Cafes feed need for play dates, lattes
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
"If I can eat my lunch and finish a sentence, then I guess we're doing pretty good," says Oakland resident Ruth Bolden, nibbling at a plate of manchego cheese and warm contimpalitos – firm, bite-size smoky and sweet Spanish sausages – while her 3-year-old son, Ben, jams on a clinking toy piano.
This is Albany's PriPri Cafe, one of a handful of places where kids can play safely while parents have a decent meal.
It's a cozy space with tables of parents and toddlers, a flood of natural light, and a serious play loft nearby, buzzing with colorful books, blocks and baby dolls. The cafe counter is at the center of it all, featuring lunch options of crusty baguette sandwiches, crisp salads, house-made soups, and no-nonsense tapas that are equally simple and satisfying.
Both the room and the menu sate a hunger that Bolden and other parents of the preschool set can relate to: an indoor play space safe for creative piano concertos and the occasional temper tantrum, with food options that go way beyond frozen pizza and fountain soda.
Parents of young children needn't take a culinary recess for the daily outing. While electronica, junk food and singing rodents have long been the hallmark of rainy-day play places, the past few years have seen a blossoming of a kinder and gentler play space, featuring imaginative toys, healthful food made from organic ingredients and, most important to this sleep-deprived demographic, a real cup of coffee.
In addition to PriPri, which opened 11/2 years ago, Tumble & Tea Cafe, and Play Cafe, both in Oakland, have opened in the last year.
Anywhere adults are sick of eating pre-fab frozen slabs, the play cafe has risen to the occasion, including the Inner Child Cafe in Ashland, Ore., Java Mama Cafe in La Mesa (San Diego County), and the Way 2 Play Cafe in Chandler, Ariz.
The parent-first, kid-focused approach resonates on the menu. Some, like PriPri, can be worth exploring whether you have Junior in tow or not.
Spanish food is the specialty of the house – co-owner Rafa Cano-Katsunuma is a Madrid native who has no formal kitchen training, but comes from a family who loves food and cooking, he says. He and his wife, Kei, developed the menu of European and American bites. The piquant gazpacho is smooth and well-rounded, while other soups, like the potage of garbanzos and spinach, are unequivocally homemade and steaming with comfort.
Chewy chorizo bocadillos stand out amid a more familiar deli sandwich menu, and the lunch crowd is free to build its own salads from dozens of ingredients. Coffee drinks, fresh carrot, apple and orange juices, Spanish and Portuguese tintos and verdes, and nonalcoholic house-made sangria will elevate or mellow Mom and Dad's mood.
Tumble & Tea is a welcome addition to a stretch of Telegraph Avenue better known for fast food and doughnuts. Fresh sandwiches, such as the T&T Chicken, bring on adult flavors, with Gorgonzola, pesto, tomato and plump, garlicky chicken.
Homespun classics like apple and Brie with chutney, and roast beef with pickled onions and spicy mayo, are pressed into grilled Metropolis Baking bread and rolls to order. Salads are deep and leafy and well-dressed, with customers returning to the apple with walnut and cranberries, or the Greek that adds hummus and pita to the usual array of olives, cucumbers, tomatoes and greens.
"We gathered together our favorite recipes and had 20 friends come over to eat," recalls co-owner and first-time restaurant owner Susan Older, who adjusted Tumble & Tea's casual cafe menu accordingly – a little more pesto here, and less chutney there.
Though more of a snack bar than a restaurant, the intimate Play Cafe in Oakland's Oak Knoll neighborhood offers local foods like David Rio teas, Cafe Fanny granola, sunflower butter and jelly sandwiches on Vital Vittles whole wheat, simple plates of cheese and fruit, and local packaged treats.
Menus at various cafes can also include slow-cooked oatmeal with seasonal fruit, organic yogurt, organic free-range scrambled eggs, edamame and homemade lemonade sitting alongside the typical tofu dog, hot dog and grilled cheese.
"We would never consider going to Chuck E. Cheese," says Dag Lerio, father of 9-month-old Shiva, a frequent customer of Tumble & Tea. "That's just like McDonald's to us," he says between bites of a grilled roast beef panini with organic greens. Shiva's mom, Uma Inder, says her lack of interest in the chain pizza parlor and game room is not just about the food, but also the environment.
"There's no interaction with other kids there, and no interaction between kids and parents," she
says. Here, 3,000 square feet of playroom and dining room, featuring a custom-made train table, a climbing gym with slide, and a full kitchen in a castle offer young families an abundance of entertainment between naps.
"It was an idea born out of necessity," says Tumble & Tea's Older. "No place existed like this when were putting our business plan together." Like the owners of PriPri and Play Cafe, Older is a parent and untrained cook who was inspired to create a place that she'd like to visit with her own kids.
"The whole point is to enhance the parenting experience," agrees Pri Pri co-owner Kei Cano-Katsunuma, mother of a 4-year-old expecting her second child in December. "I wanted a place where I could feel comfortable if the baby started wailing."
Parent Malaika Parker, mother of 22-month-old Imani, says that spots like Play Cafe are the "best thing ever" for meeting up with friends, including a group she's gathered of adoptive parents of color.
"There aren't a lot of places where the kids can just run around, and the parents don't have to keep telling them 'No' all the time," she says. And paired with a "wonderful and perfect" chai latte, the experience, she says, is all the better.
— For more photographs, visit sfgate.com/food.
Play Cafe. 4400 Keller Ave. (at Rilea Way), Oakland; (510) 632-4433. 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Monday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; until 5 p.m Wednesday. 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday: Private parties only.
PriPri Cafe. 1309 Solano Ave. (near Pomona Ave.) Albany; (510) 528-7002. 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; tapas tavern 5-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Tumble & Tea Cafe. 4210 Telegraph Ave. (near 42nd), Oakland; (510) 601-7378. 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 7:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Karen Solomon is a freelance writer in San Francisco. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page F – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle