Tag Archives: restaurant

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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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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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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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 Mommy’s one-year anniversary

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

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Bill’s

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

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

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

Bill's pancakes

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

Bill's Jaffa cake

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

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

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

Bill's interior

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

Bill's food to buy

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

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

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

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Brookes Restaurant

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

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

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

Brookes restaurant asparagus trifle

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

Brookes restaurant lamb

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

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

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

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

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

Brookes restaurant interior

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

Brookes restaurant interior 2

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

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

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

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Oxford Mommy’s Guide to Washington DC

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

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

Washington DC Metro

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

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

Cherry blossoms

 

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

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

Story Time at the Library of Congress

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

Founding Farmers

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

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Oxford Mommy’s Guide to Princeton, NJ

Our family trip to America began with a quick 36 hours in New York City, then continued on to Princeton, New Jersey, where Oxford Daddy spent the week ensconced in Princeton University’s Firestone Library doing archival research. The Baberoo and I explored the lovely Princeton town centre and found as many baby-friendly places as possible.

Princeton Campus

Our first recommendation is the Princeton Public Library. Reopened 10 years ago in a state-of-the-art building, it has an entire floor for children that includes books for all ages, an exhibition area, a special play room with lots of toys, and a separate room for storytime and other educational sessions. We visited three times in two days and met some very friendly parents and their babies. The play room was wonderful; lots of parents and nannies were using it with their babies and small children and the Baberoo enjoyed all the toys, while I appreciated not having to chase her around the bookshelves and re-shelve all the books that she would be pulling out. We went to the storytime session on a Tuesday morning and the presenter, Martha, was wonderful. We had to step out a bit early due to a diaper emergency, but that was OK because there is a baby-changing facility in the bathroom on each of the library’s three floors (in the ladies’ rooms; I’m not sure whether there is something similar in the men’s rooms). The changing table is right outside the doors to the cubicles, so when it is pulled down it obstructs the entrance to some of the cubicles, but other than that it works fine. The Princeton Public Library also has a café and lots of comfy seating areas within the stacks, which came in handy when the Baberoo was napping and I wanted to sit and read for a while. It’s a wonderful resource and if we lived there we would be there almost every day. I think it may be the most baby-friendly public library I’ve ever visited.

Princeton Library

Another lovely baby-friendly place we found in Princeton was the Bookscape at the Cotsen Children’s Library, located on the ground floor of the Firestone Library on the Princeton Campus. The Bookscape is a reading space for children, populated with topiary animals, a wishing well, and a hollow tree full of books to read. There’s also an activity area for free education sessions. Lots of comfy chairs and whimsical furnishings make this a wonderful space for both children and adults. We were the only ones there when we visited, so we had the run of the whole place. The Baberoo loved exploring all the nooks and crannies and having some of her favourite books read to her. There is a baby-changing table in the nearest ladies’ room (just off the main entrance to the Firestone Library), although it’s a small room and you won’t be able to fit your pram inside. The Cotsen Children’s Library has a space at the entrance for you to leave your pram, which can’t be brought into the Bookscape. Don’t forget to also have a walk around the Princeton University campus, which is beautiful.

Cotsen Children's Library

Our third find in Princeton was the fabulous Labyrinth Books (can you tell that we love books in our family?). This bookshop has a great selection of both adult and children’s books, and it has a small space in the children’s section with beanbags and some wooden toys for children to play with. The Baberoo loves beanbags so she had lots of fun, but she’s also at the age where she loves whacking books off of bookshelves, so we only had a short playtime. Still, it’s great if you want to sit and read some books before you buy (you will definitely leave with at least one book!). They also have a baby-changing facility in the women’s bathroom; it’s in one of the cubicles and it’s big enough to fit your pram in.

Labyrinth Books Princeton

Princeton also has a few baby-friendly restaurants in the town centre. During our few days there we visited PJ’s Pancake House (where the Baberoo had some macaroni and cheese, plus some of Mommy’s spaghetti marinara), Teresa Caffe (where the chef made the Baberoo a special dish of peas in brown butter – utterly delicious and only $1!), and the Blue Point Grill (where the Baberoo had some buttered pasta and then ate the side dish of rice that came with Mommy’s hazelnut-and-cherry-crusted tilapia). Most of the sit-down restaurants in town have high chairs and baby-changing facilities.

Blue Point Grill crusted tilapia

There are definitely some baby-unfriendly elements to Princeton, though. In the downtown area, which has been kept very pretty and only has high-end shopping, there’s no supermarket. If you want to buy fresh food like fruit and snacks that a baby will like, there is very little available. There are some great delis (Olives and D’Angelo Italian Market, to name a couple) where you may be able to find a few things that appeal to babies, but if you want a supermarket it’s in another part of town.

Our biggest problem, though, turned out to be where to stay. There is only really one hotel in the middle of Princeton and it’s quite an expensive one, so we went for the less pricey Hampton Inn, which is one of a string of about 20 hotels outside of town that are located up and down the Brunswick Pike (US Highway 1 South). Although it was a fine hotel and we got an absolutely huge room, we realized we had made a big mistake in picking our location. The taxi ride from the hotel to the Princeton town centre is $25, which means $50 a day to get into town and back. This is no problem for most visitors if they don’t have babies, because there is always a hotel shuttle bus that can bring you wherever you want for free. However, we found out upon arrival that the shuttle bus doesn’t take babies. It doesn’t have any car seats, and being a private vehicle it can’t operate by the same rules that taxis do (where you can just seat your baby on your lap). The Hampton Inn were very nice about it and were even up for buying a car seat to use in the shuttle bus, but then discovered that the law required the parents to provide the car seat and even be the ones who installed it in the vehicle every time the baby needed to travel, just in case there was an accident. What a litigious country America is! I would have been very happy to sign a waiver form every time we travelled, but it wasn’t possible. Car seats being the price they are, it wasn’t worth buying one there and just using it for a few days. And there was no alternative to taxis, because there are no city buses that run along the highway (there are hardly any buses in Princeton at all).

So the upshot was, although Oxford Daddy got to take the shuttle bus for free whenever he needed it, the Baberoo and I had to take a taxi every time we went somewhere. On one of the days she was able to nap in her stroller in the afternoon, but on another day I knew she would need to go back to the hotel in the middle of the day to get a good two hours of sleep in an actual bed, so I shelled out an extra $50 to get us back to the hotel from downtown and then back downtown in time to meet Daddy for dinner. That’s $100 that I spent on taxis that day, folks. It was most unexpected and it really put a dent in our finances. We did meet a couple of lovely taxi drivers, though.

I had heard that in America, especially small-town America, it’s assumed that everyone owns a car. In Princeton that seems to definitely be the case. If you’re travelling to Princeton, either bring a car seat with you, drive your own car with a car seat attached (hard to do if you’re coming from across the ocean!) or prepare to spend lots of money on taxis, because there is no other way to get from many of the hotels to the actual town centre. I can recommend Princeton as a nice place to visit for families, but it’s pretty tough getting around with a baby. It was much easier in our next stop, Washington DC, as I will relate in my next blog post!

 

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