Carluccio’s

Carluccio’s (1-2 Little Clarendon Street, OX1 2HP) has recently reopened in Oxford – good news for those who love the chain and were disappointed when it shut down its original Castle Quarter location in 2010. It has taken a while for them to find a new place, but they are now very well-located on Little Clarendon Street, which has no shortage of eateries and foot traffic.

In our London days, Oxford Daddy and I frequently visited our local Carluccio’s, sometimes to eat and sometimes just to buy some of their fresh pasta and sauces to cook at home. There doesn’t seem to be any space in this new Oxford Carluccio’s for fresh food, deli, and bakery items to take away, which is a shame, but they still have some of their packaged items (mainly biscuits, savoury crackers, and Italian coffee) for sale.

Carluccio's interior

When the Baberoo, her Gran, and I tried out the new Carluccio’s for lunch recently, we arrived before noon, but the restaurant was already filling up quite quickly, a testament to its new location. Just in time, we grabbed one of the round tables near the window, which had some space for both the stroller and a high chair. With the help of one of the accommodating staff, I placed the Baberoo’s order right away (always a useful thing to be able to do if you have a little one who can’t stand long waiting times) and she was successfully entertained by a colouring/activity book and pencil crayons, as well as by her appetizer of grissini breadsticks, until her main course arrived. I ordered her the penne with tomato sauce (all children’s meals are £6.60 and include breadsticks, soft drink, and ice cream or fruit salad along with the main), which she enjoyed, all the more because she was eating with a fork – a newly-developed skill that makes eating out a lot less messy!

I ordered the spaghetti carbonara (£8.75), a dish I hadn’t eaten for ages. It had a generous amount of delicious smoky pancetta but the pasta was a little plain – as it should be with carbonara, but it made me remember that I prefer pasta with a sauce. My own fault! I’ll order differently next time.

Carluccio's spaghetti carbonara

The Baberoo is very much into ice cream right now, so she was thrilled when her tub of ‘cold’ came along. Unfortunately, by that time service had become much slower due to an influx of diners, and we had to cut the dessert short to rush off to the carpark to put some more money in the meter. It was a good thing that the ice cream came in a container we could take away (although eating it in the stroller wasn’t the easiest thing and I ‘had’ to finish it for her).

We had a pleasant time at Carluccio’s and I’d go there again. Here’s how it stacks up for baby- and toddler-friendliness according to my five criteria of menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (more about these on my About page):

Menu: With a menu this big, you’re bound to find something you can eat even if you are holding a squalling baby with one arm while you use your free hand to twirl some pasta. Certainly many of the pasta dishes will work, as well as many first courses or small plates. Main courses that are fish-based may also be OK to eat with one hand, while meat-based dishes require both hands.

Space: There’s not a huge amount of space between tables at this Carluccio’s – if you have a big stroller, your best bet is one of the round tables near the window. Otherwise you may have difficulty negotiating your way around the restaurant, especially with all the diners and staff. There is a step up to get through the front door but it’s pretty manageable.

Ambiance: Light and cheerful, with very friendly staff who enjoy talking to babies and toddlers. It’s a busy place and we had about four different people helping us over the course of our lunch, which is not always a good thing – sometimes requests (like our water) can be forgotten. It’s clear that the restaurant is a family-friendly place and Carluccio’s has spared no expense in making this known – not least with the colouring/activity book. It was no ordinary photocopied sheet; it was a multi-page, beautifully-produced ‘Italian Journal’, designed by the illustrator Marion Deuchars. It made me want to do all the activities myself!

Carluccio's activity book

Facilities: There’s a spacious baby-changing and disabled toilet on the ground floor, near the back of the restaurant. It’s clean and fresh, with good bright lighting and a well-placed disposal bin and sink.

Carluccio's baby-changing facilities

Feeding: If you’re breastfeeding, choose a table with the wooden chairs without armrests, as those with armrests will be too cramped for you to hold a baby comfortably. There are a few tables with bench seating if you prefer. If your little one is eating solid foods, there’s a very thorough kids’ menu with all the classic Italian favourites in smaller portions.

In total, Carluccio’s rates an 8 out of 10 for baby- and toddler-friendliness. If you can, go during a time when it’s not as busy and you’ll get prompt and helpful attention from the staff.

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Pierre Victoire Bistrot

I have been meaning to visit Pierre Victoire (9 Little Clarendon Street, OX1 2HP) for quite a while now, but I’ve always been worried that its cozy (read: non-spacious) interior won’t afford enough room for our massive pushchair. But this weekend as the Baberoo, her Daddy, and I strolled around Oxford looking for a good place for lunch, we decided that we would give it a shot – despite the fact that nearly all the tables were occupied. Sometimes you just really want a confit, you know?

