My son had just turned six months’ old when he had his first taste of crab pasta. I’ll never forget the bemused look on his face, which quickly turned to sheer determination to get his chunky little hands on more. By seven months he was sucking on onglet, by eight had devoured a quail leg, and by nine had spent 30 minutes stripping a Michelin-starred corn on the cob of every honey-buttered kernel.
What proverbial palace did he grow up in, you’re probably wondering? London. A city where the food scene is so exciting that having a child isn’t reason enough to stop going out. Parents go to restaurants, children go with them, and stand in their way at your peril.
Moving back to Dublin when he was one year old was a rude awakening. The first restaurant we tried to book said on its website that due to insurance reasons children under nine were not permitted. You what now? The next said that due to space restrictions and for safety they could not accommodate prams, buggies or child seats in the restaurant. This is a restaurant with two floors and several seating areas.
Nowhere seemed to have high chairs, and it’s extremely difficult to drink a glass of wine and butter your sourdough bread with a wriggling baby on your lap.
I questioned everyone, sent collapsible child seat links to restaurants, looked into buying our own and keeping it permanently in the buggy, but mostly I wondered why, in a city that’s supposedly got more restaurant seats than diners, restaurateurs were happy to discard a whole demographic of potential customers. Ones that were extremely likely to be in need of good food and drinks, and don’t always want to be banished to uninspiring pizza chains or burger joints on the outskirts of shopping centres.
The first moment of relief came during a visit to Bastible in Dublin 8 for Sunday lunch. A high chair! With a tray so my child has something to eat off! A nappy-changing area with nappies and wipes! What wondrous human conjured this up? A parent obviously.
Owners Claremarie Thomas and Barry Fitzgerald love eating out, and also happen to be parents to two young boys, so making their restaurants child-friendly was important to them. "We understand how special you feel when a good restaurant is accommodating to your needs as a family," says Thomas.
“By offering spare nappies/wipes for parents who forgot their baby bags or simplified dishes for fussier children, it helps reduce stress for tired parents. Eating with children should be fun, and with today’s busy lives it’s important to enjoy family time.”
The same attitude is evident in Old Street Restaurant, in Malahide, where owners Mark and Adriana Fitzpatrick want all ages to feel welcome. They also have two small children. "It's not always easy to get the family out, and many parents are conscious of whether they are bringing the kids somewhere 'suitable' or not," says Mark. "We wanted Old Street to be an inclusive, family restaurant, and introducing our 'kids eat free' offer on Sundays was a really nice and simple way to let families know they're welcome."
The benefits of being accommodating to all ages in the dining process seems obvious. High chairs mean parents have two hands to eat and entertain, and ensure children are unable to run around the dining room getting in the way of servers. A nappy change area makes the process quicker and less stressful for everyone than having to change your child on a cold, probably unhygienic, bathroom floor (or on a banquette in the restaurant as some parents have been known to do). But mostly, including children in eating out introduces them to restaurant etiquette, may enrich them with a love of food, and provides everyone with valuable family time. It’s also a chance for the restaurant to fill up lunchtime or early-evening tables, the ones that can be hardest to shift. Surely a win-win all round?
Sian Lewis is a mum of two who used to work in restaurants, and finds eating out as a family tricky. “I tend not to say we’re bringing kids, and usually make an early reservation so we’re out before 8pm. I’m always conscious, especially with more upmarket places, that if you’re paying €100 plus for your own meal, and may have your own babysitter at home, that you want to be away from kids.”
She lists some of their favourites as Richmond in Dublin 8, Shouk in Drumcondra, Foam Cafe and Mayfield, both in Terenure, which they’ve found very welcoming, with great kids’ menus. “We also loved 1826 in Adare, Limerick. They were so accommodating and our kids told us they felt ‘very grown up’ eating their top-notch food.”
For Colm Murray, an IT specialist with three young children, things have improved since the birth of his first child in 2010, but there's a long way to go. "The majority of restaurants offer the same bog-standard options for kids: chicken goujons, chips, sausages and so on. Rarely do these types of foods have any provenance. We love BuJo in Sandymount as almost everything they use is Irish and sustainable, and we can explain to the children where their food comes from."
It’s not just about the food though. Murray’s wife is Brazilian and he describes eating in restaurants over there as “a joy” compared to Ireland. “The staff tend to make more of a fuss of the kids and make them feel more important and less of a hindrance. Adults in Brazil just seem to like kids more than us Irish.”
Catherine Allen has a 15-month-old and agrees. She runs food tours for Fab Food Trails (fabfoodtrails.ie) in Dublin and loves eating out, but tends to avoid it with baby in tow as it's often "not worth the effort". She compares it to a recent trip to Spain where they are very much "family people, straight over to chat and welcome us, kisses for the baby. It's such a shame, and for a country with an obesity epidemic, encouraging everyone to eat around the table together more would be a welcome change."
