Tag Archives: eating out

Oxford Mommy’s 36 Hours in New York City

New York has been one of my favourite cities for a long time, and I was extremely excited to have the opportunity to pass through for a weekend on our way to Princeton, NJ.  I did wonder, having never been there with the Baberoo before, how it would rate on the baby-friendliness scale. Of course, since we were there for only 36 hours, this review isn’t exhaustive ( I’d need a whole New York Mommy blog for that!) but we did discover some things about the city – or Manhattan, to be exact, since we didn’t have time to visit the other boroughs – that may be useful to parents travelling in from out of town.

First things first: transportation. We were travelling with our fold-up umbrella stroller (the Uppababy G-Luxe), which is a very light and fairly small.  After doing some research on the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) site, I figured using the bus seemed like a good option, and being so familiar with the buses in Oxford I figured it would be a similar experience. Not so. Apparently you need to fold up your stroller when you board a New York bus, which to me cancels out the convenience of not having to go underground and contend with subway stairs. The bus did get us places fairly quickly, although that was probably because it was early Saturday morning and there wasn’t much traffic.  It’s also good for sightseeing – on our ride up Madison Avenue from Midtown to Harlem we saw lots of great New York buildings. But if you’re carrying lots of bags or by yourself with a stroller you have to collapse when you board, the bus can be tricky.

NYC busSince we had to fold the stroller on the bus, we figured we would try the subway the next time we were going out. Not too many stations are equipped with elevators giving access to the platforms, but our hotel was near Grand Central Station, which is wheelchair accessible, as was our destination station. In theory that meant we didn’t have to fold up the stroller and take the Baberoo out. However, it’s not easy to actually locate the elevators that bring you down to platform level, and at our connecting station we absolutely could not find an elevator to get us off the platform, and we had to fold up the stroller and carry the Baberoo up the stairs. We then found the (very grotty) elevator down to our connecting train’s platform, but had to wait several minutes in a queue of strollers. Basically, the speed of a subway ride is compromised by the amount of time it takes to locate and wait for the elevator, so a trip that would have taken 20 minutes at most took us at least 45.

NYC Subway

Having tried the bus and the subway and having found both lacking in baby-friendliness, we bit the bullet and on our next trip we hailed a cab. Or rather, a very savvy New Yorker cousin of ours hailed it for us, and managed to snag it despite the fancy young woman in polka-dot skinnies and Louboutins also trying to flag it down (sorry, lady). The cab turned out to be a great option. It got us back to our hotel fast, and it was easy enough to pre-fold the stroller on the sidewalk before hailing the cab so the we didn’t have to do it on the fly while also trying to load bags and baby in. The Baberoo loved sitting on her daddy’s lap for the ride, and it took us right to the door of our hotel. No wonder so many New Yorkers are standing out in the street trying to get cabs. They really top the buses and the subway. But of course, they add a cost to your trip – our average cost was $16 per ride and we did it four times, so there goes half a week’s grocery money.

NYC Taxicab

The other option, of course, is to walk. We really enjoyed a 45-block walk from Harlem to the Upper East Side, going through parts of Central Park (although we had to go back to the sidewalk when it got too hilly). We also walked through Greenwich Village and Soho, and hoofed it to the bus station on our way out of the city. Some streets can be extremely crowded and annoying, so it helps to know which routes to take and some alternatives. (Tip: never try walking down 42nd Street in a hurry.) On the Upper East Side, in very chichi residential areas, we saw what seemed like hundreds of parents walking with their babies in strollers, and at least half of those strollers were Uppababy Vistas – which is the kind we have at home. The Vista is as big as a tank and can’t be folded up very easily, so I wondered how those parents travelled around the city. We came to the conclusion that people have more than one stroller – a big one for walks closer to home, and a fold-up one that they can bring on public transport. (In fact, we were approached on the street by a guy who wanted our opinion on a new stroller he was inventing that could roll down stairs! Only in New York!) Or maybe they drive cars. Or maybe they wear the baby in a carrier when they’re on the bus or subway. In any case, walking is a great option as long as you know your route and an alternative route, and the baby isn’t in dire need of food or a change.

Speaking of diaper changes: that was the most baby-unfriendly part of  our experience. There is almost nowhere to change a baby’s diaper. Even restaurants don’t necessarily have baby-changing facilities. We were lucky that we managed not to have to do any baby-changing in public restrooms, but that was because I scheduled in some nap times back at the hotel, and we also visited friends with a baby (it was a super-fun play date!) so we were able to change the Baberoo at their house. None of the restaurants we went to or cafés we visited had baby-changing facilities. It makes you wonder where anyone changes their baby’s diaper. Does everyone with a child under 3 have to go home every time their kid poops?

The restaurants we visited, while not having any baby-changing facilities, were very welcoming of babies. Our first one was B.Cafe, where we had brunch with the taxicab-hailing cousin. They provided a high chair and stowed our stroller away so that we could get through the restaurant (it would have been impossible to get through with the stroller because of tightly-packed tables). My burger was good and the fries were excellent. The Baberoo didn’t appreciate the stack of pancakes we ordered her, but she did enjoy my burger bun. She was flirting with the staff and with the other patrons at nearby tables and got a whole bunch of compliments, too. In fact, all over town New Yorkers just couldn’t stop gushing about how cute she was, which made us feel pretty chuffed (but also confused: if they love babies so much, how come they don’t make it easier for parents to bring their little ones around the city?)

B.Cafe burger

The next place we ate out, again for brunch, was Eastwood, on the Lower East Side, with some friends who are in the know about the best new places to eat. It has a lovely vibe and a fabulous Scottish-Israeli menu. My fish tacos were great and the Baberoo enjoyed her scrambled eggs. Service was fantastic and really quick, which is always useful when you have a hungry little one clamouring for food. There were no high chairs so she had to sit on my lap, but there was a lot of floor space for the stroller, which she started snoozing in as soon as she finished her meal. I would definitely go back to Eastwood to try some of their other delicious-sounding fare.