We hadn’t been out to eat in a while because the Baberoo’s nap is usually during lunch time, and I am very pleased to report that there has been a massive change for the better in her table manners and patience. Parents of toddlers, rejoice! There is yet hope if you cringe at the thought of taking your little one out. In my experience, from age 12 months to about 20 months was the worst of the tantrum stage, and I can see that things are starting to get better. (Parents of older toddlers, are you shaking your heads thinking that I don’t know what I’m talking about and the worst is yet to come? I beseech you, don’t burst my bubble. The kid acted great this time. I know I’m basing my prediction on one instance, but I hope that this trend will continue.)

With the Baberoo ensconced in her high chair, we ordered from the Prix Fixe menu, available from Monday-Saturday from 12:00-2:30 (a terrific value at £7.90 for one course, £9.90 for two, or £11.90 for three, with a few selections that cost extra). I chose the Confit de Canard à la Framboise, the duck confit with raspberry sauce and gratin Dauphinois. I was very happy with the way the meat fell away from the bone, and the tangy sauce complemented the rich flavour of the duck. The cheesy, buttery potatoes were also delightful. My husband enjoyed his steak, and the Baberoo ate quite a lot of her Linguine à la Provençale, the pasta-and-tomato-sauce dish from the kids’ menu (£5.90 for a main plus dessert), plus two little pots of grated cheese. She also wolfed down her ice cream, which had flecks of real vanilla bean, while my husband chose a pleasingly-spiced apple cake.

Pierre Victoire confit de canard

The service couldn’t have been nicer. The maitre d’, who helped us get in with our stroller and parked it in a corner near the kitchen so that we had plenty of room around our table, was charismatic and hospitable. During his many tours of the restaurant floor we overheard him chatting with diners, taking reservations (some from people lunching who wanted to come back for dinner!) and giving advice – including recommendations on how best to get wine stains out of clothing. I think the yellow cardigan in question was actually taken to the kitchen and the wine stains removed! When he came to our table he told us about his little boy, whose favourite food is snails (for the record, right now the Baberoo’s favourite is olives). Our waiting staff were also very helpful and, for the most part, efficient, especially considering that the restaurant remained full far past the lunch closing time of 2:30.

I truly enjoyed my meal and the whole experience I had at Pierre Victoire. I will certainly be going back again to try some of the other menu offerings. But how does it rate for baby- and toddler-friendliness? The five categories I look at are menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding – you can find out more about these on my About page.

Menu: Classic French dishes usually require the use of both hands to eat, so if you’re looking for something you can eat one-handed while holding a baby in the other arm, you only have a small number of choices when it comes to main courses. The hors d’oeuvres are mosty doable, but for mains the only ones that you could eat with one hand for sure are the quiche and the risotto – although I think I could have eaten my duck with one hand in a pinch.

Space: True to the cozy bistrot style, the tables at Pierre Victoire are packed close together and there’s not a lot of room to move around, especially with a stroller. That said, our maitre d’ was excellent at helping us into and through the restaurant and relieving us of the pushchair to save space at the table.

Pierre Victoire restaurant interior

Ambiance: The staff were friendly and spoke directly to the Baberoo. Music, if there was any, was drowned out by the boisterous sounds of happy diners – not a bad thing, unless you have a sleeping little one who is prone to awakening at loud laughter. The decor is homey and unpretentious.

Facilities: Quel dommage! Pierre Victoire doesn’t have any baby-changing facilities. It’s such a shame, because there is probably enough room in the toilets to add one if they could re-jig the space a bit (although you would still have to go downstairs to the basement). There is a wooden counter where the sink is, but it would only accommodate the smallest of infants. If your little one is any bigger, you’re out of luck unless you want to try the floor.

Pierre Victoire toilets

Feeding: Because the tables are quite close together, if you’re breastfeeding you might be a little cramped. The wooden chairs are not especially comfortable, but they’ll do if you need to breastfeed. For little ones who are eating solid food, there are high chairs and a kids’ menu, although some offerings (smoked salmon quiche, chicken and fries) are more suited to older kids’ palates. If your toddler enjoys pasta (and really, who knows one who doesn’t?) the linguine with tomato sauce will do fine.

In total, Pierre Victoire gets a 6.5 out of 10 for baby- and toddler-friendliness. The mark is necessarily lower because of the lack of baby-changing facilities, but it’s no reflection on the food, which I thought was excellent. I would say that it’s more of a place for parents to enjoy on their own, rather than with their little ones, but if you are fine with no changing facilities then by all means go with your babies and toddlers. The staff will help you out and you can all enjoy the French fare together. Personally, I can’t wait to come back here on a date alone with my chéri so we can enjoy a whole leisurely 3-course dinner.

 

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Oxford University Museum of Natural History

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History (Parks Road, OX1 3PW) re-opened in February 2014 after 14 months of closure, with a restored glass roof and a new café in the upper gallery. The Baberoo and I have visited a couple of times since then, once with friends during a quiet term-time lunch hour and once during the height of the school holidays.

