Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cafe with childcare

I've seen a new restaurant concept cropping up around the area: casual sit-down dining that caters to families with small children. Specifically, restaurants which offer play areas: either a designated corner full of toys, or a separate play room with supervised childcare (usually for a fee). There may also be an extensive kids' menu, likely punctuated with healthy options.

Recently a friend passed along an offer from a local radio station where we could purchase $25 gift certificates to 'Me Too! Cafe for grownups, Playtime for kids,' for only $7.50. I'm not usually one to pass up a 70% off deal, so I ordered a couple, thinking it would be a good excuse to try the restaurant, which is not located very close to home.

We ventured to check the place out for Gary's birthday lunch. When we walked in, there were no other customers. The two ladies at the front greeted us pleasantly, and Gary cracked, "How long is the wait?" I think she didn't get it at first, because one woman replied, "There isn't any!" and then must have realized that he was joking, because she chuckled nervously and added, "Yeah, you guys missed the big rush!"

One wall was lined with a long booth-style bench to create half-booth/half-chair tables. The rest of the room was filled with square tables and chair groupings. If the place were crowded, I would personally have felt as though we were dining elbow-to-elbow with the rest of the guests in the room. Thankfully, we wouldn't have to deal with that awkwardness today.

We selected one of the hybrid booth/chair tables in the front corner, and began perusing the menu. The choices for kids were great. Lots of options, pretty healthy, and each meal came with several kid-friendly side dishes (applesauce, cheese stick, veggie sticks, and goldfish crackers). The wide array is great for us because Madelyn likes to nibble a little bit on lots of different tastes. We ordered her a PB and Apple sandwich, and she took several bites.

I had more trouble deciding on my entree because nothing on the menu really appealed to me. The options didn't sound unappetizing, per se, but nothing captivated my tastebuds' attention. For me, an indicator of a really great restaurant is a menu full of unique and interesting options that I wouldn't usually make at home. If I can't decide because so many options tempt me, that's a sure sign I'd return for another meal. But this menu was mainly salads and sandwiches--genres of food that I can definitely dig, but they don't excite me unless the flavors creatively transcend the landscape of my own kitchen.

We hadn't attempted the play area yet, but our server's cluelessness and the unprepared kitchen did nothing to improve my impression of the foodservice part of the deal. Gary asked for a taste of one of the soups. Our server returned to say that particular soup is not one they make from scratch, and so it's frozen. If he really wanted a taste, she said they would gladly bring it, but it sounded like they'd have to thaw and heat up the entire serving portion to do so. He then asked for a recommendation between two entrees, and was informed that they were out of one of them. So he ordered the other one, which prompted the server to go check to see if they had one of the ingredients. "I didn't work Saturday, so I'm not sure," she said. As a former foodserver, I'd say there is a more professional way to handle this back-and-forth with the kitchen without clueing the customers in to any faults. I finally decided on the enchiladas verde, which she also had to see if they could make. I realized later that is because I was ordering from the dinner area of the menu instead of lunch, but she didn't say anything about that, and the menu doesn't secify a time frame for dinner entrees. She said they could make the enchiladas, but without the rice side dish. Fine.

They bring the child's food out pretty quickly if you want them to, so they can finish first and go play while the parents eat. But Madelyn is a slow and distracted eater, so by the time she was finally finished and we got her cleaned up, we didn't have much of our own lunches left to finish. But we still wanted to see if she would like to play in the childcare area, hoping we could enjoy a few minutes of peace and quiet. I went inside the playroom with Madelyn, and helped her get comfortable. The "play partner" was very nice and started helping Madelyn do a puzzle. The instant I turned to leave, she started crying and running after me. We just don't get to do this very often. I tried a couple of times, to no avail, so Madelyn came back to the table with me. I said we would try again in a few minutes. Madelyn stood by our table while Gary and I ate and talked, and not a minute later she was wandering back to the play area where a huge block tower was being constructed. She didn't even glance back.

Gary and I looked at each other in amazement. She ran right in there and knocked over the blocks, stayed for a few seconds, then ran back out to us, laughing. Several times she ran back over, staying to play just a little bit longer each time. It was a neat experience to see how, given enough space and allowed to do it on her own terms, she was able to enjoy the experience of playing with a stranger in a strange place. But if I had left her alone at first, shutting the door behind me and ignoring her cries, she would have completely lost it. Not that they would have allowed me to leave her in there screaming, but the experience could have been traumatic for us all had we not just allowed her to figure it out on her own. She didn't need any coaxing or explaining once she felt ready, and it only took a couple of minutes.

Gary and I conversed more while Madelyn was sitting at the table eating than we did once we were doing the back-and-forth game with the play area. An older child, interested in toys no matter where or under what circumstances, may have afforded us more time to relax and dine on our own. Maybe if there had been other children in the playroom, Madelyn would have realized what it was all about more quickly. She just doesn't have enough experience playing with a babysitter to be so easily comfortable with it.

We want going out to dinner as a family to be a positive experience for all of us, and are committed to helping our child(ren) learn good table manners and cultivate the ability to sit at the table during meals. I know families who never go to restaurants with their kids, because they haven't nurtured that ability (hint: it begins at home). So far, we don't really mind dining out with Madelyn. Her antics add up to our own entertainment at the table, so it's more fun than stressful. Maybe during the next couple of years, especially if more children join our brood, we would appreciate a setting like this. Perhaps we'll try Grandma Leeth's, which seems to have a more exciting menu, because for me, the food would have to be a great deal better--higher quality and more interesting selection--to make the trip worthwhile.

Plus, I'd rather there not be stray goldfish crackers for my daughter to discover under another table and eat (which there were, and which she did).


Sarah Rose Evans said...

We had the same expirience-- unappealing menu, clumsy, untrained wait staff, and not as much success in the play room as we would have liked. I didn't have a discount, though. Not worth the price.

Kristen said...

Did you go to Me Too too? Or a similar restaurant? We should try Grandma Leeth's, maybe when we go to the zoo.

Bridget said...

Hm. I've never heard of such a concept. Maybe Tucsonians hate kids.

I've never worked in food service but I agree that the waiter was really unprofessional.

You should just go to IKEA. They have normal food and that little play area where you can eat.

jaeyde said...

I occasionally go to the brunch place a few doors down from Me Too. Never seen more than one or two people in there. Good concept but looked from the outside like poor execution. I guess I was right.

Anne said...

We went to Me too for dinner one night and it was great.

Jeni said...

I have thought about trying this place but after reading this I doubt I will... three kids makes places like that a bit spendy, so it has to be really worth it for us!

Kristen said...

I think everyone should try things to get their own experience if they can. Your kids might have more fun since they can play together. But the food was still just average.


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