Eastwood

We found some fun things for the Baberoo to do while we were visiting the city; one was a simple but really enjoyable trip to the park for a swing ride. There are lots of public parks in New York – the one we visited was Seward Park on the Lower East Side – and the ones we saw were pretty well kept up and quite clean. And only in a New York park can you also spot a contingent of older ladies doing outdoor aerobics to Chinese music.

We also visited a great bookstore, McNally Jackson. They have a fantastic children’s section, with a toy theatre kids can play in, and a great selection of old and new classics. The children’s section is in the basement so you do have to fold up your stroller to get down there, but it’s worth it.

As for where to stay in New York: there are many hotels, from reasonably-priced to over-the-top expensive, but since we only stayed in one of them all I can’t tell you what others might be like. But I can highly recommend the one we chose – the Library Hotel in Midtown. It was excellent in every respect and it went beyond my expectations for baby-friendliness. They provided a very good travel crib, there was ample space in the room to create a baby-changing station, and they had high chairs and great service in the breakfast room, which also served as a 24-hour Reading Room and quiet space (the Library Hotel’s rooms are based on the Dewey Decimal System, each room having a different subject; our bedroom was the Classic Literature room). The hotel’s public bathrooms didn’t have any changing facilities so after we checked out of our room and then suddenly needed to do a diaper change we were a little stuck – but then the staff recommended that we use one of the benches up in their rooftop Poetry Garden, which worked out just fine and was probably the best view the Baberoo will ever have while getting her diaper changed. The Library Hotel isn’t cheap, but it was our anniversary weekend and I decided to splurge, and was it ever worth it.

Library Hotel Reading room

Our trip to New York was over in a flash, but we still managed to cram in a whole bunch of activities and it was a lovely stay. It’s not the most baby-friendly city in terms of baby-changing facilities and transportation (and now I understand why lots of Manhattanites move to Brooklyn when they have kids), but boy, do New Yorkers know how to compliment babies. If you’re travelling there, I recommend using cabs for convenience and factoring the cost into your budget. Having a great, well-located hotel helps too. I can hardly wait to go back when the Baberoo is out of diapers; I suspect that will be loads easier and she’ll be able to appreciate more of the great things about the city.

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Jacobs Chop House

There is no greater pleasure than to meander around my neighbourhood on a beautiful spring day, pointing out the blossoms and buds to the Baberoo – who giggles and claps with joy to see such beauty – and then to continue into Headington for a leisurely breakfast. Today we tried out Jacobs Chop House (3 Manor Buildings, Osler Road, OX3 7RA), our newest neighbourhood establishment. The Chop House is the third venture for the partners behind Jacobs & Field and Jacobs Inn, and it’s a welcome addition to Headington, taking over the premises of the now-closed Cafe Noir (which lives on at Coco Noir just down the street).

I’ve given favourable reviews to both Jacobs & Field and Jacobs Inn, and I was hoping that I would enjoy my experience at Jacobs Chop House just as much. And I sure did. I ordered the steak, eggs, and spinach (‘Breakfast of Champions’, £8.50) and was treated to one of the best steaks I’ve had in ages, brought up to me from the basement kitchen by the chef himself. You might not expect a breakfast-dish steak to be as tasty and succulent as a dinner steak, but boy, was it ever. I enjoyed every bite, except for the one tiny corner I permitted the Baberoo to have. She was more into the eggs anyway: she commandeered them and I hardly got any. The spinach was served raw and was bursting with freshness.

Jacobs Chop House steak and eggs

In my book it is just fine to order cake no matter what time of day, and there was a pretty tempting-looking lemon poppyseed cake on the counter. It was nice and moist and the icing was excellent.

Jacobs Chop House cake

Jacobs Chop House, as the name suggests, revolves mainly around meat, and their menu offers lots of chops: lamb chop, veal loin chop, bacon chop, steak, etc. But there are also some other interesting dishes on the menu: slow-roasted beef short rib, grilled cod cheeks, and ‘London particular soup’, which I may well have to investigate very soon. I think it’s settled: I now have a go-to restaurant in my neighbourhood.

So, how did Jacobs Chop House rate for baby-friendliness? My ratings system takes into account menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (more about these on my About page).

Menu: As mentioned above, the menu is mostly meat, with lots of chops that definitely require the use of both hands. So if you need to hold your baby in one arm, there are only a few large plates that you can comfortably eat using one hand. There are a few options available in the ‘smaller plates’ section of the menu. But still, if you’re going to go to a Chop House, you might as well go for the chops – which means making sure that your baby is either sleeping or happy enough to sit in a high chair so you can use both hands for eating.

Space: It’s a small space but it seems bigger than it is because of its high ceilings and clever use of mirrors. Still, there’s probably only room for a maximum of three pushchairs in the whole restaurant, otherwise there wouldn’t be room for anyone to move around. We used the lone table on the left side, near the counter with stools, and there was plenty of room for our quite large Uppababy Vista, but that was also because the place wasn’t full. I imagine that at lunchtimes, and especially dinnertimes, it can be a very tight squeeze. There’s more seating downstairs but unless your pushchair folds up easily it’s probably not an option.

Jacobs Chop House interior

Ambiance: This feels like a place where you could hang out for hours, nibbling at various plates, sipping a coffee, and just reading a book or talking with friends. It has an easy, relaxed feel about it. The staff were very friendly and our server asked the Baberoo’s name and was interacting with her the whole time. They were helpful in getting a high chair set up and opening the door for us to get in and out (although it’s a pretty easy door and there are no steps, which is great).

