In our pre-Baberoo days, when we lived in London, Oxford Daddy and I used to enjoy an occasional visit to Banana Tree, which had a delicious Indochinese menu and laid-back vibe. So when this small chain of 8 restaurants opened a new branch in Oxford (63 George Street, OX1 2BQ) in December I put it on my list of places I really needed to try – although we only managed to get there last weekend. Life moves fast with a three-year-old and what with nursery school and other activities we don’t have time for many lunches out any more!
Although the menu has changed quite a lot since we last visited a Banana Tree, it still offers the same kind of out-of-the-ordinary Southeast Asian fare. As a newly-minted vegan (yes, my foodie friends! I am now VEGAN!), I was thrilled to be handed, as a matter of course alongside the regular menu, a special vegetarian and vegan menu that offered at least eight starters and mains I could eat, as opposed to the paltry selection in many other restaurants.
I started with the Street Style Crispy Dough (£3.95), which was kind of like morsels of non-sweet doughnut with a satay sauce on the side. I enjoyed the first few bites, but it was a bit too deep-fried for my taste and I couldn’t eat the whole thing. The Blackened Monks Noodles (£9.65), on the other hand, were so tasty that I ate every last bite of the noodles, the lovely crunchy vegetables, and the sweet corn cakes that came on the side, and then wished that my tummy was empty so that I could order it again right away. Yum!
The Baberoo, after repeatedly asking why there was no pizza on offer (I think she’s under the impression that pizza can be procured at every restaurant), seemed as if she was going to balk at any of the choices on the kids’ menu (main, drink, and dessert for £5.95), but when her noodles with bean sprouts arrived she happily ate them and told us they were delicious. She also liked my crispy dough. She didn’t touch much of her corn cakes, but Oxford Daddy helped her out by eating those himself. Of course, she got her second wind when the ice cream arrived (ahem, I fear that after sampling so many kids’ menus in aid of the Oxford Mommy blog, she’s also under the impression that ice cream comes after every restaurant meal)!
The service at Banana Tree couldn’t have been better. Our servers were all personable and attentive, took the time to chat with us, and seemed to really enjoy their work. It was clear they had mastered the art of serving customers promptly and quickly without seeming rushed or harried, even during a busy Saturday lunchtime.
So, top marks for service, food, and general enjoyment of our meal. Now let’s see how they rate for baby- and toddler-friendliness using my usual 5 rating categories of menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding.
Menu: For parents who are eating while holding a baby or child for any reason, there are lots of starters and mains that you can happily eat with only one hand available. In fact, most of the menu lends itself to eating one-handed, which is characteristic of many Eastern-inspired restaurants. From noodles to curries, you’re covered.
Space: There’s not too much space between the tables, and with the exception of one wide route through the restaurant, everything else is a bit close together to handle a buggy. We parked ours at the front of the restaurant in the waiting area, which, thankfully, wasn’t heavily populated. At very busy times, though, there wouldn’t be too many areas in the restaurant that could fit a pushchair.
Ambiance: Because we had such great service, we felt like the restaurant was extremely welcoming and friendly. The decor was both minimalist and maximalist – a stripped-back industrial feel but with giant (and I do mean giant) lamps (that were perhaps bells in a former life?) hanging over the main communal table. Babies and toddlers will really enjoy looking at those because they’re just so darn big, and they will also be enthralled by the stuffed apes hanging from the ceiling, so try to get a seat where they can be amused by the eye candy.
Facilities: The baby-changing facilities, located within the disabled toilet, are brand-new so are very clean and fresh. The pull-down table is a good size and has a bag hook, but if you want to actually rest your diaper bag on a surface there’s only a small shelf somewhat far away from the table, along the wall with the toilet. For kids old enough to be using travel potties, the floor space is large enough to comfortably help a little one without feeling like you can’t move around or bend down. It would probably fit a stroller, although you wouldn’t be able to manoeuvre one through the restaurant.
Feeding: If you’re breastfeeding at your table, you’ll be sitting on either a wooden bench or a wood-and-steel chair, neither of which are the most comfortable when feeding, but the industrial decor means there are no padded chairs or squashy sofas to retire to. If your little one is older and is ordering from the kids’ menu, there’s a choice between two bases (rice or noodles) and then between two toppings (chicken or corn cakes). Not that many options, then, but most kids will like something there.
Out of a possible 10 points, Banana Tree scores a 7.25 for baby- and toddler-friendliness. The service is great and the food is well worth coming back for, but there’s less space than you might need to accommodate a stroller and all your baby accoutrements. I’d say that although it’s a real contender for one of my top places to go on the busy George Street restaurant circuit, it’s better for little ones who are past the baby stage.