Tag Archives: Children

Banana Tree

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!

Banana Tree blackened monks noodles

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)!

Banana Tree kids' 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.

Banana Tree space

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.

Banana Tree ambiance

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.

Banana Tree baby-changing facilities

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.

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Partyman World of Play

When your little ones have got ants in their pants and need to let all their tremendous wish-I-could-bottle-it energy loose in a place where they can’t damage anything (or themselves), they are in need of a soft play area. Preferably a massive one, where parents can sit and have a coffee while watching their darlings go nuts on trampolines and slides.

The Partyman World of Play (3A/3B Grenoble Road, Ozone Leisure Park, OX4 4XP), located right next to the Kassam Stadium, is a gigantic soft play area with themed play sections, an interactive stage, a ball room, private party areas, bumper cars, a two-storey slippy slide, and a toddler area for under-3s. We have visited on several occasions, and the Baberoo has had so much fun she has released all her pent-up energy and exhausted herself so thoroughly she’s fallen asleep on the way home.

Partyman World of Play - slide

We have always visited on a weekday morning during term time, which means it’s very quiet and there’s plenty of space for kids to run around without waiting to take turns in any of the spaces. I shudder to think what it might be like during weekends or parties – but that’s precisely the advantage of having a child under school age! We can choose to come whenever we like during the week. The disadvantage is that not all of the areas are open. The bumper cars and interactive stage have never been in use when we’ve been there, for example. But the fun of the trampolines, ballroom, and slide are always available, and that’s what the Baberoo gravitates to anyway.

To participate, you must pay a one-off fee of £5 to become a member. After that, admission isn’t terribly expensive during non-peak times – babies under age 1 are charged £2, age 1-3 are charged £5, 4-12 year olds are charged £6.95, and adults are free. During peak times prices are higher and adults pay an entry fee as well, but there are also discounts available for booking in advance online, and a range of annual passes or monthly direct debit schemes that make the cost considerably lower if you know your kids love it and want to return several times a month.

When you go, especially if it is summer and your kids are in sandals, remember to bring a pair of socks. The play areas are strictly no-shoes-allowed, but you need to wear hosiery of some kind. This includes parents, so remember to bring your own as well. Preferably black ones – otherwise the bottoms of your socks will quickly become black anyway. It must be a huge job to clean all those play structures, and you can imagine all the little hands (and noses) that touch all of the areas soon cause a lot of buildup. Pro tip: apparently Monday evenings are when cleaning happens, so Tuesday mornings are the best time to go.

I hope that hasn’t put you off, because it’s a fantastic and safe place to play. We will return whenever the Baberoo’s got a surfeit of energy that is best worked off by climbing up to the super-slide a dozen times. Now, here’s how the Partyman World of Play rates for baby- and toddler-friendliness according to the Oxford Mommy rating scheme.

Menu: If you are holding a baby or little one in one arm, you need to be able to eat with only one hand. The menu at Partyman World of Play offers all-day breakfasts, paninis, baguettes, wraps, pizza, jacket potatoes, and a few main meals – nothing out of the ordinary or super-healthy. Not all of them are easily eaten one-handed, although you can probably manage some of them. But chances are your little ones will be having enough fun that hopefully they won’t need to be held unless they are very small.

Space: There’s a huge amount of space at Partyman World of Play, which means strollers of every size will fit in the thoroughfares and seating area. You’ll be able to park your buggy at a table without worrying that it’s in anyone’s way. There’s also lots of parking if you come by car.

Partyman World of Play - space

Ambiance: The staff are extremely friendly, which means kids feel like they’re very welcome – which they should be, since it’s a place created just for them. The bright colours are really attractive to young ones, and the variety of activities create a sense of excitement. One of the drawbacks is that the lighting in the areas under the giant slide is very dim indeed, and makes those areas look very dark and much less inviting than some of the other sections, and can make them even feel claustrophobic. Also, you have to be able to accept the faint odour of gymnasium.

