Margaux’s face lit up when a paper placemat/activity sheet/kids menu slid in front of her along with our dinner menus. I’ll be honest, when we chose Woodford Food & Beverage for our night out in Portland, we didn’t even know they had a kids menu. We chose it because my husband David and I wanted to eat there.

Even when dining out with our 6-year-old daughter, a kids menu doesn’t rank high on our list of criteria. More important factors are easy parking, no waits for a table and not leaving hungry after spending our entire entertainment budget. Bonus points if we can corral our kid in a booth. Extra bonus points if the food is awesome.

With Margaux’s activity mat came a cup of crayons – not the grimy, peeling, knock-off brand crayons you usually get at a restaurant, but fancy Crayola Twistables. We hadn’t even read the menu yet, and we were happy.

For Margaux, like many 6-year-olds, the list of foods she likes and dislikes is unreliable. Is she a sophisticated eater? Yes and no. I like to think some memorable in-utero meals influenced her taste, like New Year’s Eve dinner at Carmen and my 30th birthday dinner at Bresca. When we go out, she has her go-to dishes at certain restaurants. Her usual at Sea Salt in Saco is clam chowder and fries (it comes in a boat). We regularly frequent Que Huong in Biddeford, and the server practically puts in Margaux’s Vietnamese fried rice order when we walk in the door.

Sushi and miso soup are great, and once she even enjoyed Korean spicy deep-fried cauliflower. She loves David’s homemade pizza and Pizza by Alex, but cries when we suggest Otto. She’s not into homemade mac and cheese, only the blue-box, orange-sauce Annie’s kind. She does love a basic grilled cheese or hot dog. At school her favorite hot lunch options are pizza, fish sticks and grilled cheese, but she also loves my hummus wraps and ham sandwiches on homemade sourdough. At home her consumption depends on how hungry she is at meal time. In other words she’s all over the place, but there’s always something for her to eat when we go out.

We read her the menu options, which she insisted on writing down on her own notepad. Our server was very patient. The dinner menu had me at “artichoke,” while Margaux decided on the house-made chicken tenders from the kids menu. She gave a clear “yum” to the idea of a side of “eat your veggies.” Meanwhile I talked David down from ordering every item on the menu.

On our way in, I tried to get Margaux to appreciate the midcentury architecture of the building’s exterior. The unique roof line was wasted on the mortgage company that occupied the space before Woodford F&B opened. She cared more about the large Champagne buckets flanking the banquette – she thought they were used to hold candy.

During our trip to the restroom, Margaux was befuddled by the single-occupancy bathroom. “There’s no sink in here,” she observed, then later reflected that the communal sink was a “cool place … It’s like a hot tub for my hands.”

For a true kid’s perspective on a restaurant, apparently one must crawl under the table. “Why do people always stick gum on the bottom of the table?” Margaux asked. It doesn’t matter how nice the restaurant is, you can always find gum.

We gravitated to the pate du jour, a duck liver mousse with accoutrements, mostly because it’s pate, but also because we thought Margaux might be into it. I’ll saute the occasional chicken liver when I buy a whole chicken, and she’ll absentmindedly snarf it while watching TV. “Why do you talk about pate so much?” she asked. Because it’s delicious. And full of butter. Also, if we say something is French, she’s usually intrigued. She knows her name is French, though I’m not positive she knows her name is, specifically, a French wine that I fell in love with from the all-French wine list at Mims, the now-closed Portland restaurant where I worked after college.

The first bite of duck liver mousse garnered a nonchalant “tasty” and a thumbs up, but upon more reflection Margaux gave it a thumbs down. She liked the bread. She did not enjoy the cornichon. I don’t care for cornichons either, but they did go nicely with liver, whole grain mustard and grilled bread. And for me, those cherries really put it over the top. Commence happy food dance. David was about to critique that there wasn’t enough bread for all the pate when our prescient server appeared to offer us more bread. No one ever offers more bread.

David studied nutrition and now feeds healthy food to babies, toddlers and kids. We talk a lot about healthy food choices at our house. At lunch, Margaux already had been treated to a rare pink lemonade. I was about to unilaterally deny her request for another sugary drink when we discovered the array of house-made (and reasonably priced) sodas on the menu. Margaux chose the cherry soda, which had vivid cherry flavor but wasn’t too sweet. David had the rhubarb-ginger shrub with a delightful zing, and I had the cucumber mint, a welcome contrast to the heat wave blasting outside. Perfectly cubic ice chilled our sodas in the tall Collins glasses.