Facilities: Kudos to Jacobs Chop House for providing a baby-changing facility in what are some pretty tiny bathrooms – I had originally feared that there might not be a changing facility, but there is. It’s in one of the unisex loos downstairs (the one on the right), so you’ll have to leave your pushchair upstairs and walk down with the baby. The changing table is in a very small entry space outside the actual toilet cubicle. Remember to lock the outer door, otherwise you might get whacked by someone else trying to get into the bathroom. The changing table itself is a wooden shelf with one leg supporting it, very much like the one at Jacobs Inn but sturdier-feeling. There isn’t anywhere to put your bag and the changing table is quite small, and there also isn’t any access to the sink, which is inside the toilet cubicle behind a fairly heavy door. But they have made the effort and done a pretty good job with the space they have.

Jacobs Chop House baby-changing facilities

Feeding: If you’re a breastfeeding mother, the bench seats will be pretty comfy, although the tables are quite close together so you may not get much privacy. The wooden chairs are fairly small but you could probably manage with them too. If your baby is up for some food, they need to be good with eating meat; it’s not up every baby’s alley so you may want to have some snacks handy. The high chairs are actually a padded booster seat strapped to a regular chair. It was the first time the Baberoo had used one of these but it worked just fine. (Remember to put the baby’s bib on before doing up all the straps, though!)

The final score for baby-friendliness for Jacobs Chop House is 7.0 out of 10. They do very well with the small space they have available, and the ambiance and friendly service makes it a place you’ll want to return to again and again.

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The Oxford Kitchen

It says a lot about a restaurant if I visit it twice in one week. It says even more if it’s on the opposite end of town from where I live and I still make the effort to get there. That’s what I did this week with the Oxford Kitchen (215 Banbury Road, Summertown, OX2 7HQ). I had been wanting to visit this new restaurant since it opened a few months ago – the menu looked spectacular and the reviews were generally excellent, so I wanted to see whether it lived up to the hype as well as to establish how baby-friendly it was.

My first visit with the Baberoo was for Sunday brunch; I ordered the full English breakfast (£10.50) for us to share. While we waited, the Baberoo enjoyed playing with the coloured pencils she was offered, dropping them one by one on the floor. When the meal came, she devoured the scrambled eggs – I hardly got any at all! – and also had some of the toast, which was a bit too crispy for my liking. The sausage was lovely and had that gooey stickiness to it that only slow cooking will produce. The bacon was good, and the grilled tomato was elevated to something special with slivers of garlic. My Earl Grey tea (£2.50) and a pain au chocolat (£1.75) completed the meal; the pain au chocolat was very nice but – like all pastries – would have been better warm.

Oxford Kitchen brunch

I could have written this review after our brunch, but I had already studied the à la carte menu and knew there was a ham hock with my name on it. There was nothing to do but come back for it. I was sneaky and timed today’s lunch for when the Baberoo was sleeping so I wouldn’t have to share anything with her. Poor kid, she missed out. The crispy ham hock with celeriac purée, compressed apple, and walnut (£7) was delicious. The saltiness of the ham and the crispiness of the breadcrumb coating went perfectly with the tart green apple. The celeriac purée was smooth and velvety.

Oxford Kitchen ham hock

Since the ham hock is a ‘small plate’ (you can have it as a starter or order several small plates to share), I also went for a beef burger (£12.95) as a main, because I seem to be on a burger kick these days. It came with a red onion jam, mixed leaves, and triple-cooked chips. Not advertised on the menu but also making an appearance on my plate (or, rather, my wooden board) were some onion rings. Folks, I haven’t been so excited to see fries and onion rings together since I was in high school and our beloved Canadian burger chain, Harvey’s, introduced Frings (fries and rings together so you got some of each). I am always thrilled to see onion rings, as you may know if you read my blog regularly. That said, these rings were somewhat disappointing as they had a bitter taste. It wasn’t the onions themselves, it was the batter. I’m not sure what happened there but I hope it was just a kitchen mistake. The chips were much better; you don’t get many of them but they are thick and fluffy and perfectly crisp. The burger was great; it had a certain amount of charring on the surface that might not appeal to everyone, but I enjoyed it. The mixed leaves were miles better than the usual iceberg lettuce and the red onion jam was sticky and delicious.

Oxford Kitchen burger

It was a lovely meal and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Despite not being able to even finish the burger because I was so full, I was toying with the idea of ordering dessert, but the Baberoo woke up so I left well enough alone. Although I do think I will have to go back sometime soon just to order dessert!

The Oxford Kitchen is certainly one of the best places I’ve dined in Oxford. So how does it do for baby-friendliness? My five-point scale covers menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (more about these on my About page).

Menu: Many of the ‘small plates’ on the a la carte menu can be eaten with one hand if you need to hold a baby in the other arm, although many of the main plates will need both hands, so you may not have that much choice there. The set menu for lunch/early supper (£10.50 for one course, £13.50 for two, £16.50 for three) may be a better option; both starters and at least one of the main courses are one-handers.

Space: There was lots of space for the Baberoo’s carriage at the table I chose near the front. There is less space as you go towards the back of the restaurant, although you can probably get a pram in at most of the tables. There is lots of seating upstairs but it’s not accessible with a pushchair. If the restaurant is full of diners it may be a squeeze to get through. The front door is somewhat heavy and it isn’t within easy view of the staff, so although they are happy to help you in and out, on one occasion a passer-by on the street had to help me get our pushchair in.

Oxford Kitchen interior

Ambiance: Couldn’t be nicer. The staff were fantastic. They asked right away about whether we needed a high chair, offered a colouring activity to help the Baberoo pass the time while waiting for brunch, and interacted with her whenever they came to our table. They also remembered us when I came in the second time. The restaurant is light and airy, with huge windows and a calm, relaxed vibe that is hard to come by in some fine dining places.