Dinosaur

There are some fabulous touch-and-feel areas in the museum that babies and toddlers can enjoy, including tiny Mandy the Shetland Pony (an example of taxidermy so adorable that I wanted to stroke her as much as all the kids did; I’m surprised her coat isn’t worn down by all the petting she gets) and two huge tables of touchable specimens. The Baberoo especially enjoyed the stuffed fox, owl, and wallaby. The tables are at adult height, so you will have to hold your baby or sit them right on the table to touch the specimens.

OUMNH touch and feel table

If your little one is toddling around, they’ll have fun running around the museum spaces; just be careful around some of the dinosaurs and other skeletons, which are very easy to reach out and grab for despite the signs warning that they are delicate and not to be touched.

Baberoo and bones

For some reason, every toddler I know who has visited the museum is obsessed by the Victorian iron grates on the floor (although I expect that their obsession will shift to dinosaurs by the time they’re preschoolers). The Baberoo spent a lot of the time running from grate to grate, although she did pause to point out some eggs and animals in some of the glass cases.

Baberoo and grates

One way in which the museum could do better is by improving the signs around the building’s exterior directing you towards the stroller entrance. Signs in different places give conflicting information and the entrance for buggies and wheelchairs is not obvious at all. You could walk from one door to another several times without finding the way in. The picture below shows you where to enter – it’s to the right of the main building, at the first rounded archway. You go in through a door on the left when you enter the archway (you can’t see the door in the picture, but the red arrow points in the correct direction). You then need to turn to the right, go down a corridor, turn left, and take a lift up to the main level or the upper galleries.

OUMNH stroller entrance

We have enjoyed our visits to the museum and we’ll continue to go back in the future. The experience is limited at the moment to the touch-and-feel specimens and the intriguing floor grates, but as the Baberoo gets older she’ll begin to be interested in more of the gallery content. The museum is geared more towards families with school-aged children, but babies and toddlers will still have fun.

So how would I rate the OUMNH for baby- and toddler-friendliness? I usually rate an attraction on an 8-point scale rather than a 10-point scale, since there may not be any scope for the ‘menu’ criteria to be evaluated. However, since the OUMNH has a café and I’ve eaten there, I’ll use my regular 10-point scale instead, with the five criteria of menu, space, ambiance, facilities and feeding (see more about these criteria on my About page).

Menu: The café – run by Mortons, one of Oxford’s independent sandwich bars – serves mainly sandwiches, wraps, cakes, and other lunch/tea fare. Most of the items are easy enough to eat with one hand if you need to hold your baby with the other. The hummus wrap I had on our first visit was good and fresh; the coffee and walnut cake was a little dry. If your baby is on solid food there are some choices in the café that may work; there are special kids’ meal boxes (although some of the contents may be too ‘grown-up’ for some babies and toddlers). Signs in the café ask visitors to please not bring their own food to eat, but on our first visit I ignored this rule, having brought some snacks for the Baberoo. I was pleased I had, because she didn’t want the porridge that I bought her from the café. I think you can probably safely bring things for young babies and toddlers without the museum minding too much. There is an abundance of high chairs for little ones.

OUMNH Cafe

Space: The aisles and spaces within the museum are wide and roomy enough for any stroller, even a double buggy. (Amusingly, they were built this way to accommodate Victorian ladies’ crinolines!) You’ll have no problem manoeuvring your buggy anywhere within the gallery spaces. The café might present more of a spatial challenge; it’s in the upper galleries so it’s narrow and long. When it’s full people tend to station their buggies, high chairs, or an extra regular seat at the side of their table, using part of the aisle.  The lift, which you will need to use in order to get from the stroller entrance to any of the gallery spaces, is quite small and narrow.

Ambiance: This is a really family-friendly museum; they understand that families are one of their primary audiences. There’s a welcoming feeling, and the wide-open spaces and great lighting from the high glass roof make it feel a little less crowded even when it’s chock-full of people. Babies and strollers are made to feel welcome.

Facilities: There is a huge baby-changing toilet near the stroller entrance; it has masses of space and a very large pull-down changing table. The room is clean and fresh-smelling. Since this bathroom is located on the lower ground level you will need to use the lift to get to it (unless you’re using it when entering or leaving the building via the stroller entrance). According to the museum’s website there are also disabled toilets with baby-changing facilities near the main museum entrance.

OUMNH baby changing facilities

Feeding: There are chairs scattered around the museum; if you’re breastfeeding you may be able to find a chair in one of the quieter gallery spaces. They are padded and don’t have arms so they will probably work well for comfort. Little ones who are eating regular food can partake of the café’s offerings; since it’s a museum obviously no food is allowed in any other area.

For baby- and toddler-friendliness the Oxford University Museum of Natural History rates an 8 out of 10. Little ones will have fun exploring the museum’s touch-and-feel activities, and when they’re older they’ll get even more out of it. My advice is to start them young!

