The Melbourne good food guide for junior foodies

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School’s in for budding food buffs, with this round-up of food-related activities, classes and kid-friendly restaurants.

It’s every food-loving parent’s civic duty to educate their offspring in the ways of deliciousness. An appreciation beyond chicken nuggets and spag bol are more than mere boasting rights: research shows that food preferences are formed in early childhood and can affect a person’s eating habits for life.

But we also know there’s a fine line between gently cultivating the next generation of connoisseurs and letting your little darlings practice their restaurant manners on an unappreciative audience.

So we’ve taken a kids’-eye view and rounded up a bunch of things that make Melbourne’s food scene tick.

From fun restaurants that even parents will love to a bunch of food-related activities the junior set can get stuck into, we’ve got you covered.

The Age, GOOD FOOD - Review Panda Hot Pot. Interior of the restaurant. Pic SImon Schluter 13 February 2020.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets Kung Fu Panda at Panda Hot Pot. Photo: Simon Schluter

For dinner and a show

The site of the former Dracula’s theatre restaurant near the Queen Victoria Market sure didn’t lose its sense of fun when it was reborn as Panda Hot Pot at the end of 2019.

Resplendent in gold and red, the $6 million fitout is a close approximation of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meeting Kung Fu Panda: the “Wuxia martial arts” design includes mighty warriors, a digital sky ceiling and a floating 1.5-tonne steel dragon.

Nightly shows are part of the deal, whether that’s the Changing Face (Bian Lian) dance or sugar art demonstrations.

And the food? The chain’s signature flavour is a spicy 12-hour broth, but the kids can choose from three mild broths: tomato, mushroom and pork bone.

For adventurous eaters

While we’re on the subject of hotpot, Chinatown stalwart Mrs Zan’s Kitchen (shop 7, 206 Bourke Street, Melbourne) has a DIY smorgasbord stacked with all kinds of intrigue-provoking ingredients, from purple potato noodles to cheese rice cakes and monogrammed tofu.

Grab a plate and have it weighed (it’s priced per 100 grams – a good maths teaching moment, if you’re that kind of multi-tasking parent).

For unadulterated Middle Eastern fun

Even the fussiest young eater will love Miznon, a rollicking pita party where the ampitheatre-like setting (pictured) encourages a frenetic atmosphere, the orders are called with the blast of a cornet and the Israeli street food is equal parts delicious and approachable.

From a “bag of golden meat” to the city’s fluffiest falafel, it’s a menu designed to be eaten with the fingers.

For diffusion-istas

Just like the fashion world, the restaurant world is replete with examples of the diffusion label: otherwise known as big-name restaurateurs going less fancy and more fun.

Montalto is a serious Mornington Peninsula power player but the menu at the more casual Piazza also enjoys the kitchen garden smarts of chef Matt Wilkinson while offering a broad lawn and sculpture garden for restless legs to be stretched.

Montalto on the Mornington Peninsula.
The wine room at Montalto on the Mornington Peninsula.
For Good Food x Sunday Life, Nov 1, 2020.

Kids can run around the Montalto grounds. Photo: Adrian Lander

Just down the road, Pt Leo Estate has its own amazing sculpture park as well as profiteroles filled with whipped white chocolate ganache guaranteed to breach any age gap.

And if St Kilda’s Stokehouse is too high-flying, downstairs Pontoon has a festive beachside vibe, an easygoing menu and the dessert talents of the restaurant group’s new chief pastry chef, Ash Smith.

For sweet tooths

Going out on a limb here, but the Japanese Forest Cake at St Kilda’s Black Star Pastry (pictured) kicks the contents of the Australian Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book to the kerb (or at least proves it’s much easier to outsource the work).

If it’s explosive good times you’re after, the billowing clouds of liquid nitrogen at CBD gelato shop Dex2Rose will spark any kid’s imagination.

Think of it as a public service to introduce the kids to the art of queueing for breakfast at the likes of Carnegie’s Left Field, where they can test their Instagram skills on the rhubarb and strawberry waffles with white chocolate soil.