Managing a child before dinner is like navigating Scylla and Charybdis, the Greek mythological sea monsters. If you let them get too hungry, you have a “hangry” monster likely to cause a scene. If you feed them too many snacks, they don’t want to eat, they get bored, and they are equally likely to cause a scene.

Margaux ordered the fries, the chicken tenders and the house-made cherry soda. Photo by David Boger

Either our server had great intuition and sensed this, or he had children of his own, or the restaurant offers excellent training, or all three. As the duck liver mousse was waning, and just before our Bibb lettuce salad arrived, Margaux’s chicken tenders appeared. Our server had timed Margaux’s meal perfectly, while she was still in that sweet spot of just-hungry-enough and hadn’t yet spilled over into too-hungry-to-wait. Is it possible that I heard a chorus in the background singing “Hallelujah?”  No, that was just the tasteful background music at just the right volume to remain in the background.

It might sound obvious but the chicken tenders were tender – so tender. The three large pieces of meat looked like the fancy chicken tenders David makes for us at home, and he likened them to the best chicken tenders of his life, as served at the famous Eveready Diner in Hyde Park, New York. With her mouth full of her first bite, Margaux broke out in a halting laugh – “The honey mustard tickles me. It makes me laugh.” She immediately went back for the next steaming bite and even shared with me, warning “Be careful, it might be a little drippy” from the house-made honey mustard.

Perfectly crisp, thin, bistro french fries accompanied the tenders. Also green beans, one of Margaux’s favorites. She licked one and found it salty. Then she bit into it and described it as bland, not understanding that “salty” and “bland” are mutually exclusive. So I ate most of her blistered green beans, which tasted especially good dipped in my creamy-tangy poppy seed salad dressing. Margaux amused herself by arranging her chicken, fries and ramekins of sauce into a smiley face.

“Thank you for taking me here,” she exclaimed out of the blue.

The pace of courses was perfect and we continued to marvel that our server knew just when to bring Margaux’s meal. He even refreshed our silverware and crumbed the table between courses. During the brief hiatus between salad and entrees, we read all the riddles on Margaux’s placemat. Then, while my husband and I enjoyed our entrees, she took a food break to fidget and draw on her notepad. Ultimately she finished almost her entire plate of food.

David’s salmon was impeccably cooked, the pink fish a pretty contrast to the delicate green pea puree. But he would have preferred the accompanying snow peas whole rather than cut. My crab cakes had an airy, almost eggy texture. Once I remembered that the crab cakes included artichoke, the flavors made sense, with the bright acidity of the remoulade and dressed bitter greens balancing the savory crab.

We were unable to sway Margaux toward the daily panna cotta selection for dessert. She won out with an order of chocolate pudding with whipped cream. I always forget that kids aren’t crazy about dark chocolate. The bitterness compelled Margaux to skim off all the whipped cream and leave the chocolate to us.

As we were paying the bill, we observed that at least five or six other families with kids had also been in the restaurant on this mellow Sunday evening. We serendipitously had stumbled upon a hip family spot.

David and I used to live on Munjoy Hill. We met at the Front Room, where I used to moonlight as a waitress. He tended bar at The Armory Lounge. We fancied ourselves “foodies,” working in the biz and going out to eat as much as we could. Then we had a kid. Then we moved to the suburbs. Our situation, our restaurant choices, our finances and our standards changed. Now we keep a tight orbit around our town – it’s just easier that way.

As parents going out to eat with a kid, we often have to sacrifice some of the creativity and quality of a culinary experience in exchange for a low-key setting and proximity to home. On the proximity scale, Woodford F&B is not in our orbit. But it was definitely no sacrifice.

About the reviewers:

Mandy Boger works for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and still has waitressing stress dreams.  After hanging up his black vest at the Armory Lounge, David Boger became the Nutrition Program Coordinator (aka Chef Dave) at Arwo Learning Center. Margaux is an almost-first-grader who loves mermaids, unicorns, drawing, playgrounds and going out to eat.