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Oxford Mommy’s one-year anniversary

I’ve been blogging for a whole year! Thank you to all my readers – you have given me wonderful feedback and encouragement as the Baberoo and I discover Oxford’s baby-friendly and toddler-friendly venues. I hope we’ll continue to unearth the city’s treasures and give you useful tips and guidance for navigating those first important years while having fun in Oxford!

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Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens

I’ve never been much of an animal lover. Zoos and wildlife parks have never held any appeal for me; I prefer cultural and culinary adventures rather than getting up close to nature in all its glory. So I very nearly didn’t go along when the Baberoo’s Gran and Oxford Daddy planned a trip to Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens (near Burford, Oxfordshire, OX18 4JP; £14.50 for adults, £10 for children 3-16 and seniors, free for under-3s). And that would have been a shame – because as it turned out, it was more fun than a barrel full of monkeys.

And there sure were monkeys. Monkeys, marmosets, lemurs, tamarins, and gibbons! They were all so interesting up close – I never thought I would enjoy observing  small primates so much. The Baberoo loved the smaller animals, especially the meerkats and the squirrel monkeys. She also enjoyed seeing the penguins and tropical birds as well as the larger mammals (although I’m not quite sure she can distinguish between most of them yet: the wolves, warty pigs, and capybaras all elicited a ‘woof woof’ sound).

Cotswold Wildlife Park penguin

What struck me most about the Cotswold Wildlife Park was how nicely it was laid out and how beautiful the vegetation was – both in the animals’ habitats and in the landscaped gardens. The gardens are as finely and professionally cultivated as any botanical garden, although they prefer to refer to their style of horticulture as ‘theatre with plants’. We were lucky enough to go on a beautiful sunny day that was not too hot, but I imagine that the gardens are equally lovely in different seasons. Since nearly everything is outdoors, make sure you plan accordingly with umbrellas, stroller covers, sweaters, jackets, and/or sunscreen, depending on the weather forecast.

Cotswold Wildlife Park landscaped gardens

The Cotswold Wildlife Park is an easily walkable size, and for those who don’t want to walk the whole time there’s a narrow-gauge railway (£1, free for under-3s) that will take you around the park. (Unfortunately, you wouldn’t be able to fit a stroller onto the train, so it’s not suitable for babies or toddlers.) If you have an older toddler or child who likes crafts, you can also visit the Brass Rubbing Centre, located in the Victorian Manor House in the centre of the Park (open school holidays and summer weekends; £1-£2.50). There’s a Children’s Farmyard where young ones can pet the animals and an Adventure Playground so they can run around, and a new ‘Skymaze’ adventure playground is set to open on July 19th.

Cotswold Manor House

Judging by the number of strollers and small children, Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens is no secret to families around Oxfordshire. We loved it and will definitely be back. Here’s how it rates for baby- and toddler-friendliness according to my five criteria of menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding.

Menu: The Oak Tree Restaurant is the main eatery at the Wildlife Park; it offers standard cafeteria-type dishes such as chilli con carne, jacket potatoes, burgers, or chicken nuggets, with chips as a side for most meals. A few of the dishes can be eaten one-handed if you are holding a baby in one arm. The restaurant offers children’s portions as well as baby-sized portions of most of the main meals. There are also three kiosks serving ice cream and snacks. But frankly, your best bet, for price as well as for ambiance, is to bring a picnic and eat in the gardens or at one of the picnic shelters or picnic tables around the park. We laid our blanket out on the Anniversary Lawn and ate a lovely picnic while we watched the train circling the park.

Space: There’s plenty of space in the Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens, and even double strollers – of which we saw plenty – will fit comfortably into all the entrances, paths, and facilities (although pushchairs are not allowed in the Madagascar exhibit, so you’ll have to take your little one out if you’d like to visit that one). The hard part is getting there: the Park is two miles south of Burford on the A361, about 20 miles west of Oxford. Coming by car is by far the best (some might say it’s the only) option, as buses to Burford are few and far between. The bus route from Oxford is the Swanbrook No. 853, operating three times daily on weekdays, four times on Saturdays, and once on Sunday, and you need to get a taxi from Burford to the Wildlife Park after getting off the bus. If you don’t have a car, it might be an idea to hire one for the day. Parking is excellent, with staff directing drivers to the next available space in the grass car park.

Ambiance: This is definitely a place for kids and it’s geared towards their enjoyment, from the signage to the Adventure Playground. Whoops of delight and happy faces everywhere made it clear that families were enjoying themselves, and the commercial aspects of the Park were kept very clearly within the shop and the eateries. The animals we saw looked like they were thriving and happy in their surroundings. All the staff we saw were pleasant and knowledgeable.

Facilities: There are four toilet blocks around the park, one of which is in the restaurant. All of them have baby-changing and disabled facilities. The baby-changing in the large block of toilets nearest the shop (shown at left in the picture below) is bigger than the one in the restaurant (shown at right). All of the baby-changing facilities I saw were clean and well-aired.

