw away. That, and it’s claim to be in the style of New York warehouse dining, sealed the deal.

It certainly looks the part. We were seated in the ‘canteen’ area which was busy but not full. Jack, doing his best impression of mummy and daddy ordering from the menu, asked the waiter for chicken and chips. Both were on the menu but in separate dishes. The waiter: ‘er, I don’t know about that, not sure we can…‘ Me: ‘But you have chicken and you have chips?’ Waiter: ‘Yes. I will check with the kitchen.‘

He didn’t come back so we crossed our fingers and hoped that something approximating chicken and chips would appear. The relief was palpable when it did – particularly as Jack was approaching hunger meltdown by that point We had ordered from the brunch menu and it is fair to say it was all delicious. The waiter warmed slightly once he realised we were pleased with the food.

Another little group with a child, who could not have been more than two, arrived and a high chair appeared. They looked like they were having a good time and I started to think I might have judged the waiter too harshly.

Sadly, that was shortlived. There is barely enough room to get a toddler in the toilet cubicles, let alone find space to change a baby. On asking if they had a disabled toilet I was met with a very sheepish ‘um, yes, but we use it as our cloakroom…‘

As if that wasn’t enough, we got absolutely drenched walking back to the car and smelt like damp sheep all the way home.

Rating:

Stylishness: 3/5

Friendliness: 2/5

Feeding Facilities: 3/5

Changing Facilities: 0/5

Food: 3/5

Overall rating: 11/25   ££

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