Eating out isn’t the easiest thing to do when you have a child who’s both not very interested in food and has a limited range of food he’ll even try. After cutting down the options to cope with this the focus often has to be on the environment and service provided by different restaurants – an uncomfortable atmosphere or poor service will ruin a meal out even more than usual. OMB is not a happy eater.
While in London over Easter we had a range of different experiences eating out. The quality of the service tended to be the thing that differentiated between a good meal and a bad one as thankfully these days it is fairly easy to avoid bad food.
We had lunch on Thursday at Bill’s Produce Store in St Martin’s Courtyard, Covent Garden. Although OMB decided that he didn’t want to eat much, the vibrant interior with a high wall stacked with brightly coloured tins and jars of pastes, oils and condiments made for a sufficiently diverting experience to allow myself and Mrs B to enjoy our burgers – the halloumi burger being satisfyingly generous and my beef burger made of well-cooked good quality beef. The chips were also outstanding (these OMB did finish!). The fresh juices, carrot and orange, raspberry and mango, and apple were also excellent.
On Easter Sunday after walking from the apartment in Borough we were staying in, we let OMB choose where to have lunch. His favourite restaurant is Pizza Express, so it was little surprise that as we went past St Paul’s Cathedral and he spotted a Pizza Express there he chose it for lunch. Although the kids’ menu there is expensive (£6.95 for 3 courses and a coffee-less capuccino, plus £2.30 for a glass of juice) it is one that unusually for him OMB will usually polish off entirely (bar the token salad that comes with the dough ball starter). Unfortunately, we had chosen to visit the worst Pizza Express ever. The food was OK if at the bottom end for acceptable execution in a chain restaurant. The problem was the appalling service. For some unfathomable reason the waitress gave the obviously non-adult OMB an adult menu and had to be recalled to give the kids’ menu. She then brought OMB’s drink in a far too large glass without a straw (being regulars to the chain we know that they have special smaller glasses – indeed I could see the instruction poster by the drinks station pointing these out). Then, no sooner had we finished our starters and before the plates had even been cleared away, our mains arrived. Needless to say we then had to wait ages twiddling our thumbs (or rather doing colouring with the pad and pens we had brought – we’d given up expecting the restaurant to provide its usual activity pack and didn’t really want to interact much more with the waitress) with our main course plates stacked on the table before we could get dessert. When you visit a chain restaurant you know you will get consistentish food but that you should receive a good standard of trained-in service. Or at least you should. We didn’t. Poor. Worse still, almost as if to mock us, after leaving, we walked past the Strada next door which was filled with happy-looking people and animatedly friendly waiting staff. So it isn’t just that we couldn’t have expected better in so touristy a spot.
On our last day, after a bit of a drenching leaving Hamleys, we gave up trying to do any more shopping in the West End and visited Carluccio’s in St Christopher’s Place. The contrast with Pizza Express could not have been more stark. The service was friendly and attentive while leaving us with the time and space to enjoy our meals. As it is an Italian restaurant which does not do pizza, OMB was more limited in his choice, ending up with penne in butter (with a bit of good fresh parmesan). The branded colouring pencils and colour in jigsaw puzzle won the prize for best quality kids’ activity set! The adult set menus were excellent and good value, particularly as a large glass of decent house wine was only £3.50 with them. Overall, the experience showed what could be done even in a chain restaurant setting in a touristy area on a public holiday.
While Carluccio’s helped to erase the Pizza Express experience, when the bill came it was revived slightly. Both the Carluccio’s and Bill’s lunches came in at less than £40 (£36 and £38 respectively before tips). Had we paid any tip at all, Pizza Express would have been over £50. Sometimes you don’t get what you pay for.
It is common for mass-market restaurants to have special menus for children. Encouragingly, higher-end places seem to be starting to cater for children too. As a special treat, Mrs B took us to Roast in Borough Market for dinner on Saturday evening. They have a kids eat free special offer of the sort that normally only exists at motorway service stations so it is great to see at a good restaurant. They also managed to give OMB some crayons and an activity sheet – see Pizza Express, St Paul’s!
We chose from their market fresh set menu while OMB had fish fingers and chips which was so good that even I found it appetising despite not eating fish at all, ever. The manuka honey vodka, goji berry liqueur and sparkling wine aperitifs were fresh-tasting and fruity without being overbearingly sweet. My Beef Croquettes were meltingly delicious and Mrs B enjoyed her asparagus soup with smoked mackerel. The mains of roast belly pork and chicken breast with spring bubble and squeak and spiced black pudding were lovely – the black pudding in particular being interesting for having asian spicing rather than more traditional herbs. The English white wine (Chapel Down Bacchus Reserve, Tenterden 2009) also complemented the meals well, tasting like a restrained and elegant Sauvignon Blanc. OMB also had a tremendous Knickerbocker Glory, the only complaint about which was that it was probably too nice for kids and could have done with some ice cream rather than just having cream!
Obviously Roast was rather more pricey than the other places we visited. If you have to ask…