Cotswold Wildlife Park baby-changing facilities

Feeding: If your little one is eating solid food, you can get a child- or baby-sized meal at the restaurant. If you’re breastfeeding, there are many places to sit around the park, including picnic tables and garden benches, or just on the grass. If you’d like a secluded area for breastfeeding, you’ll be able to find one somewhere around the park.

In total the Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens gets an 8.25 out of 10 for baby- and toddler-friendliness. Although it’s much more geared towards school-aged kids than towards babies or toddlers, I’d highly recommend it as a great day out for even the youngest of babies. Most little ones will be thrilled to get a close-up look at the real-life counterparts of the toys they snuggle with and the animals they read about in books.

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Bill’s

One thing you never realize until you’ve lived with a toddler is that regular-people lunchtime falls exactly during toddler naptime. That means that going out for lunch at a normal hour is pretty difficult indeed. Never mind: there’s still breakfast, brunch, tea, and dinner!

Our most recent breakfast was at Bill’s (Northgate Hall, St Michael’s Street, OX1 2DU). I went to the original Bill’s in Lewes when it was the only one and rushed with excitement to try the one in Covent Garden when they opened in London; now there are more than 40 branches. They’re definitely doing something right, but as with most endeavours that start out small and get a lot bigger pretty quick, there’s a bit of a sameness to the newer branches that will never match the homegrown ambiance of the original.

Bill’s does a good job of offering tasty food throughout the day; there are menus for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and teatime. I ordered the blueberry and buttermilk pancakes (£5.95) with a peach and fresh mint iced tea (£2.95), while Oxford Daddy opted for the Bill’s Breakfast (£7.95) and the Baberoo got the eggs on toast from the kids’ menu (£2.95). The pancakes were light and thin – much better than your average stodgy thick pancake – but there were only three of them, which left me still hungry. This is unusual for Bill’s, where I’ve always found the servings quite generous.

Bill's pancakes

Luckily, I had also ordered a Jaffa cake (£2.55) from the teatime menu, so I wolfed down most of it – revelling in the squidgy, tangy jelly – and exchanged the rest for part of Oxford Daddy’s breakfast (the sausages were delicious). I also scarfed most of the Baberoo’s eggs, since she was enjoying the toast more. I was finally full, but I wouldn’t order the pancakes again because of the small quantity.

Bill's Jaffa cake

I’m a longtime fan of Bill’s and it will always be on my list of places to go for something tasty at any time of the day. But is it baby- and toddler-friendly? Here’s how it rates based on the five elements I always look for: menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding.

Menu: The breakfast menu offers a few choices suitable for those who need to hold a baby in one arm while eating with only one hand; the lunch/dinner menu does less well, since most of the offerings will require both hands to eat. Your best bets, if you need to eat one-handed, are risotto, mac’n’cheese, and some of the mezze, starters, and small plates. But you can always get one of the cakes or sweets from the teatime menu (which I highly recommend), so it’s a great choice of venue for afternoon tea. Bill’s offers a kids’ menu that offers a larger selection than the usual children’s menu, including six breakfast dishes (priced from £1.95 to £4.95) and seven lunch/dinner dishes (all £5.95, including ice cream for dessert). Many of the dishes will appeal to even the smallest toddlers.

Space: Your first hurdle will be getting up the stairs; there is a set of five stairs to get into the restaurant, which may deter those with large prams. It put me off for months before I finally went in! The staff are always happy to help you lift your carriage up the stairs, though. Once you’re in, you have only a few choices for seating where you are not blocking the way for other restaurant patrons and staff, especially since tables are set close together. There are a few tables that have regular chairs; these are your best bet. The booth seating doesn’t leave much room for a pushchair (and if you also need a high chair then there’s hardly any room at all). We sat at a regular table and removed two chairs so we had room for both stroller and high chair.

Bill's interior

Ambiance: The style is industrial-cozy: reclaimed wood, exposed piping, leather armchairs in lounging areas. The restaurant is also bursting with displays of Bill’s packaged specialty foods, which are available to buy right from your table, where you can fill out a little form while you eat. The service is friendly enough, although our server didn’t talk directly to the Baberoo or bring us a kids’ menu until we asked for one. He also suggested a table that would have put us in everyone’s way; we vetoed it in favour of one that was a little easier for a pushchair to fit in. On previous visits our servers have been much more on the ball about catering to our little one’s needs.

Bill's food to buy

Facilities: During this visit I had mistakenly thought there were no baby-changing facilities at Bill’s; the regular toilets (which are tiny) are signposted very well, but there is no sign on the door for the disabled/baby-changing loo so I didn’t see it at all. Alerted to its existence by a kind reader after having written this review, I made sure to try it out when I visited again some weeks later. The room is spacious and clean, and did the job fine – so if you were put off by my original post saying there were no baby-changing facilities, don’t be!

