As the end of the term approaches and the Christmas break is nearly upon us, suddenly we feel the need to chat about family friendly restaurants so you can go into next week armed and ready.
Dining out with children is an enormous topic. Are we talking about taking your two-month-old in a carrycot out for supper or loading up your three toddlers for a special Sunday lunch? Is it middle-aged children you’re inviting, the ones who know how to hold a knife and fork but aren’t necessarily very adventurous in the culinary department yet? And how about teenagers, or groups of mixed ages?
Let’s assume that the children you’re bringing may need something interesting to keep them focussed on the dining experience, that they may be noisy or restless at times and that you want the whole experience to be as pleasant as possible for you, them and fellow diners. Shall we go from there?
A pair of West End restaurants is absolutely stark raving brilliant at the family friendly dining experience: Planet Hollywood and The Rainforest Café.
At Planet Hollywood you dine surrounded by star-struck movie memorabilia, film clips, sound tracks. R2D2 is here. Seriously! The children’s two-course menu is £8.95 and includes children’s favourites. Warning: it also includes unlimited sodas.
The Rainforest Café recreates an Amazonian rainforest with plants, sound effects like thunder and lightning storms, animated gorillas, elephants and butterflies and a giant mushroom bar. The menu items have cute names like Andy Pandy Mash and Flying Dragon Pizza. Your kids will think you’re a hero to bring them to either of these enthralling restaurants. Warning again: there are gift shops attached.
Smollensky’s on the Strand not five minutes from Covent Garden in the West End is a terrific American grill restaurant with convincing drinks and a vibrant atmosphere, so grownups love it. At Saturday and Sunday lunch, children will go mad for the entertainment: cartoons, balloons, Playstation, milkshakes and magicians between 1pm and 4pm. At Smollensky’s at Canary Wharf, a child eats free at the weekends from noon to 8pm from the children’s menu when an adult eats as well.
At Inamo restaurant in Soho, children will love the menu that is projected onto the table and they’ll adore using the touchpad to place their order, choose a tablecloth or play Battleships. The pan-Asian menu is split into small and large dishes so there are many fascinating flavours for everyone to sample. This is a good spot for vegetarian families, too, and could become a regular family favourite for you.
On a similar theme, in a way, Benihana has been keeping groups of diners of all ages entertained for absolutely decades with the dancing knives and banter of the teppan-yaki chefs as they create an eight-course Japanese meal right before their eyes. Food plus performance equals a terrific family meal out, especially for mixed-aged family groups. It’s also amusing to teach your children how to eat with chopsticks, if they’re not used to it at home. There are Benihana restaurants in Chelsea, Soho and at St Paul’s.
Slightly older children dig Sticky Fingers in Kensington. It was founded by Bill Wyman, bass player of the Rolling Stones, and the rock theme is evident everywhere from the posters and memorabilia to the pounding soundtrack. The American menu is a crowd-pleaser. The children’s menu includes a portion of their excellent bbq ribs among its choices. There are shakes, floats and malts among the desserty drinks and a ‘Tableside Campfire’ dessert that will hit their top ten for sure. NB: merchandise alert.
If that sort of informality is what your brood needs, then isn’t it good news that The Chicago Rib Shack is back in London after a ten-year hiatus? The ribs are as delicious as the rest of the American menu, there’s an ‘Exhipigtion’, a cute collection of customer-designed pigs – have your kids design one — and bibs that say ‘Bone appetite’. The waitstaff are just so friendly and no one will shudder if your children lick their fingers.
Sometimes restaurants have created magical settings that are enough to engage children in the lovely experience of dining out. Babylon at the Roof Gardens in Kensington is one such magical place, floating a hundred feet above the High Street and with an acre and a half of beautiful rooftop gardens. The seasonal British menu is proper grownup stuff, but the children’s menu speaks their language.
The Blue Elephant in Fulham is another retreat, a lush tropical jungle with a little arching bridge over a carp stream with oodles of fresh flowers everywhere. If your children are susceptible to visual delight, this may become a favourite London hideaway for family friendly dining, and the Thai menu is super, too. Having said that, the ambience at The Blue Elephant is quite vivacious, so the natural voices of children aren’t out of place here. At the lavish Sunday brunch, there is entertainment for children, too.
Okay, maybe informal and finger-licking and American isn’t what you fancy at all. Maybe you’d like some proper grownup ambience and food and drinks. We have a couple of suggestions.
1. Italian. Almost any Italian, in fact. The food is child-popular, the country adores children and that includes yours, sight unseen, and the waiters are accustomed to multi-generational dining because that’s how it is in Italian families. We blogged about Italian restaurants a couple of days ago, or click here to search toptable’s Italian restaurants. But seriously, Italian is always a brilliant choice with children.
2. Blind them with formality. Awe them with propriety. In other words, dress them up and take them out to one of the traditional big guns and watch them fall into the mood of the meal and act like little ladies and gentlemen. Simpson’s in the Strand, for instance, welcomes children. And children like the trolley that comes by for the roast carving, the whooshing noise the big linen napkins make when they’re placed in their laps, the sense of occasion.
We know that some diners aren’t keen on the presence of children at high-end restaurants, especially if they’ve hired a babysitter so they themselves could have an evening in grownup company undisturbed. But we believe the children are the future, as the song says, and if they’re going to gain one of the great adult skills – eating well in public, enjoying the society and pleasure of dining out – they need to experience it as they’re growing up. So if you’re a parent, grandparent or friend who’s braving the experience of dining with children, good on you. We sincerely hope our short guide to family friendly restaurants helps you choose a spot that matches your family’s age, patience level and interests so you find some restaurants that you really enjoy, that might become family favourites. For us at toptable, nurturing the next generation of diners is close to our heart and helping them along is the best Christmas present of all.