Avril White has two young daughters and started the website dublincitymum.ie last year to provide parents with "the ultimate guide to Dublin". She thinks things are getting better. "Dublin eateries are finally realising that there's a business incentive to being welcoming to families. We fill tables for earlier settings which may been quiet and we're fast – just feed us, be welcoming and we'll be gone in an hour.
“I think in the past, most Irish families would have gone out for food with low expectations. If the kids were fed sausages and chips in enough time for mum to drink an overpriced glass of Pinot Grigio, everyone was happy. But we’re becoming more demanding, and our expectations are increasing.”
She lists some of her favourite places in Dublin as Gaillot et Gray, The Woollen Mills and Zakura, for being child-friendly and having interesting food options.
Mick O’Connell works in the wine trade in Dublin and says he’s had some fantastic experiences taking his now five-year-old daughter out to eat here, even on the fine dining end of the scale. “JP McMahon’s restaurants in Galway were great. We’ve gone to Aniar twice and Tartare once and she loved them and was spoiled by the staff. We also had a brilliant meal in Loam. My wife and I had the tasting menu and the chefs modified it for our daughter wherever they could, which felt like truly going above and beyond. We certainly don’t expect restaurants to go over the top to accommodate our child but the level of generosity shown in Galway really allowed us to have great evenings out together.
“We also had a brilliant experience at the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore. My daughter still talks about being called ‘Miss’ at the table, and we as parents greatly appreciate the interaction directly with our child as opposed to through us.”
He does, however, stress that his daughter is well behaved in restaurants, and that they would never encroach on other diners’ experiences with offensive levels of noise or electronic devices at the table. “I’m a big believer in teaching a child how to act in a restaurant, and it would be tough for us to teach her these life lessons without being allowed into anywhere in the first place.”
This is something echoed by Guardian food critic Marina O’Loughlin a few years ago, who said despite bringing her own children to restaurants from the time they were a few days’ old, she has no time for selfish parents, entitled children and noisy entertainment in restaurants. She said she always came armed with “quiet entertainment” and would escort tantrums outside before anyone noticed. She advised that in emergency situations, an ice bucket, cup and spoon could keep a toddler absorbed for hours.
In the book French Children Don't Throw Food, American author Pamela Druckerman recounts moving to Paris with her husband and three children, and her disbelief at how well-behaved French children were in restaurants, calmly sitting through several courses without any hysterics. After some on-the-ground investigation, she chalked this down to the food culture that exists from birth.
The government-controlled creches had menus run with the budget, provenance and seasonality of Michelin-starred restaurants, and children were taken out to restaurants from a very young age. So is that why children seem to be so under-catered for in restaurants here? Our historic lack of a definable food culture?
Every restaurant I asked about their absence of child-friendly facilities has put it down to space. Several said they “love” having children in, but can’t fit a high chair due to a lack of storage. This seems like a cop out, particularly with all of the collapsible, clip-on high chairs on the market these days, and fold-down changing tables.
Irish food is in an incredibly exciting place right now, with the number of new restaurant openings at a rate we’ve never seen before, and the global perception of “Irish food” rapidly changing for the better. Isn’t it time the next generation were invited to sit at the table?
GREAT PLACES TO EAT OUT WITH CHILDREN
Good Day Deli
Nano Nagle Place, Douglas Street, Cork, 021-432 2107
This cafe, focused on sustainability, is a great place for a conversation about the current state of the planet. They focus on natural, local, organic, seasonal and ethical produce, not to mention the food tastes great.
Malahide, Dublin, 01-845 5614
Space for buggies, highchairs, nappy changing, very accommodating staff and half portions of anything on the adult menu where possible. Children also eat free on Sundays, one per adult.
130 Pearse Street, Grand Canal Dock, Dublin 2, 01-515 7563
Tonnes of space so ideal for mummy meet-ups, high chairs, nappy-changing and a thoughtful children's menu, as well as half portions of anything on the adult menu at half price. Provenance is key, with even the beans on toast homemade with bread from Bread 41 up the street.
57 Deerpark Road, Mount Merrion, Co Dublin, 01-278 0377
The team here love getting the opportunity to feed children the freshest Irish seafood, and for the past two years have done "Seafood September", where children can eat everything from Dublin Bay prawns to Irish mussels for free. The year-round kids' menu is a cut above the rest.
Farronshoneen, Dunmore Road, Waterford, 051-584 422
A homegrown vegetable-heavy menu with kid-sized portions of every dish. Take a stroll around the gardens before or after to show the children where their food has come from, and maybe buy some seeds to take home.
The Donkey Shed
Newbarn Farm, Dublin Road, Donaghmore, Ashbourne, Co Meath, 01-849 9337
This farm-based cafe and restaurant is dedicated to local produce and has an extensive children's menu – including homemade chips. Once fed, you can walk through the farm to see the animals, and pick up some food from the farm shop to take home.