Facilities: Unfortunately, I can’t say anything good about the toilet facilities at Partyman World of Play. Every time we have been there the bathrooms have been smelly, some of the sinks have been out of order, and there has been water on the floor – not a great ambiance for little ones who are trying to find a dry place to put their potty, or for the ones who are slightly bigger and can use the toilets. There is a baby-changing table in one of the stalls, but it doesn’t have much room in it and the bins have been overflowing whenever we have gone. This particular facility needs to be given more care, because it detracts from the entire experience.

Feeding: If you’re a breastfeeding mother, the seating area is fine for breastfeeding, although the chairs aren’t terribly comfortable. It would be great if some sofas or soft chairs were added so that there was a choice of seating. For those who have kids who can order from the menu, there are a few healthy options along the deep-fried stuff and sweets. The best choice is the Children’s Platter (£3.99), which offers either chicken, ham, or sausages accompanied by four different fruits and vegetables of your choice. They really do heap the fruits and vegetables on the plate, so your little one will get some good nutritious food into them. But there will always be the temptation of crisps, ice creams, and sweets, which are prominently on display.

In total, Partyman World of Play gets a 6.75 out of 10 for baby- and toddler-friendliness. If it had nicer toilets and better lighting it would rate much higher, but even with these drawbacks it’s one of the best places to go with kids who need to play hard and shake their sillies out.

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Thaikhun

Apparently I have been living on another planet for the last few months because I hadn’t heard about the grand opening of Thaikhun (36 George Street, OX1 2BJ) in April. I only noticed last week that it had replaced Cleaver on busy George Street, and made a mental note to visit ASAP, since Thai is one of my favourite cuisines. So during a jam-packed day of museum-visiting and errand-running, we stopped at Thaikhun for lunch.

Thaikhun taxi

My foodie friends will probably be aghast to know that I have become (or rather, re-become) vegetarian this year, and I admit it has made it more challenging to dine out – but I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the menu had a whole vegetarian section. (However, I also was disappointed not to be able to partake of many of the delicious-sounding other items on the menu!). I always judge a Thai restaurant by its pad thai, so for me the Pad Thai Jay (£7.95) was required eating. I also ordered the corn fritters (£4.25) to share with Oxford Daddy. The fritters were extremely tasty and moreish, with a good dose of kaffir lime leaf. The pad thai was good, with a flavourful sauce that was just a bit too sweet. I wasn’t partial to the big, crunchy chunks of cabbage in it – I’d have preferred smaller slivers cooked more thoroughly. To accompany the meal I had a Thai iced tea (£2.50), made with condensed milk and topped with whipped cream. Naturally, the Baberoo kept requesting sips, but I only permitted her a small amount because I’m pretty sure the caffeine content was sky-high!

Thaikhun pad thai and fritters

This is one of the only Thai restaurants I know of that has a kids’ menu, and it’s a great one, with four mains reasonably priced from £4.25-£4.95. No cop-outs here – all dishes have authentically Thai flavours. Some are mini-versions of the adult dishes (classic Pad Thai; barbecued pork with sweet BBQ sauce), while others are Thai versions of classic children’s menu offerings (Bangkok popcorn chicken, a much classier take on chicken nuggets). The Baberoo got the Nong Noo Guy Noodles (£4.25), egg noodles with sliced chicken breast, carrots, and beansprouts. She actually received two bowls of noodles – our original order came after she had mistakenly gotten the next table’s noodles with cherry tomato, beansprout, and egg. We kept both and she enjoyed both of them.

Thaikhun noodles

Service was friendly and extremely prompt, and despite the wrong order being brought to our table I got a clear sense that they were aiming to please and correcting mistakes right away. One item from the menu wasn’t available, which was disappointing, but food-wise, I was pleasantly surprised. I had thought that it would be run-of-the-mill, but it was better than expected. I’m looking forward to going back and sampling more of the menu. Now, here’s how it rates for baby- and toddler-friendliness, according to my five criteria of menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding.

Menu: For those who need to hold a baby in one arm while eating with the other hand (or, like me, who need to eat with one hand while using the other to fend off a child who is alternating between head-butting you and throwing her arms around you exclaiming ‘Mommy, you’re my best friend!’), this menu offers plenty of one-handed choices. Most of the mains (excluding some of the grills) and most of the starters and salads can easily be eaten with one hand, and you also get the choice between chopsticks and traditional cutlery.

Space: Most of the seating is downstairs in the basement level, although there are some tables on the ground floor. If you’re happy to do so, you can leave your pushchair behind the welcome desk and in other corners near the front of the restaurant. If you need to bring it to your table, there are some spots on the ground floor where it wouldn’t be in the way and it wouldn’t be too difficult to manoeuvre through the restaurant, although it’d be easier with a smallish stroller.

Thaikhun space

Ambiance: There’s some amazing decor in Thaikhun, including a Thai taxi right at the door and lots of banners, canopies, lanterns, crates, posters – plus Thai graffiti on every conceivable surface. They’ve even got boats hanging from the ceiling and also made into benches at one table. They’re all from Thailand and they add so much character to the restaurant that already when you walk in you’re excited to be there. For smaller babies the visuals will be mesmerizing – although they could also be overwhelming, and the cheery loudness of the place will be too much for some babies to sleep through. The Baberoo enjoyed bopping around to the music (which was one of the only things in the restaurant that wasn’t Thai). The service is extremely friendly, and we had many servers come by our table and speak to the Baberoo. Kids are definitely made welcome.

Thaikhun ambiance

Facilities: There are regular toilets in the downstairs seating area and a disabled/baby-changing toilet on the ground floor. Both sets of toilets require you to go up a few steps, so you wouldn’t easily be able to bring your stroller in with you, which is a definite drawback if you need it or you don’t want to leave it unattended at your table. The baby-changing facilities on the ground floor are fine and reasonably spacious. Since we were in the downstairs seating area and had brought our potty with us, we just used the regular toilets. The stalls are too small to get into if you are helping a little one down on the floor (and probably would be a tight squeeze if you brought a portable toilet trainer seat that fits right on top of the regular toilet – you’d probably have to keep the stall door open in order to move around comfortably). But since the sink/mirror area was spacious, we just put our potty outside the stalls where the Baberoo could look at the colourful array of posters on the walls and we’d be out of the way of other patrons who needed to use the stalls. It worked fine.

Thaikhun toilets

Feeding: As mentioned above, the kids’ menu is great for those who are eating solid foods, especially if they are adventurous. Those who balk at anything but standard fare might not do so well here. There are plenty of high chairs for those who need them. Breastfeeding mothers can choose between bench seating and chairs. Benches are padded; chairs are not, but since they are artfully mismatched you could probably take your pick of whatever chair looks most comfortable to you, and swap with another table if yours doesn’t have one of that type.

In total, Thaikhun gets a 7.5 out of 10 for baby- and toddler-friendliness. For an energizing, cheery atmosphere and interesting kids’ menu choices, this is a tasty place to dine with your little one.

 

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It’s Oxford Mommy’s second birthday!

Two years ago I started this blog in order to help parents – including myself! – to find the most baby-friendly places in and around Oxford. I’m constantly amazed at how many people are viewing this site, and I thank every one of my readers for taking the time to look through my reviews. I hope that I’ve been helpful and encouraging, especially to those who are a little bit wary of venturing forth into town with a new baby. I still remember the trepidation I felt when the Baberoo was very small and I had no experience of being a parent. I hope, equally, that families with lots of experience with little ones are also finding these reviews helpful, no matter whether their littlest one is teeny-tiny or nearly ready for school.

I’ve been posting reviews less often this year for a reason that may be familiar to some of you: when the Baberoo consolidated all her naps into one (very long) long nap during the day, it turned out to be at lunchtime, so I could no longer go out to restaurants in the way that I had become accustomed! I decided to honour her naptime (especially since when I didn’t I was faced with a very cranky toddler indeed), so we ended up going out a lot less often than we had done the year before.

