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.
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.
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.
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.
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.