Kids restaurant dining grows up

Here's a rhetorical question for parents everywhere. While dining at a nice restaurant with the family, is there anything sweeter than the silence of the lambs?

We're at Andrew McConnell's newest Melbourne eatery, the Bistro at Fitzroy's Builders Arms, and the three seven-year-olds with us have suddenly gone quiet. No, they're not looking at their iPads. No, they haven't just copped a bollocking. They're just eating, mindfully and contentedly; chicken parma with tomato, fresh mozzarella and ham, fries and salad; pork sausages with mash and house-made tomato sauce; and a Builders cheeseburger with a side of chopped broccoli salad.

Kingstons Agostinis is a fun place for the whole family. Picture: Supplied

Kingstons Agostinis is a fun place for the whole family. Picture: Supplied

It's the junior equivalent of a five-star review.

No surprise, perhaps, given this is a McConnell restaurant. Except that this time - for the first time - the kids' menu has been written, more or less, by the children themselves.

"We've had kids coming through our restaurants forever, but [when we reopened the Bistro] we felt it was the right time to offer something especially for them that was appealing but also wholesome and delicious," says the chef-restaurateur.

"Loads of the team across our restaurants have children so we thought there was no better audience to ask exactly what they wanted to see on the menu."

Yes, there is ice-cream - house-made, with honeycomb sprinkles and chocolate sauce. And no, there are no chicken nuggets.

The Bistro's kid-centric approach is at the vanguard of a minor revolution in the way mid- to upper-level contemporary restaurants are accommodating young families. From targeted menus and drinks to child-friendly service, activity packs, entertainment and special "kids-eat-free" offers, the clever restaurateur is learning how to beat the fast-food chains at their own game.

The result is happy meals, indeed.

Out at Grazing in Gundaroo executive chef, and father, Kurt Nuemann thinks it's vitally important children enjoy their dining experience too.

"Having children of my own, my wife and I enjoy eating out when time is made available to us, particularly as a family," he says.

"As our children grow older their palates improve and become more adventurous and therefore we rely on kids menus less often. However when they were younger being treated to an interesting and enjoyable kids menu enhanced the dining experience overall.

"With this in mind we have tried to foster the same philosophy into our establishment. Kids are treated to a fresh and healthy meal which includes an activity pack, while their parents can (hopefully) enjoy a meal in relative peace.

"Being able to sit together and enjoy a meal away from devices is healthy on so many levels and one I feel to many families are missing out on."

Kid-friendly Baby in Richmond serves special kids' pizzas plus the chance to sit up at the open kitchen and watch the pizza-making. Picture: Supplied

Kid-friendly Baby in Richmond serves special kids' pizzas plus the chance to sit up at the open kitchen and watch the pizza-making. Picture: Supplied

Adelaide-based restaurant consultant Martin O'Connor says children used to be considered little more than a nuisance in restaurants. Not any longer.

"From a purely business perspective, the smart operator realises that if the children are happy, then mum and dad are happy. Therefore they stay longer and spend more money."

It helps that trends in restaurant design are conducive to keeping the young ones occupied, too.

Say what you like about precocious little foodies, but in an era of junk-food saturation advertising, when one in four Aussie children is overweight or obese and the incidence of fatty liver disease in the adult population is sky-rocketing, surely whatever mum and dad can do to encourage good eating habits at regular mealtimes is to be applauded. And yes, while what our children eat is of paramount importance, when and how they eat is a factor in food education, too.

As Maurice Terzini, of Sydney's Icebergs and The Dolphin Hotel, points out: "When I was growing up, we learned table manners sitting around the dining table at home. Now, kids are learning table manners sitting around the dinner table at a restaurant."

For Canberra siblings Dan and Dion Bisa it was about recreating that family dining table experience in their restaurant Agostini's. The restaurant is named in homage to their mother Marisa, whose family owned a restaurant in northern Italy before migrating to Australia in the 1930s.

"Many of my happiest childhood memories are associated with my family coming together over food," said Dan. "My mother is an incredible Italian cook and she was taught by her parents, so we have been fortunate to be surrounded by really authentic Italian food our whole lives. We envisioned a beautiful, inviting space, that would be gorgeous but accessible to all, that would reflect how we grew up."

Kids' vanilla ice-cream sundae with honeycomb sprinkles and chocolate sauce from the Builders Arms Hotel's Bistro. Picture: Supplied

Kids' vanilla ice-cream sundae with honeycomb sprinkles and chocolate sauce from the Builders Arms Hotel's Bistro. Picture: Supplied

Former ad man Jonathan Pangu founded his Melbourne-based business Death to Nuggets in 2017 in response to the toxic sameness of too many kids' menus. Now, he works with interested cafes to improve not just the menu items, but the whole approach to looking after the youngest members of the family.

"Good food should be interesting to kids," he says. "We want to take away the reasons why it's boring."

Last year Pangu collaborated with Melbourne's Park St Dining to launch a special kids' menu and a program of school holiday activities aimed at stimulating children's "natural creativity and imagination".

For the little ones as for the grown-ups, these days it's all about the experience.

At Star of Greece, on the beach in SA's Port Willunga, staff offer families with children one of a series of activity kits that go well beyond the token coloured pencils and a notepad.

"It's not just about serving child-friendly food, but engaging the kids beyond the adults' entrees, and in a way that doesn't involve a device," says restaurateur Nikki Govan.

School food educator and media personality Alice Zaslavsky gives some insight into the socio-economic factors driving the hospitality industry's shift in thinking.

Death to Nuggets is a kids food business founded by Jonathan Pangu. Picture: Supplied

Death to Nuggets is a kids food business founded by Jonathan Pangu. Picture: Supplied

"The kids themselves are more savvy now," she says. "Social media has accelerated the aspirations of young people and they all want to be foodies - it's the MasterChef generation.

Also, the onset of parenthood no longer signals such a sharp decline in dining out as it did for an older generation.

"Now, parents still want to have fun and go out and include their kids, too, while giving them something nutritious and interesting to eat."

The increasing prevalence of plant-based foods on menus in general is making the job easier. "With side dishes like charred cauliflower or Asian slaw, you hardly even need a separate kids' menu," she says.

Zaslavsky sees a hidden advantage in the restaurant experience. "I think children are more inclined to try new and unfamiliar foods when they're dining out than when they're eating at home.

"There's cultural capital in trying new things."

Well ... most of the time, perhaps. At the family-oriented RACV Cape Schanck resort on Melbourne's Mornington Peninsula, Josh Pelham serves up mini eye fillets, roast chicken with house gravy and salad and a truly eye-popping dessert of meringue "pickup sticks" with strawberries and cream, among other superior choices for the under-12s.

Attempts to send out mac and cheese with parsley in it have met with some resistance, however.

"It gets sent back," the chef sighs. "'What's that green stuff?' they ask."

OK, so maybe we're still a few baby steps short of a real revolution.

  • with Karen Hardy
This story Kids restaurant dining grows up first appeared on The Canberra Times.