Facilities: The baby-changing facility is part of the women’s/disabled toilet on the ground floor. The pull-down table – one of the swanky metal ones – is in the entrance area to the room along with the sink, and there is a separate toilet cubicle. It’s all very clean and fresh-smelling. There is quite a lot of space in the baby-changing area, but if you need to bring your pushchair into the toilet cubicle with you it’s a tight squeeze. There should be a lock on the outer door, not only on the toilet cubicle door.

Oxford Kitchen baby-changing facilities

Feeding: If you are a breastfeeding mother the wooden chairs will be fine, although the padded upholstered ones may not be great because they have arms that jut out quite far forward. For babies who are on solids, there is a children’s menu (£5 for one course, £7.50 for two) that has some kid-pleasing meals on it; most children’s palates probably won’t be refined enough to appreciate the regular menu.

For baby-friendliness, the Oxford Kitchen scores a 7.5 out of 10. If you want fine dining, there are very few places in Oxford that can outdo this one. Go for lunch or brunch while it’s still a bit of a secret, because when it starts getting more popular it’s going to be jam-packed.

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Gourmet Burger Kitchen

Sometimes Oxford Mommy just wants to have lunch in peace. Not that the Baberoo isn’t excellent company, but there are moments when I just want to read a book while waiting for my meal to arrive, and then to dig in using both hands without worrying that I’m going to have to stop eating and attend to her immediate needs and/or whims. With that and the craving for a hamburger in mind, I walked up and down George Street with her in the stroller until she finally fell asleep. Then, after a quick victory dance, I wheeled her into Gourmet Burger Kitchen (29-31 George Street, OX1 2AY) and parked us at a table.

While trying to get her to nap I had passed the menu in the window a few times, so I already knew what I wanted: the Taxidriver (£9.75), which comes with American cheese, onion ring, Cajun relish, smoked chilli mayo, dill pickle, and salad on a brioche bun. Naturally, I also went for a side of onion rings (£3.35).

GBK burger

Returning to my seat (you have to go up to the counter to order and pay), I pulled out my book to have a few minutes’ reading while I waited. My order came fairly promptly so I dove in before the Baberoo could wake up. It was a tasty burger, and although I’m not usually a fan of American cheese, it was exactly what was needed for this particular flavour combination. I think it would have been even better, though, if I had ordered it medium-rare instead of going with the standard medium (which is my own fault, not GBK’s!). But truly miraculous was the fact that the burger held together and didn’t fall apart while I was eating it. I’ve never seen a burger do that before. I don’t mind when burgers get sloppy, but I was amazed that this one remained uncompromised.

My lunch was satisfying, and all the more so because the Baberoo stayed asleep until I had finished eating. But how does GBK rate on my baby-friendliness scale? I look at menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (more about these on my About page).

Menu: Mainly burgers, so you’ll need both hands free to eat them. If your baby is happy in their stroller or in a high chair, go for it! Or do like me and wait until they’re asleep so you know you’ve got your hands free.

Space: The restaurant is one of the smaller ones along George Street; I had expected it to be cavernous like many others but it’s actually more boutique-sized. This means they have to put quite a lot of seating in a small space, which doesn’t leave much room for a stroller. There are a few tables at which a pram might fit, but most of the tables are booth or bench-style and a baby carriage next to them might really impede the movements of the staff as well as the patrons who are going up to the counter to order.

GBK interior

Ambiance: The staff were helpful in suggesting a table where I could park the stroller with the sleeping Baberoo in it, and they came back several times to ask if I needed anything. The music is somewhat loud and boppy but that didn’t bother the Baberoo at all. Strangely, at the time we visited there were no children at all in the restaurant.

GBK condiments

Facilities: The baby-changing room was clean and fresh-smelling on our visit. The pull-down changing table is a good size. It’s equipped with a soft pad to make it more comfortable for changing, although I personally think the hard surface of the changing table is easier to keep clean. The room is big enough to comfortably fit a large pram.

GBK baby-changing facilities

Feeding: GBK has a junior menu with scaled-down burgers and other treats for kids. The Baberoo was sleeping so she didn’t try anything from either the kids’ or adults’ menu, but she probably could have devoured part of my burger for me. If your baby is new to solid foods there won’t be much on the menu that they can eat, so bring your own food from home. If you’re breastfeeding the chairs are wide enough to be fine, but there’s not much space between them; you might want a bench seat instead but the same lack of space applies.

On my baby-friendliness scale, Gourmet Burger Kitchen rates a 6.5 out of 10. It’s a small space for a baby carriage but the staff are helpful and friendly.

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Portabello

A little while ago the Baberoo and I were on a shopping trip in Summertown. It was a cold, wet, horrible winter day and we needed a comforting hot meal, so we popped into Portabello (7 South Parade, OX2 7LJ), which has recently refurbished both its interior and its menus.

I took advantage of the £9.95 two-course lunch special. As my starter I chose the cream of cauliflower soup with toasted walnuts. I’d never have thought of pairing cauliflower with walnuts, but they are a wonderful taste combination, and the soup had a perfect velvetiness that magically soothed away the irritations of the drab and drizzly day. The Baberoo ate the bread that came with it, which was perfectly fine but not of the artisan quality that I might have expected to go with the soup.

Portabello soup

My main was the osso buco with fried polenta. The osso buco was very nicely done and mostly falling off the bone – the Baberoo ate quite a lot of it. The fried polenta was too salty and didn’t add anything to the dish; it would have been better with a creamy, soft polenta that stayed in the background to let the osso buco shine through.

Portabello osso buco

Midway through the meal the Baberoo decided to have one of her most ear-deafening tantrums yet, for no apparent reason. There weren’t too many diners in the restaurant yet, but this meltdown was the kind that would soon irritate anyone within earshot. I had to gobble the rest of my lunch and get us both bundled up and out of the restaurant, quick. Back in the rain again, I regretted not being able to linger over my lunch in the calm and quiet atmosphere of Portabello’s dining room.

So, how did Portabello measure up to my five criteria for baby-friendliness? They are menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (more about them on my About page).