Now that we have entered the realm of no naps at all, we are planning to head out for more lunches, activities, and events in the next little while! We are also in the midst of potty-training, so the portion of my reviews that deals with baby-changing facilities will also take into account how well the facilities work when you are lugging around a potty and all the accompanying paraphernalia!

Thanks so much for being part of my readership. I am so pleased to be your guide to Oxford’s best baby- and toddler-friendly venues. If you have any comments, questions, or ideas for future reviews, please get in touch at oxfordmommy@gmail.com.

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Wildwood Kitchen, Wantage

We are often in Wantage to visit the Baberoo’s grandparents, so we like to go out and discover its activities and eateries. Fairly new to town is the 8th branch of the Wildwood Kitchen (43 Market Place, OX12 8AW), which has claimed a prime location in the town centre. On a recent trip to Wantage we thought we’d give it a try along with the Baberoo’s Gran and see how it rated for baby- and toddler-friendliness.

I was feeling virtuous so ordered three salads as a selection from the deli menu. All were delicious, with the grains cooked al dente and the greens very fresh. There were no dressings at all on them – which I appreciated since I rarely like dressings – but it would have been nice to have several slices of lemon available if I’d wished to season them.

Wildwood Kitchen salads

For the Baberoo I ordered the sausages, chips and peas from the kids’ menu (£4.75 for main and dessert, with 80p supplement for a drink). Although she didn’t eat much of the sausages, she wolfed down the chips (which always seem to take priority over everything else!).

Wildwood Kitchen kids' meal

Service was a bit choppy – we had at least five different staff members approach our table for various reasons, which made it seem like they weren’t coordinating with each other very well. It didn’t affect our enjoyment of the meal, but it did give the restaurant a greenhorn kind of feel which didn’t match with the swishness of the surroundings.

So, how did Wildwood Kitchen rate for baby- and toddler-friendliness? Here’s how it stacked up against my five criteria:

Menu: The menu at Wildwood includes many pastas and risottos, most of which can be eaten with one hand if you’re holding a baby in the other arm. The pizzas and meat dishes would be more difficult. If you’re looking for a salad, order from their deli menu – it’s got a rotating selection and the salads are all certainly possible to eat with only one hand free.

Space: This is one restaurant where you’ll never have trouble manoeuvring or parking your baby carriage, even if it’s enormous. There’s so much space between tables that you could still wheel your buggy through the aisles even if all the seats are taken. There are also several useful corners, cubbyholes, and niches in which to park your pushchair. When we visited, only about half the tables were full, but I counted seven parked strollers (including ours), all of which were ensconced safely without blocking or impeding anyone’s path through the restaurant. The only small niggle is that getting into the place requires opening a fairly heavy door and then pushing your carriage up a short incline.

Wildwood Kitchen space

Ambiance: Industrial decor tempered with wood and leather. The high ceilings and beautiful lighting really make this open space seem welcoming and the heavy wooden table of goodies/deli items at the front definitely draws the eye in from outside. Staff are generally friendly and some of the servers we encountered took the time to talk to the Baberoo. There’s also a colouring book with stickers for kids to amuse themselves with before the meal arrives.

Wildwood Kitchen kids' menu

Facilities: The baby-changing/disabled toilet is well located on the ground floor, and is spacious enough to fit a pushchair in with you. The pull-down table is the narrow variety. It doesn’t have windows and the lighting seems a bit dim, but the pretty wallpaper and cleanliness make it quite a pleasant bathroom to use for a diaper change.

Wildwood Kitchen baby-changing facilities

Feeding: If you’re breastfeeding, you have a choice of leather-upholstered booth seats, which are extremely well-padded (almost too well-padded! I had to move several pillows away so that I could actually sit comfortably) or fabric-covered chairs without arms. With the booth seats you don’t get much wiggle room before you’re right up against the table, so it might only work for smaller babes-in-arms. With the chairs you might have more comfort with an older breastfeeder. If your child needs a high chair, it looks like the restaurant has plenty in supply – there were at least 7 kids using them when we were there. The kids’ menu is good value at £4.75 for a main and dessert; the offerings are all the usual favourites. It’s 80p extra for a kids’ drink.