Feeding: If you’re breastfeeding there are some comfy leather armchairs you can lounge in, although they are right at the restaurant entrance so you will be on view. The bench seating will probably only be OK if you’re feeding a smaller baby, while the chairs will be fine for breastfeeding any age of baby/toddler but may not be that comfortable. If your little one is eating solids then it’s a safe bet to say the kids’ menu will have something they will enjoy.

By my ratings system, Bill’s gets a 7.75 out of 10 for baby- and toddler-friendliness – up from its previous lower score of 6 out of 10, which was my mistake because I hadn’t noticed the baby-changing facilities. It has the advantage of being open all day long, and if you have a fairly small baby carriage or are using a sling or baby carrier, you’ll be able to enjoy it. However, it’s a much easier place to take an older kid rather than a baby or toddler.

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From Baby to Toddler

Well, it’s official. The Baberoo is 18 months old and I can no longer call her a baby. The last few months have seen her shed the last vestiges of babyhood and grow into a walking, running, talking (or at least starting to), joke-loving, happy little girl. She’s certainly a toddler now. I’ll still be calling her the Baberoo in my posts (the Toddleroo just doesn’t have the same ring to it), but she’s no baby any more, and she’s very different to the 7-month-old she was when I started this blog.

Now that her needs and abilities are different from a small baby’s, my reviews will start including ratings based on both baby-friendliness and toddler-friendliness. These are worlds apart, as I’m discovering daily. While some things won’t change much in our life (we still use our huge stroller most of the time, so we still need a lot of space to manoeuvre within restaurants and attractions), some things have changed for good (there’s no way this kid is ever going to nap through a meal again, so no more luxurious uninterrupted lunches for Mommy!).

I’m going to keep on using Menu, Space, Ambiance, Facilities, and Feeding as the points I look at when rating an eatery, activity, or attraction, but within those categories if the needs are different for babies than for toddlers, I’ll discuss both. I hope the blog will continue to be useful for parents of both babies and small children!

If there are any places you’d like me to review, please let me know at oxfordmommy@gmail.com.

Baberoo in the sand

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Brookes Restaurant

Oxford Mommy turned 40 today. Yup, FORTY. I thought I’d be dreading it but actually I was quite gleeful. I had a great decade in my 30s and I’m looking forward to another one as I enter my 40s. To celebrate, the Baberoo, her Daddy, Gran, Grandpa and I all went out to Brookes Restaurant (Oxford Brookes University, Headington Campus, Gipsy Lane, OX3 0BP). I’ve been wanting to try this place for ages, especially since Oxford Daddy is a lecturer at Brookes and I’ve passed the restaurant countless times on the way to visit him at his office.

The Brookes Restaurant is part of the university’s School of Hospitality Management, so the students work alongside professionals in the restaurant as part of their training. The menu changes monthly to reflect the seasons and the dishes showcase British ingredients from artisan producers. Because it’s part of the hospitality course, Brookes Restaurant is only open on weekdays from 12 to 2 pm. It’s also one of the only restaurants in the area – it’s in Headington but not near any of the other eateries or main shopping area. But if you enjoy fine dining it is definitely worth going.

For my starter, I chose the Oxfordshire asparagus trifle, which was a mousse topped with a brilliant green jelly, fresh asparagus pieces, pea shoots, and a Spenwood cheese straw. It was refreshing and springy, a perfect beginning to the meal.

Brookes restaurant asparagus trifle

My main was the Gloucestershire rump of lamb, which was meltingly tender and juicy. It was served with roast onion puree, spinach and wild garlic, turnips glazed in red wine, and a mystery croquette that was tasty but didn’t appear on the menu, and I forgot to ask what it was! The whole dish was delicious and also nicely presented.

Brookes restaurant lamb

With giddy disregard for our waistlines, we ordered dessert too – since a 3-course lunch is an unbelievably cheap £15.95 (it’s £13.95 for two courses if you are being more restrained). I chose the brioche bread and butter pudding with apricot ice cream, which was unlike any other bread and butter pudding I’ve had. It was much less stodgy, but it was extremely sweet because it contained so many apricots. It was a nice finish to the meal, but if I’d had it on its own I think it would have been too sweet for me. Sorry, I forgot to take a picture of it before I started eating!

The Baberoo had her own lunch brought from home, since we had checked out the menu before and we didn’t think that any of the options would appeal to her toddler palate, but she did eat quite a good amount of the pre-meal bread and some of the vegetables we passed her from our plates, without too much landing on the floor. I think we did try her patience by having a leisurely lunch of three courses, but she did pretty well while we were there and then immediately conked out in the stroller on the way home. Be warned that it does take a while between courses, so do try to engineer your lunch to coincide with naptime or plan ahead with snacks to stave off a baby-boredom crisis.

