We review the entire country and culture of New Zealand, one thing at a time. Today: Duncan Greive discovers Whoa! Studios, a magical place where parents and their children can co-exist in equal happiness via playgrounds, beer and food.
Taking your kids to restaurants basically sucks. They cry, throw food around, run off when you’re trying to eat and generally make the whole deal one you’d pay to avoid despite the fact you’ve actually paid to endure it. Mostly, it sucks because restaurants are designed for adults, not children, and apart from a poorly-maintained high chair and some broken crayons there is zero evidence that they’re aware kids might ever pass through their doors.
I have no issue with that. It’s definitely fine to run a restaurant that doesn’t welcome kids, or just grudgingly tolerates them. As wonderful as kids can occasionally be, there should be no obligation on private businesses to make room for them. Besides, a lot of the time the people out at restaurants and bars have kids of their own they’re briefly dispossessed of, and I understand completely why they don’t want to see anyone else’s, thanks. Restaurants can be a safe space for parents to recover, and that’s fine.
Still, it has always seemed like a missed business opportunity that the great flowering of casual eating and drinking which happened over the last 15 years has remained a mostly AO phenomenon.
It wasn’t always the case – family restaurants used to be a big deal in New Zealand: Cobb & Co and Valentines went off in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Both are still around; neither are close to their prime.
Yet the fact remains: parents want to eat with their kids without having to cook first and clean up after sometimes. More than that, parents want to drink around their kids in a way which is not frowned upon socially, and preferably one in which their kids are near but not there. That last sentence explains the murmur of excitement I felt when I first read that Ben Bayly, the MKR judge and exec chef from Baduzzi, was opening a family restaurant in Henderson. It’s called The Grounds, and has been open around six months now. I went there on Sunday with two of my three kids.
It is fucking brilliant.
For starters it’s approximately 300 metres from the Henderson train station, which means you don’t have to freak out about driving. Kids are 99c to anywhere on weekends, and letting them roam round a sparsely populated carriage is a much better way of getting anywhere than merging and waiting and all that.
After the walk, you arrive, and it’s kinda magical. The Grounds is part of Whoa! Studios, an entertainment complex which is big enough to feel worth exploring, but not so big that you feel like it’s a wing of some giant cynical conglomerate. It’s named for the studios which are its centre, where there are some good looking shows happening during the day, about which I cannot comment because they were closed on the Sunday evening I visited.
What was open was The Grounds, Bayly’s family restaurant and, immediately adjacent The Park, which might be the best part of the whole thing. It’s a big, pretty and imaginatively-designed playground in five distinct parts, including a pirate cove, a rocket ship and, best of all, this giant, Japanese-designed crochet web. There are little trampolines nestled within it, lots of areas adults can’t really see into – it just looks like a very good time if you’re a kid is what I’m saying.
The best part for a grownup aka me, though, by heaps, is that The Park is ringed with tables for The Grounds. Which is to say that you can sit and eat and drink and just lazily rest your eyes on your children. The beer is great: Garage Project for the nerds (I had an excellent Hapi Daze) and Estrella Damm for traditionalists, and the food is very good. On Sunday they serve a stripped back menu of burgers, with too-loud music playing from a very enthusiastic live DJ. The buns kinda fell apart, but what was inside was juicy and flavour-packed and fresh. The adults prices are pretty much fine – $20-ish for a burger, $9 for a beer, $7ish for sides – but the kids’ food is cheap as: $6-$8 for stuff they’ll actually eat. Ben Bayly himself was out hustling dinner out, which was a nice touch.
We went on a winter’s evening, wrapped up warm, and didn’t have to pay to use the park (it’s normally $10 a kid). All up you’ll drop $60-$100 on a trip, so depending on your income it might be a special occasion. But it is truly special, a place which balances the various urges and requirements of kids and parents in a way that little else I’ve encountered here or anywhere does. Every piece has a whole lot of thought in it, like this was a project which had been brewing in someone’s head for many years, finally realised. Please go there – the fitout looked like it cost $10m easy, and it would be a great tragedy if all that sweat and inspiration went into the enterprise, only for the bank to end up owning it.
– Duncan Greive
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Verdict: Unless you’re a wholesome person who takes your kids hiking or camping or something (good on you if so, but you’re making me feel bad) then this is definitely the best thing you can do with your kids in Auckland.
Good or bad: incredible
For more information about this magical wonderland, including the shows that I have not done therefore cannot comment on, click on this section of highlighted text.
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