In total, Wildwood Kitchen gets a 7.75 out of 10 for baby- and toddler-friendliness. Let’s hope they can smooth out their service, and then it’ll be a great addition to Wantage’s places to go with kids.

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Clockwork Music

I started taking the Baberoo to music and sensory sessions long ago, when she was just 7 months old. Now, aged 2 ¼, she still loves going to her regular class every week. Clockwork Music (various venues; £66 per 12-week term) is relatively new to Oxford, but is based upon the many years of music teaching experience of co-founders Claire Naylor and Karen Amos. We started out in Claire’s classes when she was teaching through the nationwide Monkey Music system, but she and Karen have now ventured out on their own to create the fabulous Clockwork Music curriculum. It’s a half-hour of fun, songs, games, and experimenting with musical instruments, with lots of movement, dancing, and just a wee bit of organized chaos going on.

Clockwork Music instruments

Clockwork Music offers sessions for different age levels from the youngest babies to pre-schoolers. Our session is the Clockmakers group, for children between 2-3 years old, and takes place on Wednesday mornings at St. Giles Church Hall. Other sessions run at different venues in and around Oxford, Abingdon, and Thame. For information about these sessions please check the Clockwork Music website for venues listings. This review will focus on the Clockmakers session with Claire at St Giles Church Hall.

Clockwork Music Tick Tock clock

As soon as you walk into the Clockwork Music classroom and see Claire with her selection of toys, puppets, musical instruments, and other props, you know that you’ll be in for a fantastic time. Tick Tock, the giant clock, has hands that turn to point to the songs that will be sung during the session, and Tick Tock’s friends Brown Bear, Mouse, Dragon, and many other friendly animals will lead you through each tune. Babies will enjoy hearing the different sounds of instruments and noisemakers, while toddlers and preschoolers will enjoy banging on drums, shaking maracas and rainmakers, and clacking castanets. There’s also time for stomping, dancing, and following along with actions to songs. The energy in the room is always positive, and Claire does an amazing job of going with the flow while also gently leading the class through the scheduled session.

Space: The main room of St Giles Church Hall acts as the music classroom. It’s a lovely open space with high ceilings, beautiful windows, good lighting, nice wooden floors, and lots of room to run around and play. There are benches where you can deposit your coats and bags. Your stroller can be parked in an adjoining space which has ample room for about 15 pushchairs or so.

Clockwork Music St Giles Church Hall

Ambiance: Fun, friendly, and energetic. Singing along to the catchy tunes will perk you up if you (or your child) are feeling low. The welcoming feeling in the room is an unbeatable combination of engaging teacher and well-chosen venue. And the little ones and parents we have met in the friendly atmosphere have ended up being some of our best friends.

Facilities: There is a baby-changing table in one of the bathrooms just off the main classroom. The bathroom is spacious, clean and well-lit, and the pull-down table works fine. The only problem is that for some reason there are no garbage bins in that or any other bathrooms in the building. If you have a stinky nappy to dispose of, you will have to bag it and take it with you until you can find an appropriate place to bin it.

Feeding: There are built-in benches in the main classroom at St Giles Church Hall. When the Baberoo was younger and still breastfeeding, I would sit on a bench after class while Claire tidied up the props and I would breastfeed her, often in the company of another mother or two. The benches are comfortable enough, but there are also some plastic chairs in the entry area and the stroller-parking area if you prefer. For older toddlers and kids who need snacks I’m fairly sure that it’s fine to eat in the room, although if there is another class coming in directly after you there may not be time to sit and stay a while while munching on a treat. However, there are several cafés nearby, to which you could hop along for, say, a babyccino, as we usually do with some of our classmates.

Clockwork Music is one of our favourite activities of the week. I can’t recommend it highly enough. This review gives it 7 out of 8 points, but it can’t do justice to the fun and camaraderie that we experience every time we go. If you are looking for a fun session that introduces your little one to music and movement, Clockwork Music is my top recommendation.