We enjoyed the food and I had a lovely birthday celebration. Now, how does Brookes Restaurant rate for baby-friendliness? My criteria, as explained on my About page, are menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding.

Menu: The Brookes Restaurant menu changes monthly and is clearly posted on their website, so you can have a look at the options in advance and see if there is anything that you are able to eat one-handed in case your baby needs to be held. Sometimes there may not be anything that’s suitable for one-handed eating. On the May menu there was one starter and one main that I would say could be eaten if you were holding a baby in the other arm, but for the most part the dishes will require both knife and fork.

Space: There is a huge amount of space between tables – more than I’ve ever seen at any other restaurant. This is fantastic for getting through the restaurant with a stroller. There is plenty of space to park a buggy anywhere around most tables and there’s also lots of space elsewhere; we parked ours under the specials board. The Baberoo enjoyed toddling around the restaurant exploring some of the vacant tables and looking out the plate-glass windows.

Brookes restaurant interior

Ambiance: There is certainly a fine-dining vibe in the restaurant, but it’s definitely not a snooty one. Staff were pleasant and helpful and spent a long time chatting to our party about how the restaurant works and some of the cooking techniques that were used for our meals. They were friendly with the Baberoo, who was really enjoying flashing her toothy grin at everyone who passed by our table.

Brookes restaurant interior 2

Facilities: Brookes Restaurant doesn’t have a baby-changing facility yet. They are in the process of ordering a baby-changing table, which will be installed in the disabled toilet. They did offer us a private space for baby-changing, but as it was within earshot of the restaurant diners and the Baberoo sometimes loudly protests any changing session, I thought it wiser to wait until we were home.

Feeding: The restaurant was quite happy to have us bring our own food for the Baberoo. We were also asked if we would like anything for her (in the way of side vegetables, etc), but we decided that we would just give her some of ours. Her high chair was already set up before we arrived; it was a nice wooden one with a higher back than usual, which gave extra support. If you’re breastfeeding, there are some comfy-looking bucket chairs at the entrance. The chairs at the dining tables are also padded and comfortable, and there are also some bench seats if you prefer.

For baby-friendliness, Brookes Restaurant gets a 6.75 out of 10. That score will improve once they get a baby-changing table installed, and it certainly is no reflection upon the food, which was excellent. If you are interested in fine dining at a reasonable price this is one of Oxford’s top places to go.

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Two guest posts by Oxford Mommy

This week I’ve been writing a couple of guest posts for two fantastic Oxford-based websites. The connections I’ve made with other bloggers in this city has surpassed anything I could have imagined, and I feel privileged to know the writers of these websites and to contribute in my own small way to their interesting and useful content.

My first guest post is on Oxfrognews, a blog about what to do and where to go with kids in Oxford, with musings on the differences between England and France – not only in terms of parenting but on daily life as well. It’s charmingly written in both English and French by the lovely Frogette, who you can follow on Twitter at @oxfrognews. My guest post is on my favourite family-friendly restaurant in Oxford. Maybe you can guess which one it is!

My second guest post is on the newly-launched Bitten Oxford, a fantastic guide to Oxford’s restaurants and food culture. The site is co-written by the indefatigable Jacqui (@foodieontour), Katy (@kalicer), and Becca (@Ox_Bex), who realized that there was no comprehensive online guide to Oxford’s eateries, and set about making one themselves. I’m pleased to contribute a guide to the best baby-friendly restaurants in Oxford.

If you are a parent or a foodie or both, do give them a follow! I hope you enjoy my posts.

Oxford Mommy’s Guide to Washington DC

Our trip to America with the Baberoo began with 36 hours in New York, then continued on to Princeton, NJ. We left Oxford Daddy there for the week while he did his archival research, and the Baberoo and I took a train trip to Washington DC to visit my sister. I had never been to Washington before but I had heard good things about both its baby-friendliness and its amazing sightseeing opportunities. And of course, it was great to see my sister and also to be able to sleep and eat in a real house instead of being in a hotel and restaurants all the time.

Hands down, Washington DC wins the baby-friendliness award when it comes to transport. The Metro, its underground/subway system, is fully accessible to all strollers (and wheelchairs), with elevators at every single station so that you can get from street level to platform without folding your buggy, even if it’s a huge one or a double stroller. Are you listening, other cities? Every. Single. Station! Just look for the elevator entrance on the street (a dark brown structure with a big M) and you’re on your way down to start your journey. Sometimes it’s a little complicated, with a few elevator changes before you reach your chosen platform, but most of the time it’s straightforward and easy to use. The signposting is also very good and the fares are quite reasonable – most of the time they were $1.70 or so, depending on the time of day and distance travelled. There’s even a section on the Metro website that gives you elevator and escalator status, updated 24 hours a day, so you can see if there are any outages before you travel.

