Doing London's West End with children
7 Dec 2013 by Nick Lander/FT

I asked a doctor friend what I thought was a fairly innocuous question - whether he was particularly busy in the run up to Christmas - but it had him roaring with laughter.

'You don't understand, Nick. I have to be. Our children are still under 10 and these particular holidays are very expensive. It's not so much Christmas Day as the weeks either side. They want to go skiing, to show off how much better skiers they are than their parents, and then when we want to 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 that they can eat!'

As we are now in a brief period where our children are too old and our grandsons too small to take out over the next few weeks (although I hope next year will provide me with another visit to The Snowman), I could only empathise with what I had just heard. But it made me think about which restaurants in the West End appeal to families across as many as three generations.

The first two, the long-established Maison Bertaux in Greek Street and the much more modern Princi on Wardour Street, may seem initially somewhat incongruous. However, they share one physical characteristic that is so important when you are out with small children whose appetites need immediate attention: 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 great test of inner strength, particularly if they have not sold out of their florentines and macaroons, both of which are in my opinion the best in town.

The café, which opened in 1871, and is now run by sisters Michele and Tania Wade, retains unchanging charm epitomised by a copy of The Art of French Baking left casually on the lid of a piano that I have never seen opened let alone played. This is an excellent stopover for savoury quiches, scones and jam and richer Mont Blancs or chocolate and fruit eclairs.

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 wood-burning oven that earlier that day baked their excellent sourdough loaves. Straight ahead, at this time of year, is a stack of large panetonne.

Above the L-shaped counter is a board that lists a range of Italian savoury and sweet dishes and daily specials. Princi is a classy cafeteria that manages to serve over 2,000 customers a day to a high standard and is particularly useful for those who need to assuage a child's hunger without having to wait for an order to be taken.

I have been a fan of the Green Man & French Horn, conveniently close to the theatres and the ENO 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 anyone with children, there is a duck egg with anchovy soldiers, mussels, and crepes with salted caramel as well as a good-value pre-theatre menu from midday to 7 pm.

Although Villandry St James's and The Ape & Bird Public House are very different in style - the former is a grand café, the latter the renovation of a pub now made family-friendly - both bring new life to what were rather neglected parts of the West End.

Villandry is at 12 Waterloo Place, close to where Regent Street (formerly Lower Regent Street) meets Pall Mall. The café's high ceilings and comfortable interior with large windows looking down towards the Duke of York steps and with views of Big Ben combine to create a great sense of occasion.

The menu, as any astute child will quickly appreciate, offers almost as many desserts as main courses. The latter range from confit de canard to roast chicken breast to smoked haddock and salmon fishcakes while the former includes a pudding platter of six different sweet things. The wine list offers 50 ml tastes of various different wines.

The view from The Ape & Bird (apparently a frivolous working title that just stuck) is straight across Cambridge Circus from the Palace Theatre. Russell Norman and Richard Beatty, the brains behind 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 a restaurant space on the ground and first floors with numerous original Victorian features. Alongside Cumberland sausage and mash are a wild mushroom and chestnut cottage pie, brown trout with tarragon butter, Neal's Yard cheeses and a sticky date pudding.

Finally, it is heartening to report that 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 one dessert, a warm chocolate and marmalade pudding with jaffa cake ice cream, likely to appeal equally to adults and children.

Maison Bertaux  28 Greek Street, London W1; tel +44 (0)20 7437 6007

Princi  135 Wardour Street, London W1; tel +44 (0)20 7478 8888

Green Man & French Horn  54 St Martin's Lane, London WC2; tel +44 (0)20 7836 2645

Villandry  St James's, 12 Waterloo Place, London SW1; tel +44 (0)20 7930 3305

The Ape & Bird  142 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2: tel +44 (0)20 7836 3119

Portrait Restaurant  National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London WC2;
tel +44 (0)20 7312 2490