Child’s play

My husband and I once went to a first birthday party for a friend’s daughter, where we soon realized that we were the only adults without kids. “Whoops,” my husband whispered to me. “I knew we should have stopped at Rent-a-Baby first.”

Let’s face it; such a business could be handy every now and again. For instance, when I wanted to review The Family Room—a new kid-friendly restaurant in East Sacramento—it seemed pointless to go without kids. But I don’t have any, and I still haven’t found Rent-a-Baby. Instead, we rounded up some friends with children, and off we went for a 5:15 p.m. reservation. (The 2-year-old in the group has an 8 p.m. bedtime.)

The restaurant was as bustling and loud as a trendy Midtown place might be at 8:15 p.m. Instead of grown-ups with mojitos, the buzz came from kids sharing (or, alas, not sharing) toys in the play area. The décor features nicely framed covers of classic children’s books like Madeline and Where the Sidewalk Ends. And the separate kids’ menu had some appeal for adults, as well. (Who ever outgrows mac and cheese?)

The grown-up menu has an eclectic mix of starters and entrees, there’s beer and wine available, and there’s a decent view of the play area from most tables in the restaurant. At our table, the kids’ meals came out first, so sated kids could play while the parents ate.

We shared some appetizers from the adult menu. Corn cakes with a spicy aioli were soft pancakes studded with sweet kernels and topped with a bit too much of the sauce. They came with a tangy little salad of baby greens, as did the Parmesan prawns. The prawns were baked in a savory, cheese-filled breading. The flavor was good, but, again, they were accompanied by excessive sauce.

Both the 2-year-old and the 5-year-old went for chicken fingers with fries and various steamed veggies. Both looked askance at the summer squash but seemed to like the chicken and the fries. When asked about her favorite part of the meal, the 5-year-old grinned and held up a huge lettuce leaf, which she dipped in ranch dressing and ate by turning her head to one side. The 2-year-old, however, fell in love with the accompanying ketchup and tried to eat it with a spoon.

His 6-year-old sister ordered the macaroni and cheese, which came with a sprinkling of chives. These immediately provoked the comment “Mommy, I don’t like the green stuff!” The green stuff duly picked off, the 6-year-old still wasn’t best pleased; her parents thought the problem was that it was real macaroni and cheese, not Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. She pronounced her favorite thing to be the warm, crusty raisin bread that came out for the table. The bread was indeed great, but the mac and cheese looked and sounded pretty good to me. I draw the line at stealing food from a child’s plate, however, so I didn’t taste it.

As plenty of kids might be dismayed by green flecks, the chives seemed an odd choice for such a family-oriented restaurant. Our friends thought there were a few other missteps in the kid-friendliness: no kids’ silverware, for instance. And the kids’ drinks came in cute glass goblets. These were fine for the 5- and 6-year-old, but not for the toddler. The parents hastily decanted his milk into a sippy cup they’d brought.

After eating, the two girls headed to the back hall, where refrigerator doors mounted on the walls offered the chance to spell out your name in magnets—a clever touch. We adults stayed put for our soup or salad (included with the entrees). My salad had a delicious, tangy champagne-citrus vinaigrette but was mainly composed of iceberg lettuce—an unwelcome surprise after the delicate greens served with the appetizers. My husband’s clam chowder was creamy and pleasantly briny, with plenty of clams.

The adult menu veers between basics and more-imaginative offerings, solidly executed but not dazzling. I got the burgundy chicken, which was a sort of deconstructed version of a classic coq au vin, with a tender boneless chicken breast topping a mound of excellent mashed potatoes, covered in a sweetish red-wine sauce and accompanied by roasted onions and mushrooms. My husband’s lasagna was the classic American-style article: meaty, cheesy and hearty. I also tried our friends’ dinners: an enormous mound of tortellini in a creamy sauce with cubes of chicken, and bacon-wrapped scallops (the one I tasted was slightly undercooked) with a chipotle-spiked sauce.

For dessert, a dense slice of chocolate-mousse cake with a cookie crust and a lavish brownie sundae were well-received by both adults and kids—all of whom returned to the table as the chocolaty goodies were arriving. By then, bedtime approached. Our friends saw the early warning signs of crankiness in their son, so we stepped out of the din into the quiet evening.

I’m not sure my husband and I would go back to The Family Room without a preliminary visit to Rent-a-Baby. But if you want a nice evening out en famille, or you’ve been trying for ages to get together with friends who can’t find a babysitter, this warm and friendly restaurant should fit the bill.