Eating out in Brussels with toddlers: Arthur at Brasserie des Etangs.

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The spate of gorgeous weather and a run of visitors has flushed us out of the house toddler in tow in search of family friendly places to eat and enjoy the sunshine. Arthur is not the most restaurant friendly toddler, “get down” was one of his first words and is still amoungst his most used today; for us “family friendly eating” requires more than a kids menu and a high chair. So we were especially excited when we noticed a restaurant with a huge outside playground just across the road from Woluwe park, one of our favorite green spaces in Brussels.

 

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We’ve been twice so far and if Arthur has his way we’ll be frequent visitors while we’re here in Brussels. From an adult perspetive it’s a nice restaurant – a huge seating area inside, a bright veranda and a massive garden area for sunny days . There’s a large menu of  mainstream Belgium food; main courses start at around 20 euros with huge portions – Max had an incredibly moist chicken breast in a creamy sauce and I went for a gorgeous (although not quite as rare as i’d like) steak. There were only about three dishes on the kids menu but Arthur was very pleased with his huge portion of meatballs and chips for 12 euros.

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The real beauty of the place for us is the huge indoor and outdoor play areas for kids. The garden has a huge lawn for running around at the end of which is a large playground complete with a two story wooden play house, swings, slides and rockers which kept Arthur entertained (and reuluctant to return to the table) for hours.  With so much to climb up and fall off of even with a table in the garden area it’s not somewhere you can leave toddlers to run around in without adult supervision so we had to take it in shifts to leave our table and push swings which was still infinitely more relaxing than trying to convince Arthur ro remain both seated and quiet in a high chair for more than about ten minutes.

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Inside there’s a dedicated playroom decked out with multiple toy kitchens (Arthur is still magnetically attracted to play kitchens of all forms and never tires of them), a dolls house, books, blocks and all manner of other toys. Only one of the tables inside the restaurant overlooks the play area but if you manage to snag that you can eat in peace while keeping an eye out for any potential toddler riots . The second time we visited the weather was so glorious they didn’t open the inside of the restaurant but were happy to let Arthur play in th playroom with supervision.

 

 

 

 

 

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Unfortunately there were no changing facilites leaving Max to do a make shift job with his jumper on the floor of the gents but even so it was definitely the best place for eating with toddlers (or at least our hyperactive little guy) we’ve found so far   in Brussels!

 

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Eating out in Brussels with a toddler: Arthur at Cook and Book.

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Cook and book is a giant trendy slightly retro looking book-shop come restaurant right next to Roodebeek metro station. Spread out over multiple rooms they have huge sections for comics, childrens books, a large English language section and numerous large rooms of French books that I can’t tell apart.

Amongst the tall oak bookshelfs (accessible with cool rolling ladders) are laid out reasonably elegant looking dining tables where you can eat a meal or drink a coffee and pour over your new book. The restaurant somehow manages to bridge the divide  between the kind of place you can take both a two year old who eats spagetti with his hands and a place you might go for a child free date night with a bottle of wine and a rare steak.

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Upstairs is a large children’s section selling beautifully illustrated books (which make me wish I spoke french) as well as a selection of higher end toys and small gifts. There’s also a small play area with a massive brio train set (reason enough for a visit on a rainy afternoon). Underneath the glass floor is an electric train set with various buttons dotted around the room that can be used to summon a train at your own discretion. The fact that this children’s area stays open until midnight makes eating out here a fairly safe bet for us as long as someone is prepared to wolf down their food and accompany Arthur up there once his patience for good table manners has run out.

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Despite coming early on a Sunday evening the tables were filling up fast but they were able to find us a table and high chair straight away without a reservation (although we did miss out on eating at the table inside the VW van that caught Arthur’s eye straight away). I always feel less guilty about taking my toddler to a restauarnt if they have a giant kids menu and we weren’t disapointed here – they even had Arthur’s favorite – spaghetti bolognaise.

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Having ordered we made the tactical error of taking Arthur to play with the train set meaning he had no interest in returning to the table and when he was eventually coaxed back to eat  the meal was punctuated with loud demands for “brio” every few minutes. Fortunately there was another toddler nearby playing peakaboo behind some bookshelfes and a mildly protesting baby in a buggy and we didn’t get any annoyed glances. The food came quickly was tasty and not too expensive by Brussel standards (just over 15 euros for a pretty decent burger and chips and 7 euros for Arthur’s generous portion of spag boll from the kids menu). We even manage to finish our meal and pay before Arthur’s need to return to the train set reached a fever pitch, so we’re definitely going to count this as a successful first attempt at an adult (but kid friendly) dining experience in Brussels.

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Christmas Markets in Brussels: St Catherines, Grand Place and Stockel

St Catherine's square christmas market.

St Catherine’s square christmas market.

By christmas time we were well and truely settled in and looking forward to getting into the festive spirit.  We started off festivities with a trip to the Christmas market near St Catherine’s square (making a morning trip to baboes first to completely wear Arthur out before hand). Since it was after midday and a little nippy when we arrived we felt justified in indulging in some “gluhwein” straight away – yum. Wandering around the long rows of wooden huts there was plenty to eat in the form of home made international food; incredibly tempting especially after the wine but less in the way of christmas shopping. There seemed to be more stalls set up as bars selling cocktails than anything else. Maybe  living in a small Germany town has turned us into christmas market hipsters – but we did miss our handmade German toys and crockery.

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As well as all the stalls there were a few rides for the kids, Arthur loved watching the antique carasoul go round but even Max (who happily puts him down the outrageously high big kid slides in the park) wasn’t brave enough to let him actually take a ride – definitely something for next year.

Watching from the sidelines until next year

Watching from the sidelines until next year

We were also not tempted to brave the giant ferris wheel with our wriggly little guy yet but it looked like you’d have had a decent view if you did. Again we weren’t tempted by the ice rink but Arthur was amused to watch the skaters glide or stumble past and there was even a little kids section for when he’s a little older (he’s a very confident walker and even runner but I don’t think we’ll confuse him with a frcitionless surface just yet). We headed home empty handed but with full tummies and ready for naps (all round).

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The following week we had a visit from “computer grandma” all the way from LA which meant we started christmas in earnest. After a trip to Stockel market to buy our christmas tree (more expensive than ikea but a more authentic christmas buying experience) we headed into the centre of town to the christmas market at the grand place.

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We happenned to arrive just in time for the “light display”. It was a foggy day and I couldn’t discern more than a few blue lights on the buildings  of the square but there was music playing,  happy swarms of people (just the right level of crowded where you can still drive a buggy around without ploughing down any old ladies) and a wonderful atmosphere. Arthur came straight out of his buggy to be danced about by his grandma; he doesn’t understand christmas yet but loves the trees and sparkling lights and was enchanted by the whole scene.

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After the light display finished we wandered off into the neighbouring streets to  sip some mulled wine and take in the scene. All the shops were open selling the normal touristy selections as well as plenty of prettily illuminated wooden stalls selling mulled wine, food and general stocking fillery-type stuff. There were a few street performers dotted around too; Arthur was paticularly attracted to a fairly mediocre fire juggler who couldn’t keep more than one of his burning embers in the air at any one time loudly shouting “more” after he finally gave up.

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I assume the festivities continued well into the evening but half seven is a late one for us these days and we were happy to head home feeling extra christmassy (nothing like an excited child to make you feel extra festive).

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Our final christmas market outing was closer to home with the four day Stockel market running a week or so before christmas. A large marquis was erected in the main square and the traditional wooden huts popped up in the surrounding streets. All of the local restaurants had a stall meaning you couldn’t walk home without being tempted by some delicious smelling noodles, escargots or delicious spicy Brazilian pasties (not alot of cooking happened in our household that week). Having stuffed ourselves before getting to the main marquis we actually found some time do do some christmas shopping for the first time.  Thre were stalls selling a good range of potential christmas gifts from the high end (jewellery, nice clothes etc.) to the more modest (little trinkets and stocking fillers). We mainly went for the edible stuff – Max having spent about half an hour sampling every possible type of marmalade from an enourmous collection finally picked some out for my mum and his dad – so sippng the obligitory mulled wine for the 5 minute walk home we could could legitimately call the evening a success.

