Dine with a toddler, minus the usual insanity
Saturday morning on Commercial Drive looked like Stephen Harper had approved a universal child-care program, causing an East Van baby boom. The Quinnys and Peg Peregos were out in force; Baby Buddhas and Snuglis transported their gurgling passengers in search of breakfast. At Little Nest (1716 Charles Street), the line was out the door.
I’d wanted to try Little Nest since the rave reviews began, and this was my fifth attempt. Every time I’d gone before, the café was either closed or full. Clearly, there’s a hunger for “toddler friendly” dining in this city. So I got in line and waited. My 15-month-old, David, is not patient. He immediately started whirling in my arms and shrieking like an annoyed parrot. The line didn’t seem to be moving, and there was nowhere to sit down. So we left. Frustrated that a comfortable weekend ritual—brunch out—had descended into madness.
Little Nest might be the Xanadu of toddler-friendly dining, but it seems like I’ll never know. The restaurant is closed on Mondays, and the kitchen shuts at 3 p.m. (shutting out working families during the week). Plus, $9 for French toast breaks this reporter’s brunch budget. But with a little customer encouragement, maybe it’ll open for dinner and, ultimately, offer a later-night kid-friendly lounge, with dessert and unamplified live music. Oh, to dream.
Kudos to Little Nest for trying to accommodate us, though. Until a few years ago, Vancouver had very few toddler-friendly oases. Sure, some restaurants offered crayons and “fun” place mats (don’t forget the legendary Pirate Pak), but for the under-three set, those are amusing for about 15 seconds. Then what? Chaos. The city’s most family-unfriendly moment was probably in 2006, when Earls Restaurants removed highchairs to discourage families with very young children from dining there. Since then, a few restaurants have attempted to lure in the kiddie set, and the Georgia Straight applauds all of them. But, realistically, true toddler-friendliness has a way to go in this city.
What owners need to understand is that dining al toddler is like sharing a meal with your id. Needs for food, water, and stimulation must be addressed immediately or beware. A meltdown will erase any memory of coulis or confit. The child-free would ask the obvious question: “If your toddler is so freaky, why take them out at all?” Well, because the option is withdrawing into a family purdah for the first three years of each child’s life. So that’s why you’ve seen babes at Floata, the Main, and the Naam. Modern parents want it all. And, dammit, we’re going to have it even if it means changing our first-born’s diapers on a mat of paper towels on a sticky bathroom floor.
Generally, Café Deux Soleils (2096 Commercial Drive) is a groovy place for toddlers. The staff and clientele are very tolerant of kids cruising amongst the chairs. The stage, which functions as a play area during the day, offers four distractions: a toy kitchen, a box with movable beads, a chalkboard, and a cash register. Plus, CDS offers the Special, a garlic, tomato, and egg wonder that is worth a trip across the city, and David loves their chunky potatoes. It would be so easy for CDS to earn a serious “best kid-friendly” Golden Plate. Two of the four stage toys are broken; for less than $100, the play area could be awesome. The washrooms need comfy diapering facilities. Plus, the floor-to-ceiling bulletin board is a hazard; once, my son put two thumbtacks in his mouth before I could leap up and stop him from getting a Drive-worthy lip piercing. Any restaurateur wondering if there’s a market for toddler-friendly dining should visit here. The place is crawling with crawlers.
Kokopelli Cafe (4593 Dunbar Street), too, could easily earn a Golden Plate with a little more investment. Already, they’re ahead of the pack with a play area featuring loads of books and very clean toys. But the physical setup kills the parental chill-out. On a recent visit, I found myself constantly getting up: to pick up the food from the counter; to pick up the lattes; to return the cold mac and cheese; and then, repeatedly, once my son grew tired of the play area, to keep him out of the open kitchen and open storeroom. Some strategically placed furniture would make all the difference, and a counter staff that delivered to the table would heal some of the madness.
As for right now, there’s only one local restaurant with highchairs so clean and comfortable that they could double for spa beds. Tantrums are rare, as the food comes right away; it’s frighteningly appetizing to tiny taste buds; and it comes with a free toy. It’s affordable—less than $5 for a meal. Fortunately, this restaurant has a location in almost every neighbourhood—some have play areas—and is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Unfortunately, the restaurant is McDonald’s.
While White Spot earned the Golden Plate for top kid-friendly restaurant this year, for the under-three set, you still can’t beat the golden arches.