Washington DC Metro

With such a great transport system, I nearly didn’t try any other ways of getting around, but for the sake of thoroughness I decided I better check out the city bus and the taxi service. The city bus requires you to fold up your stroller – which I didn’t know before I attempted to get on, but it does say so right on the door of the bus. So I folded up, but it would have been an easier journey if I’d taken the Metro instead. Unless you’re travelling light and can fold your stroller easily, go for the Metro rather than the bus. Taxis were fine, and not very expensive. It was easy enough to hail one from the street, although by mistake we got one that had been pre-booked by someone else! One note about being in a taxi or walking on the street: drivers in DC are completely nuts and will drive into the intersection even though they have a red light. Be very careful when crossing the street.

Washington DC is a very pretty city, especially in April, when the cherry blossoms are out. We were lucky and picked the exact week when the blossoms were most on show, and we also lucked out with temperatures soaring as high as 26 degrees. It was so beautiful and sunny that everyone seemed in a good mood and the sense of fun was heightened. We decided to take a walk to see the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin, part of the National Mall and Memorial Parks. It was gorgeous, but there were so many people walking along the same path that it was also really crowded and slow. Lack of  sunscreen and pretty hot weather made us turn around before we even got to the Jefferson Memorial – but we enjoyed the short walk anyway.

Cherry blossoms

 

We took refuge in the National Museum of American History, one of the many Smithsonian museums (all free). Our exhibit of choice was the First Ladies, which was an amazing look at the contributions made (and the dresses worn!) by Presidents’ wives from Martha Washington onwards. As a fashion lover I found it fascinating, and the Baberoo seemed to like it too – although, as one of the museum docents pointed out when we asked, there is really nothing for under-5s at the museum. The museum has two Family Rest Rooms where you can change your baby. We didn’t manage to make it to any of the other Smithsonian museums, but if you are planning a visit, especially if you plan to stay all day and see many of the museums, your first stop should be the Smithsonian Visitor Center, in the Castle, which is open 1.5 hours earlier than all the museums so you can plan your day. The Smithsonian is great for children and families, but the Baberoo is still too young to enjoy most of it.

We did find a very baby-friendly activity, however, in the form of Story Time… at the Library of Congress! I was so excited to find that the Library has programmes for even the youngest of audiences. The free Story Time for Infants and Toddlers takes place every Friday (except holidays) at 10:30 am. Roll up early, because they only have 50 places (including adults) and they hand out numbered admission stickers on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 10 am. If you are there early and have got your stickers, you can browse the collection of children’s books and play with the toys in the Young Readers Center. The Jefferson Building, where the Young Readers Center is located, requires everyone entering to go through the security system, so leave time for that, especially since you’ll have to put your baby and your stroller through the metal detector separately. Storytime is a fun half-hour with sing-alongs and some books read aloud by the librarian. You get a handout with the words to the songs, so you’ll always know what’s coming up – the theme the day we were there was Springtime. The room was a little warm on the day we went, so the Baberoo got a bit hot and bothered, but she enjoyed most of the experience and if we lived there I’d be first in line every week for this lovely event.

Story Time at the Library of Congress

We mainly took a much-needed break from eating out while we were in Washington – I do love going out to eat, but not twice a day every day for a week! – so we only went to one restaurant. But it was probably my favourite meal of our entire trip to America. We ate an early dinner at Founding Farmers, a restaurant showcasing American cuisine (and owned by a collective of American farmers) in eco-friendly settings. I ordered the Skillet Corn bread ($5) to share with the Baberoo as a starter, and we were presented with a huge cast-iron pan full of the lightest, fluffiest cornbread I have ever had. It came with whipped butter in a pool of honey, with sea salt on top. What a revelation! It was so good that the Baberoo, a big fan of corn and anything corn-based, wolfed it right down, although it was such a big portion that you could actually order it as your meal and not be hungry afterwards. Luckily, I had ordered us a main to share as well, and it was equally good. The Founding Farmers take on Macaroni and Cheese ($14) includes Gouda, Gruyère, ham, peas, and apples, and is a very sophisticated dish for such a comfort-food favourite. We both loved it, and there was enough left to take home and eat for breakfast the next day. The only strike against Founding Farmers is the lack of baby-changing facilities in its bathrooms, which is a shame because they could easily modify the disabled bathroom to include a changing table. Still, they do cater well for babies with good booster seats (that strap onto a regular dining chair) made by Stokke, so I felt that the Baberoo was comfortable and secure while she was eating – more so than with your standard restaurant high chair. Note: the restaurant books up well ahead, so make a reservation!

Founding Farmers

We had a wonderful time in Washington DC, and it was very easy to get around thanks to the brilliant Metro system. There were some opportunities for baby-friendly activities, and I am looking forward to going back sometime when the Baberoo is older so we can really appreciate the museums together. For now, I’m just happy to be back home in good old Oxford, so we can resume our regular schedule of testing the city’s offerings for baby-friendliness.

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