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Arthur’s Activities: Espace Famille and Cinquantenaire park

In our bid to sample all the play places in Brussels and never spend a day inside, Arthur and I headed out to espace famille. It’s another drop in centre housed in the “maison d’enfants” in Etterbeek. It runs three mornings and one afternoon a week and requires only a voluntary contribution (either monetary or in the form of cakes, biscuits or tea) to join in.

A little bit of cooking.

A little bit of cooking.

This place is definitely smaller than some of the other play spaces but very friendly indeed. It seemed to be run as a family operation and on arrival we were shown straight in by a very welcoming lady who even attempted a little English (after hearing my appauling French) and especially introduced me to another English guy who was there with his one year old daughter. The room had the atmosphere of  the living room (albeit an incredibly wells stocked lviing room) in someone’s home more than a play centre. People were chatting happily at the kitchen table drinking tea and everyone seemed to be playing with everyone else’s children. The conversations were obviously mainly in French (which left me doing more nodding and smiling than actual talking) but I heard a little German (which still makes me feel nostalgic) and what I think was Spanish as well.

Can't contain his excitement.

Can’t contain his excitement.

I got the impression Espace Famille exhisits for the benefit of the parents as much as if not more than for the little ones. It seemed to be designed to forge bonds between local mothers of all nationalities and going by the numbers who turned up it was very successful. Every available seat soon seemed to be filled  but the doorbell kept ringing (women even arrived with the tiniest of newborn babies) and somehow everyone found space to play and chat.

An entire tool bench to play with.

An entire tool bench to play with.

Arthur was somewhat overwhelmed by the density of toys and children and dashed madly between the play kitchen, the work bench and the toy cars on the play mat. He inevitably also found a push along car which he attempted to plough through a throng of people. He eventually found time to climb on the climbing frame but once up there couldn’t be pursuaded to slide down, prefering to survey the room like the king of the castle.

A happy boy!

A happy boy!

After a while I think the noise and excitement became a bit over stimulating for him and after retreating into a corner to play with a farm yard he decided he’d had enough and marched off in search of his buggy. The lady in charge saw us out and checked we’d had a nice time (how could we not with so many toys for Arthur and cups of tea for me).

Found a spot on the mat and a free farm yard.

Found a spot on the mat and a free farm yard.

Since we were in the area we headed over to Cinquantenaire park to stretch our legs on the way home.

Deep in thought.

Deep in thought.

He never gets tired of chasing birds and still believes he's going to catch one.

He never gets tired of chasing birds and still believes he’s going to catch one.

Not the most exciting park but a great picture opportunity with the arches on either side and after all the noise and commotion Arthur loved the change of scene and set to work chasing birds; finishing off the process of completely destroying his indoor shoes (since I hadn’t thought to bring his outdoor ones).  We headed home just in time for Arthur to pass out instantly for his nap.

Taking in  the autumn scene.

Taking in the autumn scene.

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Arthur’s Activities: Baboes

Arthur venturing into the baby area.

Arthur venturing into the baby area.

Since moving to Brussels we’ve found our weekends harder to fill than our weekdays; trying too hard to do adult things like museums and galleries with a toddler in tow (or at least with our hyperactive beast in tow) always seems more trouble than it’s worth, but hanging out at soft play centres drinking bad coffee isn’t appealing either. This led us to finally try out baboes another parent-child drop in centre that came highly recommended by other BCT mum’s.

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They have two locations in the centre of town; one near Gare Midi (since it’s not the nicest area we’ve avoided this one) and one near St Catherine’s square (which has a christmas market on at this time of year so makes a great morning out). They’re each open a few times during the week and on Saturday mornings and are totally free.

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They’re organised by the Flemmish community in order to promote the Flemmish language but seem to be even more packed with expats speaking English than the rest of Brussels. Like all of the parent-child drop in centres you’re greeted by friendly welcomers as you walk in the door who write the name and age of your little one on a black board and go through a rather futile process of trying to explain to a toddler that they’re not allowed to go into the adult kitchen area (Arthur interprets this as “look a great big kitchen why don’t you go see”).

