Unless you have children, the chances are you will have no interest if a restaurant is ‘child friendly’ or not. Stefan Chomka looks at why it's a good idea to cater for the kids and the best way to do it.
Most top-end operators leave catering for children to the fast-casual sector, which is better placed to deal with balloons and high chairs, while they concentrate on the more profitable adult customers. As Charlie McVeigh, co-owner of Le Café Anglais in Bayswater, says: “If you were always full for every single service then you would ban children because the spend per head of a child is a third that of an adult.”
The reality for most restaurants is, of course, slightly different, which is why Le Café Anglais takes children very seriously. So much so it was named Family Restaurant of 2009 in Restaurant’s R150 awards. As well as a providing a specific children’s menu, every Sunday the restaurant hosts a roaming magician to keep the children (and adults) entertained and also hosts other children themed events throughout the year.
This approach is rather unique given Le Café Anglais’ reputation as a destination restaurant where people make the detour to try chef/proprietor Rowley Leigh’s cooking – the dining room is more for the ladies-that-lunch crowd rather than the kid dining circuit – but it’s not solely for the sake of altruism.
McVeigh, whose own child was eating in the restaurant when we met, says there’s business sense in looking after the little people. Monday to Saturday Le Café is a relatively child-free zone, but on Sundays its clientele is predominantly families and McVeigh reckons its attitude towards children has helped make Sunday one of the restaurant’s busiest days. Moreover, family occasions in restaurants have risen by around 30 per cent in the past five years, according to research carried out by Britvic, and their bills are around 60 per cent higher than the average spend.
A creche course in service
If you want to take serving children seriously without impairing the experience of the adult diners take Mcveigh’s advice and serve them first.
“A recipe for a contented meal is that the waiter takes the children’s food orders with the grown-ups’ drinks orders so by the time the drinks are there their food has arrived. The children can then play while the grown ups can eat. We insist that a child’s order is taken separately and comes earlier because you need it or the service will fall over. Most people are more angry about bad service than bad food. If you want to present a family table of 15 with a bill for £400 they will have to have been given good service for them to feel like it’s been worth it,” he says.
Le Café’s use of the conjuror’s trick – both figuratively and literally – to keep families happy is important because it can potentially lengthen their stay and increase spend, as the Tiltyard Café in Hampton Court knows only too well. It believes a restless child can force parents to forfeit dessert or a second beverage, and runs regular activities to keep children who do not share their parents’ enjoyment of long lunches occupied. Throughout December children are invited to decorate Christmas cookies in the café, at Easter it runs child-specific competitions and in August Hampton Court Events holds a two-hour food and art class for children to create pieces of art using food.
A separate menu?
What restaurateurs are more divided on is whether to create a specific menu for children or offer smaller portions à la carte. Le Bouchon Bordelais serves smaller portions of anything on the menu, but has also created a specific children’s menu featuring dishes such as Coquillettes Pasta with Ham, Mini Baguette Strasbourgeoise (no mustard) and Mini Steak Frites.
Company of Cooks takes a similar approach. At Table, it’s new Brighton restaurant, it serves a children’s menu with two courses for £4.50 and also serves what it calls a Children’s Box, consisting of a “special hot item and some sweet favourites”.
Michelin star chef Thierry Laborde, at The Kitchen in Parsons Green, takes a different view. Laborde runs classes teaching children about food and cooking and believes by treating them as adults, rather than singling them out with different menus – especially of the chicken nuggets and chips ilk – children develop an appreciation of food at an early age.
"My five-year-old son eats the same food as me. If you go to France you don’t have a kids’ menu, there is just one menu. If you go to a gastronomic restaurant they don’t have a children’s menu because they can’t afford to cook for children and that’s a good thing."
It’s a compelling argument, but one that has to be balanced by business capabilities, argues McVeigh. When Le Café Anglais first opened it didn’t have a children’s menu; instead it served smaller portions off the à la carte, but it soon found it made more sense to offer an independent menu for children.
During busy services it even has one chef solely in charge of children’s food. “Trying to serve children when you’re doing 200-300 covers on a Sunday is something you can’t do à la carte, so we thought it was better to put the kids on a set menu."
Even parents themselves are ambivalent, it seems. According to parenting website www.childfriendly. co.uk the number-one attribute for a child-friendly restaurant is a varied children’s menu with plenty of healthy options, followed by friendly staff who welcome children.
Only 4 per cent of mums named the provision of children’s portions of adult meals as the most important factor.
In my opinion, for what it's worth, I want to be treated the same way whether I am with children or not. And a separate, decent children's menu does not offend.