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I recently asked a doctor friend what I thought was a fairly innocuous question: whether he was particularly busy in the run-up to Christmas. It had him roaring with laughter. “I have to be!” he replied. His children are still under 10 and the winter holidays, he explained, are “very expensive”. The problem isn’t Christmas Day but the weeks either side. “They want to go skiing, and then when we take them up to the West End for a show they want to go out and eat in good restaurants too. You would be really jealous of all they can eat!”
In our family, we are now at the stage where our children are too old and our grandsons too young to be taken out for such Christmas treats. But my friend made me think about which restaurants in the West End would appeal to families across as many as three generations.
The first two are the long-established Maison Bertaux in Greek Street and the much more modern Princi on Wardour Street. Both have a great advantage when it comes to small children: their food is on display right by the front door.
The window of Maison Bertaux is piled high in a way that makes just stopping and looking a delight – and walking on by a test of inner strength, particularly if they have not sold out of their excellent florentines and macaroons. Opened in 1871, Maison Bertaux is now run by sisters Michele and Tania Wade, and it retains an unchanging charm, epitomised by the copy of The Art of French Baking left on the lid of a piano that I have never seen open let alone played. This is a great stopover for savoury quiches, scones and jam or richer Mont Blancs and chocolate and fruit éclairs.
Princi’s charms are equally obvious. To the left of the front door is a restaurant whose menu offers antipasti and a dozen different thin, crisp pizzas cooked in the woodburning oven that earlier in the day bakes excellent sourdough loaves. Straight ahead, at this time of year, is a stack of large panettone, and above the counter is a board listing a range of Italian savoury and sweet dishes and daily specials. This is a classy cafeteria that manages to serve more than 2,000 customers a day to a high standard, and it is a particularly useful place to assuage a child’s hunger without having to wait for an order to be taken.
I have long been a fan of the Green Man & French Horn, conveniently close to the theatres and the English National Opera on St Martin’s Lane, because by focusing on just one region of France, the Loire, it reminds me of how I first discovered the charms of French cooking. For children there is, for example, duck egg with anchovy soldiers, or crepes with salted caramel, and there’s also a good-value pre-theatre menu from midday to 7pm.
Although Villandry St James’s and The Ape & Bird are very different in style – the former is a grand café, the latter a renovated pub now made family-friendly – both have brought new life to what used to be rather neglected parts of the West End.
Villandry is at 12 Waterloo Place, between Regent Street and Pall Mall. With its high ceilings, comfortable interior and large windows giving views of Big Ben, it has a great sense of occasion, while the menu, as any astute child will quickly appreciate, offers almost as many desserts as main courses. The latter range from confit de canard and roast chicken breast to smoked haddock and salmon fishcakes, while the former include a pudding platter of six different sweet things.
The view from The Ape & Bird (apparently a frivolous working title that just stuck) is straight across Cambridge Circus to the Palace Theatre. Russell Norman and Richard Beatty, the brains behind the Polpo group of Venetian restaurants, won a highly competitive tender to renovate this pub and it is easy to see why. There is a drinking area at the front and restaurant spaces on the ground and first floors with numerous original Victorian features. The menu offers Cumberland sausage and mash alongside a wild mushroom and chestnut cottage pie, brown trout with tarragon butter, Neal’s Yard cheeses and a sticky date pudding.
Finally, the Portrait Restaurant atop the National Portrait Gallery is now under new management. Afternoon tea is curated by Claire Clark, awarded an MBE for her way with sugar, flour and eggs, while the main menu incorporates strong seasonal British ingredients and a dessert – warm chocolate and marmalade pudding with jaffa-cake ice cream – that is sure to appeal equally to adults and children.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
28 Greek Street W1, 020 7437 6007; maisonbertaux.com
135 Wardour Street W1, 020 7478 8888; princi.com
Green Man & French Horn
54 St Martin’s Lane WC2 020 7836 2645; greenmanfrenchhorn.co
Villandry St James’s
12 Waterloo Place SW1, 020 7930 3305; villandry.com
The Ape & Bird
142 Shaftesbury Ave WC2, 020 7836 3119; apeandbird.com
National Portrait Gallery St Martin’s Place WC2, 020 7312 2490; npg.org.uk