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The inside is very bright and modern, newly built entirely out of wood it looks like the product of a very generous grant and is definitely a more pleasant environment to grab a cup of tea than some of the more drab drop in centres. Of course it has a play kitchen which is enough to satisfy Arthur for however long we wanted to stay.

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It’s also got a very impressive collection of toys – Max was especially excited by the massive brio set (our collection isn’t big enough yet to carry out his grander designs) and his efforts gained the approval of the surrounding boys who all joined in enthusiastically much to Arthur’s annoyance.

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It even has a ball pit built around an impressive wooden structure for climbing up, sliding down with some kind of pulley for hoisting the balls up.

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Being that it’s free and in the centre of town it gets pretty busy and there’s definitely a healthy competition for some of the more popular toys (namely the buggy and the one spoon in the kiddy kitchen – no one had any interest in the hundreds of forks available). It also attracts an older crowd than the toddlers playrooms (at least on a Saturday when no one’s in school) but Arthur is definitely not too shy to grab and push his way to what he wants (I’m assured that the ability to share comes with time!).

Further back there’s a mini oasis of relative calm in a kind of fake garden with a bit of soft play equipment, a hammock and a toy work bench. Arthur loves to play with Daddy’s tool kit (he even has his own word for screw which sounds a bit like “ccccccrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr”) so this was a hit with him.

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For a bit of quiet time there’s a little craft area with pretty much any craft activity imaginable housed in a giant wooden bookshelf. Arthur never really wants to sit still long for drawing or painting but was very enamoured with being allowed to actually hold a pair of kid scissors and do some cutting – for some reason he has a pretty major obsession with scissors (pronounced “thathatha”) at he moment.

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At the end of the session  everyone helps tidy up (there were over twenty children there and every single inch of floor space was covered with toys) Arthur was completely exhausted by this time from all the noise and excitement. This meant he was more than happy to sit in his buggy for an hour or two and be pushed around while we sipped mulled wine and browsed the stalls at the christmas market – a great adult-toddler compromise for our Saturday morning entertainment.

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Arthur’s Activities: Les Maison Vertes

Not wanting to just take Arthur to the same playgroup every morning (and realising the BCT doesn’t run Wednesday mornings) I stumbled upon Les Maison Vertes. The concept began in Paris and has since spread at least as far as Belgium. It has a whole philosophy surrounding it, the idea being that it’s a space for the baby or toddler to express themselves and be heard with their parent or carer nearby so they feel safe and secure to explore. They’re basically pretty cool well equipped playrooms in various locations around Brussels with various opening times.

You'll always find him in the kitchen at parties.

You’ll always find him in the kitchen at parties.

During each session you just turn up, pay 3 euros per family and play for as long as you want. There are usually two “welcomers”  on duty who greet you when you arrive and join in the playing. (There’s one woman in particular that Arthur has taken a shine to and will drag around by the hand so he can show her all his favourite  toys). Arthur loves it and usually runs straight through the door as soon as I’ve parked up the buggy outside which gives me a chance to enjoy a cup of coffee (or two depending on how knackered I am that day) before getting involved myself.

Farm yard fun

Farm yard fun

The “les Petits Pas” in Woluwe Saint Pierre, which is open every weekday morning,  is our closest and has become our activity of choice on Wednesday mornings. Going on the same day every week we see mostly the same 5 or 6 toddlers and their respective mum’s/grandparents/dads so we’ve gotten to know them a little bit . There are play mats for younger babies but it mainly seems to be popular with the crawling and toddling crowd. It’s about haf and half between expats and Belgians and with my French still at the level of a very average 1 year old we do end up chatting in English a fair bit. (I tend to measure my language skills in terms of children’s age now; at it’s best my German had probably reached the level of a  not particularly advanced three year old – not perfect but I could usually make myself understood, my French is stuck at odd barely distinguishable words).

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As well as all the normal toys (garages, kitchens, cars, bikes and farmyards) it has a purpose built play house with doorbell and working lights – an endless source of fascination for Arthur! We tend to stay all morning and there’s a kitchen with high chairs and little kids table so we eat our lunch there with the other toddlers and even swap tastes of food. Tidy up usually starts about 15 minutes before closing and everyone helps (Arthur seems to understand the concept of “tidying up” but applies this knowledge selectively).