And you can have wish fulfilment delivered to your door thanks to LuxBite’s Lolly Bag Cake, a seven-layered paean to the corner milk bar with banana lolly sponge, freckle crunch, mandarin jaffa ganache, musk mallow, spearmint leaf buttercream and a Red Ripperz glaze.

Shinbashi restaurant in Carlton. Image supplied for Japanese dining feature for Good Food online April 2019. Yakiniku (Japanese barbecue).

Shinbashi yakiniku restaurant in Carlton. Photo: Supplied

For active eaters

It’s hard to forget Bill Murray’s immortal line in Lost in Translation – “What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?” – but there’s plenty to love when the kids take possession of the tongs.

Carlton’s Shinbashi is all about the Japanese DIY barbecue art of yakiniku, with a menu bathed in the fatty excess of wagyu beef and pork belly, alongside seafood and veg.

Also worth noting: from Monday to Wednesday you can book a 90-minute all-you-can-eat session where kids eat for $19.

China Red Restaurant. The Serve Review.  tea flavoured shrimp in bamboo net. the Restaurant has touch-screen ordering terminals  - Pic By Craig Sillitoe 25/08/2010 SPECIAL 000

Touch screen ordering at China Red. Photo: Craig Sillitoe

For digital natives

Most parents are engaged in an endless battle to reduce their children’s screen time. But we submit to the court that the touch screen ordering at places like Melbourne pioneer China Red adds an engaging layer of novelty experience for junior restaurant refuseniks (plus the prawn dumplings made to look like dolphins, complete with eyes, are pretty damn cute).

For interactive fun

Nothing can beat a sushi train when it comes to a food delivery device that will encourage the kids to eat enthusiastically, but Federation Square hero Chocolate Buddha went one better in its recent renovation.

Now boasting not one but two sushi trains, there’s a regular train showing off individual serves of nigiri sushi and sashimi, plus a single-track “bullet train” (pictured) that delivers izakaya dishes directly to your seat at pace.

All aboard Wed-Sun noon-2pm from July 1.

Bells and whistles

Memo: Places with playgrounds, space to run and kid-friendly entertainment don’t always suck.

Look no further than Collingwood brewhouse Stomping Ground, where 30 beer taps ballast the adults-only vibes with a family-friendly menu and a split-level cubby house that could be the product of a bunch of year 3 kids taking over Grand Designs.

Spotswood newcomer Grazeland is more like a permanent festival, with around 50 food stalls, stages and roving entertainment (and it’s right next door to Scienceworks).

Grazeland food precinct in Spotswood, Melbourne. Image from launch event March 25, 2021, supplied to Good Food online by Progressive PR. 

Grazeland in Spotswood has a food stall for every taste.  Photo: Supplied

For kid-friendly backyard barbecue vibes, also see Zymurgy in West Footscray, a charcoal-fired collaboration between Navi’s Julian Hills and Hop Nation brewers.

Or check out the spectacular new Terra Wonder Adventure playspace at Brunswick East’s CERES Environment Park – complete with a giant millipede – and incorporate a sidetrip to the wholesome on-site Merri cafe.

A classical education

Going strong since 1978, Stalactites’ dependably late opening hours don’t apply to the very young, but this institution on the Little Athens corner of Lonsdale and Russell streets remains a great spot to take the kids, thanks to scaled-down versions of Greek greatness such as gyros (pictured), calamari and kokkinisto (tomato-based beef casserole).

And what’s not to love about a dining room where stalactites hang from the ceiling?

While we’re on the classics, Pellegrini’s provides an introduction to Melbourne’s espresso bar culture, with a communal table tucked away inside the warm and inviting kitchen where the cooks will coo over the kids as they get stuck into Melbourne’s most comforting lasagne.

A story on Pellegrini's Expresso Bar one year after the murder of Sisto Malaspina. 18 October 2019. The Age News. Photo: Eddie Jim. Owner Nino Pangrazio.

Children will love sitting at the communal table in the bustling Pellegrini’s kitchen. Photo: Eddie Jim

To market

The Mini Marketeers program at Prahran Market is just the thing to induct the pre-school set into knowing a cabbage from a cauliflower and…

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