Menu: If you need to hold your baby with one arm while eating one-handed, the regular lunch menu has several items that will allow you to do so. The regular lunch menu is somewhat more expensive than the lunch special, with starters running from £6 to £9 and mains running from £12 to £16. If you’re going for the special £9.95 lunch menu, note that it changes often so your ease of eating one-handed will depend on what is available that day.

Portabello interior

Space: The entrance to Portabello is a vast space, but the amount of room around the tables varies and tends to be somewhat small, especially around the bench-seating area. We used a table for four and squeezed the baby carriage into one of the seat spaces. It’s doable in some areas of the restaurant, and the way the space is laid out means that you don’t have to travel very far to get to any table so you won’t need to weave your way through the restaurant with your stroller. However, it’s not so good for groups because you wouldn’t be able to get more than one stroller at a table.

Portabello booth seats

Ambiance: Calm and quiet, with a mixture of sophisticated and homely decor. The staff were very friendly and helpful with the baby carriage and high chair, as well as with directions to the baby-changing facilities. The Baberoo (before her tantrum) enjoyed turning around in her high chair to catch the eye of the bartender and practice her waving, and he was a very good sport and gave her a lot of attention.

Facilities: The baby-changing facilities are in a smallish space, although we managed to squeeze our huge pushchair into the room anyway. The room is pretty and clean and smells amazing for a baby-changing room! The changing table is a good size. Because of the layout of the hallway, it may be hard to manoeuvre your pushchair into the room, but we had some help from our server, who was very kind and held the door open for us.

Portabello baby-changing

Feeding: The Baberoo ate part of what I brought from home for her and part of my lunch. She would have also enjoyed most of the kids’ menu, which offers a main plus a dessert for £7.50 (Sunday roast is a £1.50 supplement). I didn’t breastfeed while we were there and the chairs are on the small side, but the benches looked quite comfortable (though there isn’t much space around them).

For baby-friendliness Portabello scores a 7.0 out of 10. It might be a tight squeeze if there are lots of diners, but at less busy times it’s a lovely place to relax and linger over your meal – if your baby lets you.

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Cleaver

(Updated August 2015: Cleaver Restaurant has now closed.)

When the new Cleaver restaurant (36 George Street, OX1 2BJ) opened up last month just before we went on holiday, I made a mental note to visit soon after we got back. And visit we did, for lunch today.

Cleaver’s menu is probably the most pared-down, simple menu I’ve seen in a while: chicken, burgers, ribs. That’s it! (OK, there are a few salads and you have a choice of various sides, but basically it’s those three items, in various sizes). Nothing fancy, just straightforward meat.

Cleaver ribs and chicken

Of course, I got greedy and ordered the combo of half-rack of ribs plus quarter chicken (£10.95), along with a side of onion rings (£2.95) and some roasted vegetables (£2.95), reasoning that the Baberoo would be eating some of my lunch. She looked askance at the vegetables – more fool her, because they were delicious; full of caramelized flavour while retaining their shape rather than falling apart. I didn’t offer her any onion rings because, as you know if you read this blog regularly, I am an onion ring aficionado and will not share them under any circumstances. They were the big fat kind, surprisingly non-greasy (although I like greasy), and quite tasty, although not especially memorable. The chicken was fine. The ribs were very good indeed, although not the best I’ve ever had. The sauce was piquant but not too spicy, and the meat was tender and came easily off the bone. The Baberoo ate them so fast that I couldn’t keep up with her. She ate more than I did! If there had been any extra ribs she would have kept on devouring them.

So: the ribs are recommended by both mommy and baby. Now, how did Cleaver fare against my five criteria for baby-friendliness? (Menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding – more on these in my About section.)

Menu: Well, if you need to hold a baby in one arm while you eat with one hand, you’re pretty much out of luck here – you will need both hands to eat almost every main on the menu, with the exception of the chicken wings. You could try the salads and some of the sides, but the whole point of coming to Cleaver is to enjoy the meat. Wait until your baby is big enough (and in a good enough mood) to sit in a high chair and then you can order whatever you want.

Space: There’s a huge expanse of space at the entrance to Cleaver, and the tables closest to the door are also spaced pretty far apart. You could fit a few prams into the space if you wanted to come with an NCT group or a few friends with baby carriages. (In fact, two ladies with strollers were coming in together just as we left.) The tables further back are spaced closer together. There’s also a downstairs seating area and a bar on a mezzanine level five steps up. A huge leather couch, leather armchair, and low table form a sort of waiting area near the front of the restaurant, which I immediately co-opted as a play area for the Baberoo while we were waiting for our meal to arrive.

Baberoo playing on couch

Ambiance: Everything is wood or leather with plenty of salvaged-looking materials, and the space has a natural, warm and inviting aura, albeit with a whiff of chain-restaurant (it’s the fourth of the Cleaver restaurants, owned by the Prezzo empire). The staff couldn’t have been friendlier. Three of them snapped to attention the minute we walked in the door, and they were all absolutely charming. Our server asked the Baberoo’s name and then addressed her by name every time she came to our table. She was just fabulous. All the staff members were helpful and were obviously also having a good time working together.

Cleaver interior

Facilities: The disabled/baby-change toilet is up five stairs on the mezzanine level. I’m not sure how a wheelchair user would get up those stairs, but I left our baby carriage at the table and carried the Baberoo there. The pull-down table was brand-spanking-new and the bathroom was clean, although the lighting made it look a little dingy. The door lock was broken (I pointed it out to our server and she reported it to the manager). The space was on the small side, so it was just as well that I hadn’t brought the stroller in.

Cleaver baby-changing facilities

Feeding: There’s a children’s menu with pretty much the same meats as the regular menu, but at a cheaper price (£5.95 for three courses including main with fries or salad, dessert, and drink). If you’re breastfeeding, the leather couch or armchair at the front look eminently comfortable (although they are quite close to large windows so there’s not much privacy). There is also some bench seating as well as regular chairs; take your pick for what’s most comfortable for you.