Creating a masterpiece.

Creating a masterpiece.

Cooking again!

Cooking again!

The “maison ouvert”, also nearby in Woluwe saint Lambert is open every weekday afternoon and is becoming a regular hang out as well. It’s pretty similar with a very well stocked collection of toys, books and push along vehicles of various descriptions. It also has it’s own purpose built multi layer structure for clambering over and even has some sinks exlusively for playing and splashing in (Arthur’s aversion to wearing the provided overalls is a bit of an issue here).

Arthur loves to splash!

Arthur loves to splash!

Playing house.

Playing house.

It also has a garden and slide which the Brussels weather has prevented us from enjoying so far.

Looking longingly at the rain soaked garden.

Looking longingly at the rain soaked garden.

We’re really loving les maison vertes, the atmosphere’s very friendly; you can be anonymous and just play with your toddler or enjoy a quiet cup of coffee by yourself or chat to other mums and dads depending on your mood. It’s also exposed Arthur to his first taste of French; (the welcomers tend to chat to all the kids in French even if they speak a bit of English themselves). I’m not sure if this is a good thiing or just confusing for him, but if we did decide to put him in the Belgian school system I’m glad we’d have the option to get him a little accustomed to the language. Whatever the language though it’s another great place for some toddler (and mummy) socialisation and it’s a favourite for us.

Always happy to be making noise.

Always happy to be making noise.

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Flea Market at Place du Jeu de Balle

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We had another visitor this weekend. Aunty Kell (or “gurgu” as Arthur pronounces it) popped over on the Eurostar for a long weekend and this was enough of an excuse to drive us away from suburbia temporarily to tick some of the touristy Brussels stuff off our list. (If we stay here two years I’m hoping to at least pack in enough of the sights to fill a decent one week holiday).

Can't get enough of those Waffles.

Can’t get enough of those Waffles.

After a quick stop for some breakfast waffles we headed over to the flea market at Place du Jeu de Balle in search of some bargains or just a bit of junk spotting. It’s about a ten minute walk from the metro station (porte de Hal) and definitely not the most salubrious part of town; on our way back we saw a mum happily watching her son unleash a torrential flood of pee onto someone’s car in the middle of the street and Kelly said she attracted a fair amount of non child friendly muttered remarks (which she can actually understand since she speaks French) while she was browsing.

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Apart from that it was a pretty cool flea market, they had a decent range of furniture some of which I’d be seriously tempted to buy if I owned a car (when it’s not covered in toys our flat currently resembles the cheap end of an Ikea show room). There was also the full range of bric a brack from some new wooden children’s toys, old cameras,, a range of sinister looking taxidermy, fur coats, old coins, cameras and general assorted junk (does anyone still use cassette players or are they old enough to be considered collectable now?).  There looked like there was some decent shopping to be done in the surrounding area too, from a sprinkling of more up market shops selling arty stuff, children’s toys and furniture and others selling antiques and second hand books.

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It was the kind of place I could happily spend a morning browsing and people watching but after the fifth failed attempt to keep a hat on Arthur’s head we thought we better seek refuge from the cold but thankfully dry Brussels morning. We headed to a cafe/bar (la Brocante) on the corner of the square; I’m not sure whether it was just because I was so cold and they had the heating turned up high but it seemed like an incredibly cosy place. They didn’t have high chairs but we weren’t the only family with a buggy in tow so I’m going to count it as child friendly.

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Arthur had to sample the hot chocolate.

Arthur had to sample the hot chocolate.

A few years ago I probably would have taken the opportunity to finally try out some Belgian beer but being old and boring now we all stuck to some yummy hot chocolates and delicious Croque monsieurs.

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Having warmed ourselves up enough to brave the cold we left Kelly to do some proper shopping while we headed home for nap time (resisting the temptation to stop at the escargot stall). Without a buggy and cantankerous toddler demanding attention she actually managed to do look around enough to buy stuff and came back with second hand books a scarf and some delicious chocolate. I don’t think Arthur appreciated the market too much; he wouldn’t have been able to run around and he gets bored of his buggy but he liked the hot chocolate and it was a cool mini excursion none the less.

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