Most of my friends are kid-free, so I never realized what dining out with toddlers was like until I took Mike, Laura, and their nineteen-month-old son to Spettro.
Lesson one: Think logistics. "We'll bring along carrots and string cheese and stuff, in case he won't eat anything on the menu," Mike said as we made arrangements. "And let's go early, so Nikko won't be too grumpy." As we arrived, Laura scanned the room -- casual, uncarpeted, and packed with tables that were soon to be filled. I was encouraged by a stack of high chairs, but Laura knew better. "No play area," she said. "That may be a problem." Nikko squirmed in her arms, raring to explore. I began to see what she meant.
Lesson two: Not all kid-friendly restaurants are appropriate for all ages. According to a 2000 restaurant spending report by the National Restaurant Association, the Bay Area drops more money on restaurants per capita than any other region. But even the most resolute foodie's habits can be transformed by a positive pregnancy test. Soon after Nikko was born, Mike asked me to look into where parents could go for a real dinner -- not Chuck E. Cheese -- without shelling out $40 for a sitter. So I polled readers and acquaintances with children, and Spettro came up more than once.
Owner Cricket Deetz celebrated the restaurant's tenth anniversary on Valentine's Day. With seven kids of her own, she knows a thing or two about serving families. Night after night, she draws a crowd, a good third of it under thirteen, and her restaurant stays comfortably noisy without feeling chaotic -- a squirrelly kid doesn't stand out, and that's just how parents want it.
Lesson three: Distraction is your best friend. Nikko couldn't run around, much to his chagrin, but the supremely unflappable waiters brought crayons and a colorable kids' menu. To supplement this, although he had to go searching for it, Mike located a box full of random toys and old customer snapshots (tots find such things amusing) on a shelf near the kitchen. Our meal started to resemble a circus, complete with wild-beast-wrangling and human-juggling.
In between, we picked at our food. Spettro's menu starts in Italy, heavy on the pizzas and pastas, but adheres to that multicultural Californian fusion thing, picking flavors from points south, east, and west of us. The food is definitely a few steps above most chain restaurants, but its quality wavered.
The dressing on a Caesar salad contained so much garlic that it burned our mouths, and Spettro's famous booberry salad -- greens with candied walnuts, blueberries, and blue cheese in a blueberry vinaigrette -- would have been a great hit with fresh, in-season berries instead of the anemic, thawed variety. The toppings on both the kids' pepperoni pizza and the adults' Piedmont pizza (fresh tomatoes, leeks, basil, and feta) were swell, but the pizza hadn't been cooked long enough for the crusts to brown or the cheese to blister.
The rest of the entrées made a better impression. A more assertive pesto cream sauce on the eggplant lasagna would have been welcome, but the layers of roasted eggplant, cheese, and pasta melted in the mouth. Our favorite dish was a tilapia filet, moist and mild, coated in a bright Veracruz-style tomato sauce infused with cinnamon and bay leaf and sparked up with onions and capers.
By the end of the meal, I was grateful for small kindnesses, such as prompt food and very drinkable $5-a-glass wines. As we were cleaning up, Mike hailed the mother of a small girl sitting at the table next to us. "When did you start taking her out to restaurants?" he asked.
"She's four, and she just started getting easy to go out with," the woman said. "When she was younger we got kicked out of Zza's and Rick & Ann's."
Kicked out? "Well, they come by and tell you that if you can't keep your kids from running around the restaurant, they'll have to ask you to leave," she explained. Spettro was a lot more tolerant.
A week later, my friend Ellen and I brought her kids, two and four, to Kensington Circus, and regretted Nikko's parents weren't there to enjoy it. Everyone seems to feel at home at this long-standing neighborhood pub. One man was playing chess with his twelve-year-old son. A small herd of giggling five-year-olds galloped around the room, completely not bothering the middle-aged couples chatting quietly over pints. And there was a genuine play space, stocked with well-used toys and buckets of stuffed animals. Ellen and I sat Ian and Sylvia in front of the booty, then settled ourselves at a worn wooden table not far away.
Like many of the parents whose recommendations I sought, Ellen and her husband think nothing of taking the kids out to sushi, dim sum, and Korean barbecue (except for the restaurants with live coals in the middle of the table), and on occasion to a white-tablecloth bistro -- but not too often. "You can get them to sit still and not bother the other diners, but for the amount of energy you spend, you might enjoy it more to stay home and order a pizza," she said. Her restaurant survival kit was stocked with cheddar Goldfish, apple juice, and a photo album.
Kensington Circus scored big points with all of us. Ian tried only one crying jag, which was quickly aborted and went completely unnoticed by the other patrons. Ellen approved of the stacks of high chairs and kiddie portions of bangers, chicken strips, and fish and chips. I gave thumbs-up to the ten-plus British and American beers on tap; the few uninterrupted minutes to catch up with my adult friend; and also the fish and chips -- from the restaurant's shortlist of British (bangers and mash, shepherd's pie) and Californian (veggie burger, chicken Caesar) entrées.
Fish-and-chips purists might bemoan the absence of the half-rancid oil taste Brits adore, and the fries were sadly made with hand-cut, skin-on real potatoes, but the thinly battered, tender fish kept wandering off the children's plate and onto mine. Other dishes came out pleasant if not outstanding. An Atkins-friendly lamb kabob, though pink at the center, could have been taken from a more-tender cut, but the crisp-tender sautéed onions, summer squash, and grilled peppers amped up its flavor. The avocado-Dijon mustard vinaigrette on my simple green salad would have been enjoyable had there been two-thirds less of it. And though I found the Mexican-style fresh salsa piled on the shepherd's pie puzzling, the ground lamb, braised in wine and hard cider, was rich enough to flavor the mashed potatoes and melted cheddar overtop -- a tasty Americanization of the original. Some of us split a single-scoop ice cream sundae while others almost refused to share an intense, syrup-soaked slice of toffee pudding. To hell with being a role model.
And for once (well, twice) in my life, food took second place to comfort.
"I just don't expect them to eat much when they're out," Ellen told me as the kids ran off for a last go at the Legos. "If they get a little nutrition with their meal, well, that's a plus."