For baby-friendliness, Cleaver gets a 7.75 out of 10. The staff were really great on our visit, and we’ll be back when the Baberoo gets her next craving for ribs.

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Branca

This past Saturday we had a family outing downtown to do some shopping, take care of some errands, and most importantly, go out to eat. We found ourselves in Jericho at the magic hour of noon, when – on weekends – one is faced with the delightful conundrum of whether one will go for brunch or for lunch. We chose Branca (111 Walton Street, OX2 6AJ), which had both brunch and lunch menus available simultaneously between 12 and 1.

I was in the mood for French toast with maple syrup and smoked bacon (£4.95). The husband ordered the full breakfast (£7.45). We looked briefly at the kids’ menu but decided to order the half-size penne with tomato and Tuscan sausage sauce (£7.65) for the Baberoo, since she has really been enjoying sausage lately (usually filching it from my plate).

The penne arrived along with the full breakfast, but there was no sign of the French toast so I continued sipping my tea (China pai mu tan white, £2.40). The Baberoo started in on her pasta, but unfortunately it was woefully underdone to the point of crunchiness. We pulled out the ol’ backup snack bag for her and gave her some food from home, supplementing it with some of the full breakfast – which, according to my husband, was fine but not exceptional.

Branca pasta

My French toast seemed to have been forgotten, so we asked for it again and it arrived a few minutes later with apologies from the staff. The bacon was very good; the toast was also tasty and, fortunately, not too eggy (too eggy always ruins it for me) but I wanted more maple syrup to pour over it. What can I say? As a Canadian I believe that whenever maple syrup is part of a dish there ought to be a giant vat of it available for extra helpings.

Branca french toast with bacon

The dining experience at Branca was all right, although undercooked pasta shouldn’t be happening at an Italian restaurant. Now, how does Branca stack up against my five criteria (menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding) for baby-friendliness? (You can find out more about my ratings system on my About page.)

Menu: If you have only one hand available to eat while you hold a baby, the brunch menu has more options for you than the regular lunch menu. About half of the brunch menu is easy to eat with one hand; the lunch menu has a few good starters, salads, risotti, and pasta, but you’d be hard pressed to eat any of the meat mains using only one hand.

Space: Branca is easy to get into with a pushchair, but there’s a bit of a bottleneck near the front where the bar juts out. Depending on how many people are waiting in that area, it may be hard to get past into the main dining space. The tables at the back of the restaurant are further apart than the ones near the front, so they’re definitely your best bet if you have a stroller. The first time I came to Branca there were five of us NCT buddies, all with prams, and we fit at the back just fine, and during this visit there were plenty of parents with strollers and/or young children. There’s a garden terrace with loads of space that is open in both colder and warmer months, if you prefer to sit outside.

Branca interior

Ambiance: Light and airy, the place gives off an aura of being simultaneously cool and welcoming. There’s a tree growing at the back, and a lovely view of the garden terrace. The staff are friendly, and although we had to ask for a high chair (they are the nice Stokke Tripp Trapp ones) and a children’s menu, they were helpful with our requests (which makes me kick myself for not asking for more maple syrup).

Facilities: The disabled/baby-change toilet at Branca is at the back of the ground floor, and although there are regular toilets downstairs sometimes customers use this one because it’s more conveniently located, so it’s quite busy. It is a lovely bathroom with a window giving lots of natural light, and it smells fresh and clean. The pull-down table is close to the door, where there is a hook to hang your diaper bag. The room is on the small side. I left the stroller at the table, but if I’d brought it in with us we’d have been rather cramped.

Branca baby-changing facilities

Feeding: Although the Baberoo didn’t enjoy her pasta, Branca gets marks for having a children’s menu (mains range from £3.45 to £5.25) with a selection that has plenty of kid appeal. They also apparently have a baby menu, but although I asked for this I got the children’s one instead. If you were breastfeeding at Branca (which I have done in the past) you might find the chairs small and awkward; they have arms that curve right around so that if your baby is larger than infant-sized it might be hard to get into a comfortable position. There are a few cushy armchairs and sofas right at the front of the restaurant, but be warned: the front façade of the building is entirely glass so you’d be on display for passers-by to see. Bring a shawl or cover-up if you want to retain some privacy (nothing wrong with baring it all, though!).

Overall Branca gets a 7.5 out of 10 for baby-friendliness. From the number of babies and children in the place, parents already know that this is a nice and spacious restaurant that is baby- and kid-friendly.

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The Magdalen Arms

From the reviews I’ve read of the Magdalen Arms (243 Iffley Road, OX4 1SJ), the foodies of Oxford (and beyond) think it’s either the best gastropub in the city or completely overrated. I had been looking forward to both trying the food and seeing whether it was a good place to take a baby. So the Baberoo, her Gran, and I recently dropped in for a weekday lunch.

We had the place nearly to ourselves – always nice when you have a baby carriage to manoeuvre, and also really handy when your baby is the impatient type and doesn’t like waiting too long for a meal to arrive. During the short wait I tried the homemade quinceade (£3); it had a nice sharp tang to it but tasted so much of lemon that I thought they might have misheard me and brought me a homemade lemonade by mistake. They hadn’t. Our server asked if I wanted more quince syrup added. I did, and the drink turned out sweeter and faintly quincey – but still tasted like (very good) lemonade.

For my meal I ordered the wild rabbit with chorizo, fennel, chickpeas, and aioli (£14), as well as a side of chips (£4.50). Although the chorizo/fennel sauce was flavourful it didn’t help tenderize the rabbit, which was too tough. The Baberoo was having none of it. She didn’t want the chips either, even though they were pleasingly fluffy on the inside with a delightful crispy exterior.

