Where in Lewes will they be cool if blackcurrant juice is spilled over the table? Twice? Where will they smile if there's more food on the floor than the plates? Where will they simply shrug if the crayon marks on the wall won't come off?
I'm not referring to my own behaviour, by the way. I can usually keep my crayoning on the paper, anyway.
We've been taking our children (Thing One and Thing Two) out to eat since they were babies, in the hope that they will become like those French children one sees in Parisian bistros: hair and clothes unsullied by ketchup, they sit quietly between courses, say "please' and "thank you', and eat snails and brains. So far, the experiment is such a failure I can only assume that those French children are heavily sedated, or are grown-up actors pretending to be children just to mess with my head.
However, we merrily persist in outings to restaurants for one important reason: SOMEONE ELSE HAS TO CLEAR UP. Here's some of the places in Lewes where they do so without complaint (at least till we're out of earshot). This is of course a subjective list, so feel free to shout at your computer screen if you disagree.
Italian waitresses are traditionally supposed to welcome small guests with cries of "Bella! Bambino!', accompanied by cheek-pinching and bosomy cuddles. Stereotype further dictates that the children will then be whisked off to the kitchen, sat on the chef's knee and hand-fed pasta, while the ecstatic parents glug Grappa and read more than one sentence of the paper. While the Lewes Italian eateries are a little more reserved, as befits their British location, they are nonetheless easily the most tolerant of all Lewes venues. Lazatti's positively encourages the little tykes, by offering a time every day when children go free if their parents are eating. The food's lovely, the atmosphere good, and the place clearly washes well as there has been no sign of our previous devastation when we make subsequent visits. The only downside is that the tables are quite close together, which means that if people without children sit next to us during happy hour (though why are they there then?), we spend the entire meal trying to prevent Thing One from engaging them in conversation about carbonated feet and Thing Two from spraying them in tomato sauce.
Of the chains, Pizza Express and Prezzo are mess-friendly. Though they don't go quite as far as Lazatti's freebies, they both have excellent children's menus and, crucially, plenty of space between tables. Pizza Express does very well with its classy desserts for kids ("Mummy, how come we are allowed a Sundae when it's a Friday?') The crayons and paper arrive instantly, balloons are given away at the end, and the food's not bad either. Prezzo isn't quite so quick off the mark with the crayons, but it does have sensibly sized pizzas for children, as well as great entertainment in the form of the enormous oven with its roaring fire and a chap chucking pizza dough about.
Of the non-Italians, Bills is an attractive option but you can't guarantee to get a table, which is deeply traumatic after you've struggled in there with bags, buggy, yelling children, and a migraine the size of the oven at Prezzo. If you can get to Bills on a weekend morning by 8.30am, you can get not only a table but a guaranteed full five minutes silence as your child devours the pancakes and fruit. I know that time in the morning sounds absurd if you don't have kids, but parents of small children will be thinking, as late as that? (Not that I ever do it – Him Indoors is in charge of Ridiculously Early Outings.) There are plenty of staff around to ply you with extra napkins for mission clear-up, and the general camaraderie of sharing tables means the chances are you'll be near relatively relaxed punters. Or if they tut, you can pretend they made all the mess.
Where else? Café Nero wipes clean, it's usually quite noisy so Thing One can talk at her usual excessive volume without shattering wine-glasses, and the window seats and milkshakes are popular.
Wickle looks like it will break into tiny pieces if you so much as let a small child go in there but actually the café bit is great because the grown-up can sip tea out of real china while the children can play with the beautiful toys. They are actively encouraged to do this by the friendly staff, who are clearly mad.
This one may surprise you, but afternoon tea at Shelley's – in the garden, or in their generally deserted lounge – scores quite highly: they do a nice line in fancy biccies, and last time we were there no-one frowned at Thing Two when he almost knocked over one of their bizarrely elongated vases.
Pubs. We've never gone in much for pubs-with-kids, particularly not those ones which say "Well-behaved children welcome'. Show me the parent who reads such a sign and says, "Gosh, we must go in there, my children are impeccably well-behaved', and I'll show you someone suffering from untreatable delusions. Or someone French. The pub might as well put up a sign saying, "Don't even think about it'. Pubs in general, no matter what they claim, don't feel that welcoming to families.
Our worst ever meal out was in a pub (not in Lewes, I hasten to add), one that had a "family area'. It was terrible, from the disgusting food and the filthy carpet, to the total lack of service ("Please can you warm up my baby's milk?' "No.') If you know better, and there are tremendous child-friendly pubs in Lewes, feel free to shout at the screen some more.
Indians, Chinese and Thai restaurants. I'm sure they would be very friendly but we haven't tested them yet, on the grounds that my children would doubtless reject the food as being too spicy or the wrong colour or too unlike baby-bels or something.
Most mess-friendly of all, though it's the wrong time of year, is the café at Grange Gardens. No-one even notices if you spill food and drink, and you're actually doing your bit for the environment, by feeding the birds and watering the grass. And the space between tables is ginormous.
Beth Miller, December 2008. Published on Lewes.co.uk