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Nick Cope

The Baberoo has owned one of the CDs by Nick Cope, the Oxford-based children’s singer-songwriter, for quite a while now, and we have always enjoyed listening to his music. But we had never been to see one of his concerts (£3 per child, £1 per adult) until last month. We accompanied some friends who are regular attendees to a performance at the St Albans Church Hall in East Oxford (corner of Charles and Catherine Streets), and as soon as he started playing I kicked myself for not attending a live show before.

There’s a reason Nick Cope has such a strong following. He is beloved by both children and parents because his songs are delightful and catchy. We’ve all had the irritating ‘Wheels on the Bus’ earworm follow us around for days at a time, but Nick Cope’s songs are so funny and tuneful that it’s actually a pleasure to catch yourself humming, oh, say, a song about a witch that lived in a forest with a pet dragon named Keith.

It’s his unusual and inventive songwriting that’ll charm you first, and if you’ve got his CDs (he’s got three so far and a fourth to be released for Christmas 2014) then it’s fun to sing along to his indie-pop-sounding songs with your little one at home. But when you see him performing live, you’ll realize what you’ve been missing. It is brilliant live entertainment. He’s got an incredible talent for relating to both children and adults at the same time. He gets the audience clapping, stomping, making faces, and jumping up and down with gusto. His act is a perfect balance of over-the-top gurning and deadpan patter. And his impressions are spot-on; when he does one of his animal songs you actually believe that what you are seeing in front of you is a meerkat.

Nick Cope plays weekly family music sessions at several locations in Oxford and Abingdon, and also performs at festivals and events in and around Oxfordshire. The session we have attended most frequently runs from 10:45-11:45 on Fridays at St Albans Church Hall in East Oxford (although it’s a bit of a trek for us; I wish there was a concert location in Headington!). We’ve also been to see him in Wantage at the Beacon, and he’s a regular at the Story Museum during school holidays. Check Nick’s site for details of locations and times for upcoming sessions. The following details about space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (as per my usual ratings system) refer specifically to the St Albans Church Hall location.

Space: The space at St Albans Church Hall isn’t huge, but it’s got enough room for about 30-40 families, including enough space for everyone’s baby carriage to be parked at the back. A half-circle of about 30 chairs provides a seating space, and there’s plenty more space to sit on the floor. Many children love to go right up to the front to watch Nick play, all the better to watch his hilarious facial expressions.

Ambiance: The feeling when you walk into a Nick Cope concert couldn’t be more wonderful. The music puts you in such a good mood that you feel like you’re friends with everyone in the room. To watch the gyrating toddlers throwing themselves around in gleeful abandon takes you back to your own childhood, lifting your spirits and temporarily banishing all your worries. There’s a reason I’ve never seen a kid cry at a Nick Cope concert (unless they’ve fallen and bonked themselves, in which case the crying only lasts a couple of seconds). It’s like magic. Yes, it’s that good.

Facilities: St Albans Church Hall, unfortunately, does not have any baby-changing facilities. However, there would be ample space on the floor (not in the bathroom itself, but in the concert area) if you needed to change a diaper. But I’m guessing most people who attend live close enough to be able to get home fairly quickly (perhaps while even humming Nick’s song ‘The Baby’s Done a Poo’) in the event of a diaper emergency. I can’t speak for the facilities at the other locations where Nick does concerts, but again, it may be that many attendees live close by and can get home for diaper changes.

Feeding: I’ve seen mothers happily breastfeeding their younger babies as their toddler joins the ranks of dancing children. And although food is not available to buy, eating in the hall is permitted and there are plenty of rice cakes, raisins, and other snacks strewn on the floor by the time the concert is over.

In total, the Nick Cope concerts at St Albans Church Hall get a 6 out of 8 on my baby- and toddler-friendliness scale, the mark lowered only because there is no baby-changing facility available at that location (not his fault, of course!). But Nick Cope himself gets a 10 out of 10 in my book. Go and see his concerts; you and your young children will love them.

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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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