Magdalen Arms rabbit and chips

What, you say? You tried to feed your baby a dish containing wild rabbit and chorizo? Yes, we’ve done baby-led weaning with the Baberoo so she is a very adventurous eater; she will usually eat (or at least try) just about anything. That’s why I sometimes order a dish and share it with her – yes, even rabbit – rather than bring food from home for her or order from a baby menu (although I’m happy to do that too). If she doesn’t like it, we always have a back-up snack bag, which I had to pull out on this occasion. But when she does like a dish, it goes up in my estimation at having been pretty darn good. Unfortunately, I’d say the rabbit didn’t reach that level and I’d call it an OK but not great meal. I wished that I had saved room for dessert; their long list of offerings all looked fantastic.

So, now that I’ve come down somewhere in the middle (not loving it, not hating it) about the food, what did we think of the establishment’s baby-friendliness? I rate eateries against five factors: menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding. For more about these, please see my About page.

Menu: There’s a lot of meat on the menu and most of it comes in big hunks, so you’ll need both hands free for those dishes. On the day we visited there was a pasta dish and a few starters (soup and tapas) that could be eaten with one hand if your other arm needed to be free to hold a baby. The cod also would have worked. The menu changes daily and it’s not posted on the website, so you’ll have to go along and take your chances on there being something you can eat one-handed if that’s a necessity for you.

Space: The entrance to the pub isn’t terribly baby-friendly; there are three stone steps and then two sets of doors, so if you have a baby carriage you might need some help getting in. Once inside, you’ll have to manoeuvre through a space that’s quite full of (quaintly mismatched) tables and chairs. If the place had been full we might have had some trouble getting to a table.

Magdalen Arms interior

Ambiance: The walls are painted such a dark and sombre colour that the overall effect is somewhat dreary; I’m guessing it comes into its own and is much more animated in the evening. The staff, though, were very friendly and helpful, and enjoyed chatting to the Baberoo. Our server was happy to get us extra napkins and direct us to the baby-changing facility. They also have high chairs available (the Ikea kind, which I find more secure than the usual restaurant model).

Magdalen Arms interior

Facilities: The baby-changing facility is a pull-down table in the ladies’ loo, which is down a flight of four stairs. There’s a mini-lift for wheelchair users that I guess you could also use with a baby carriage if you wanted to bring it into the loo with you; I just held the Baberoo and left the carriage at our table. The pull-down table is in the main area of the loo, while toilets are in separate cubicles. Some chairs were set up underneath the pull-down table, which was really handy for putting the diaper bag down and organizing our things. The whole ladies’ room was clean and tidy.

Magdalen Arms baby-changing facilities

Feeding: If you’re breastfeeding, choose a table that has comfortable-looking chairs. There are so many different kinds that there’s sure to be one that suits you; my personal choice, if I’d needed to breastfeed, would have been one of the padded armchairs of different vintages near the front of the pub. I was hoping the Baberoo would eat part of my regular-food lunch, but we resorted to the snack bag; I would say that the menu at the Magdalen Arms isn’t particularly kid-friendly (unless your child’s sophisticated palate is attuned to the tastes of, say, rabbit and pork rillettes, blue cheese souffle, or potted shrimps).

The final score for baby-friendliness for the Magdalen Arms is 6.25 out of 10. I would say this is a gastropub for the grown-ups to enjoy on their own rather than with their little darlings.

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Ask Italian

The Baberoo and I are back in Oxford after our holiday in Canada, so our 2014 adventures around town have begun! After a busy morning in the city centre, the Baberoo fell asleep in her stroller and I decided we’d stop in for lunch at ASK Italian (5 George Street, OX1 2AT).

I started with the small Antipasto Classico Board (£5.95, or £11.95 for the larger size), which included buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto, two kinds of salami, rocket and tomato salad, and rosemary-sea salt bread with olive tapenade. While the meats were nothing to write home about (I couldn’t taste the difference between the Milano and finocchiona salami), the bread and olive tapenade were truly enjoyable. I finished the plate while the Baberoo was still sleeping.

Ask Italian antipasti

Knowing the Baberoo would want lunch as soon as she woke up, I ordered the half-size of Spaghetti al Pomodoro to share with her (£6.25 including a side salad, or £7.75 for the regular size without salad), but I switched the pasta to the gluten-free fusilli (which is available for any of the pasta dishes), not because we eat gluten-free but because fusilli is a lot easier for a little hand to grab. We’ve had this pasta dish before at ASK Italian and the Baberoo has enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that she was wearing a brand-new cream-coloured sweater I gave her for her birthday, and I didn’t have one of our impermeable neoprene bibs with me (top mealtime tip: neoprene bibs with sleeves – we use the Ultrabib from Bibetta – are the best thing ever). I put two regular bibs on her, sat her on my lap instead of a high chair so I could hold the bibs in place, and hoped for the best.

Ask Italian pasta

The Baberoo enjoyed her pasta until she suddenly decided that she was done and wanted to get down from Mommy’s lap Right Now, and with an ear-splitting scream started in on one of her delightful tantrums. These are a new thing in our household and I guess we’re lucky it didn’t start earlier (and I know it’ll get way worse in the next couple of years, because at least now I can still contain her squirming with only one arm, but wait until she starts punching and kicking…). But it still sucks when it’s in public. I got my first-ever ‘can’t you control your baby’ look from another diner (lady, I forgive you, but next time try to cut a mom some slack, ok?) and we left in a hurry. Ah well. She was her usual cheerful self five minutes later. Bonus: even with the thrashing around, we miraculously didn’t get any tomato sauce on the cream-coloured sweater.

So, how did ASK Italian rate for baby-friendliness? My five criteria are menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding (more about these on my About page).

Menu: If you need to eat with one hand while holding a baby in the other arm, there’s plenty on the menu that you can choose from. Most of the pastas, risottos, ravioli, and salads would be OK to eat one-handed. The pizzas might be manageable, while the meat dishes and panini would be more difficult.

Space: We were there during a lunch hour that wasn’t too full, so there was enough space between tables to get a baby carriage through the restaurant (even navigating between other prams – there seemed to be a lot of babies there today!). If it had been fuller it wouldn’t have been as easy, and certainly I wouldn’t recommend more than one baby carriage to a table. Some of the booth seating – as I belatedly realized after requesting a booth table – is quite close together, so that might not be your best choice.

Ask Italian interior

Ambiance: It’s a chain restaurant and it looks like a chain restaurant, but it has nice enough decor and good tables and chairs, as well as a wall of drawings done by children (while they waited for their meals, presumably), so it’s not devoid of character. The staff are friendly and helpful and seem to get along very well with each other, always a good thing to see.

Facilities: The baby-changing facilities are easy to access, although in a room that looked quite big I had a little trouble turning the baby carriage around so that I could get it out of the way. The pull-down changing table (made of enamelled (?) metal) is unusual and even kind of pretty compared to the usual plastic ones, but it’s a bit chillier against skin so you might want to put a cloth under your baby.

Ask Italian baby changing facilities

Feeding: It was the Baberoo’s lunchtime so I ordered the half-size pasta from the regular menu, but I see from the ASK Italian website that there’s also a kids’ menu (which we weren’t offered) that has kid-sized mains for £6.25. They’re mainly pizza and pasta with flavours that appeal to children. If you’re breastfeeding, the padded wooden chairs look OK but are on the small side. Booth seats are comfy but awfully close together so you might be jammed up against someone else. With the number of babies in the place, I would guess that the restaurant would be supportive of breastfeeding mothers, although I didn’t try it myself while we were there.

For baby-friendliness I give ASK Italian a 7.25 out of 10. Judging from today’s clientele, many other parents already know that this is a solid choice for somewhere to eat out with a baby.

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Giraffe

Giraffe is a chain known for its kid-friendliness, so it came as no surprise that on the day the Baberoo and I visited the central Oxford location (71 George Street, OX1 2BQ) there were kids or babies at almost every table. We were starving from doing so much Christmas shopping and we really needed lunch pronto, and Giraffe is one of the places that I know can be relied upon to get your order to you quickly.

Although Giraffe offers a very reasonably-priced £6.25 lunch special from Monday-Friday, I decided to go for the BBQ chicken and smoked cheddar quesadilla (£9.25) and a Coke (£2.45). The quesadilla was a very generous size and came with a salsa for dipping and a side of slaw. It didn’t press any buttons on my deliciousness barometer, but it was fine and filling and easy to eat while I was feeding the Baberoo.

Giraffe quesadilla

Although we’d brought some fruit from home it wasn’t enough for the Baberoo’s lunch, so I ordered her something from the kids’ menu. The entrees are all under £6 and there’s also a meal deal that includes a main plus a drink for £4.95, all day, any day of the week. I got the Baberoo the Italian pizza bites (£4.05), which come with a side of fries and a salad. It arrived in record time; she only did a little bit of screeching when I didn’t serve her pre-meal grapes as fast as she would have liked. The Baberoo enjoyed the pizza bites, which were made with nice fluffy focaccia bread, and had fun examining the salad leaves minutely before eating them. (Sorry, kiddo, but Mommy had to eat all your fries for you because you’re not allowed to have them yet. Ha ha ha!)

Giraffe pizza bites

Certainly Giraffe is kid-friendly and caters to a family audience. So how does it do when it comes to baby-friendliness? My ratings system (explained in full on my About page) takes into account menu, space, ambiance, facilities, and feeding.

Menu: For parents, there’s plenty on the Giraffe menu that can be eaten one-handed if you need to hold your baby in the other arm. Breakfast/brunch items, salads, pastas and some of the Giraffe ‘favourites’ all give you good choices for one-handed eating. It’s nice that they have a whole kids’ menu, too, and the portions (for both adults and children) are generous.

Space: There’s ample space to move around the restaurant with your baby carriage, although you probably wouldn’t get to park more than one carriage at a table. Go for one of the circular tables rather than the booths because you’ll have more of a choice for where to put your buggy. One annoying thing is that it’s somewhat difficult to enter the restaurant; there are two heavy glass doors and you have to turn a corner. Usually a staff member will be able to help you but it’s too bad the doors don’t open more easily. It seems like a no-brainer to provide easy access in a kid-friendly place.

Giraffe interior

Ambiance: Colourful, festive, and global. The decor in the restaurant will be pleasing to children and babies; it’s bright and fun. The staff are very helpful and friendly to children. We were offered a high chair and a kids’ menu right away. On the day we went, it looked like there were only two members of staff taking care of all the tables, but they were in very good humour and seemed to be having fun despite being run off their feet. They also give out balloons to children, which is always nice (unless your baby is scared of them – I know I was as a child!).

Giraffe wall

Facilities: The bright orange baby-changing/disabled toilet is a fine size and has a good layout, although the bin should be closer to the changing table. On the day we visited it was clean and well-aired despite not having a window. It suffers from a narrow pull-down changing table without a shelf to put your bag on, but there’s space to hang your bag from the corner of the table. If you’re waiting in the corridor for someone to come out, you may have to back up quite a long way when they leave the changing room as it’s a very narrow corridor.

Giraffe baby-changing facilities

Feeding: No one minded that we had brought some of our own food for part of the Baberoo’s lunch. I’ve also fed her entirely with home-prepared food on a different visit and it didn’t raise any eyebrows. I haven’t breastfed her at Giraffe, but the ambiance suggests that it would be welcomed, and you can choose from tables with regular seats or bench seating, whichever is more comfortable for you.

In total, Giraffe gets an 8 out of 10 for baby-friendliness. It’s a reliable place to stop in with a young one and you won’t be kept waiting long for your meal.

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