Play Cafe caters to kids in Hampden

For The Baltimore Sun
Meet me at noon, baby, inside the Play Cafe.

Parents know that going out to eat with young kids can be a trying experience. In fact, anyone who has ever sat near fussy kids can attest to this.

Toddlers don't want to sit and they have a tendency to be loud at exactly the wrong time. Most reasonable people agree that it's not smart or fair to expect little children to behave like adults at restaurants.

But that doesn't mean they shouldn't ever eat out. Baltimore parents in need of some outside-world interaction, along with decent sandwiches and salads, should head to Play Cafe in Hampden.

Scene & Decor Play Cafe is the brainchild of Kathy Schott and Ryan Sterner, a couple Hampdenites with kids of their own. They have created a space that is completely kid-friendly, from the stroller parking inside the front door to the stack of IKEA high chairs ready for the taking.

Best of all, the entire back of the space is dedicated to a toy-laden play area that is visible from the cafe's handful of tables. What this means is that parents can sit and talk while their toddlers run around and play with other kids (assuming, that is, that none of those toddlers break any of the simple, logical, clearly posted rules — guidelines like "no fighting, screaming or roughhousing").

During a midday Sunday visit, we only spied one situation that required parental intervention. Diners should know, though, that even when everyone is playing happily, Play Cafe is not a quiet experience. It's joyful — but it's loud.

Entrees The cafe's menu sticks to the basics: simple sandwiches and salads for grown ups and fun, kid-friendly foods for little ones.

The 3-year old in our group was momentarily taken with her "TV tray" ($6 to $8): a cute plastic tray stocked with grilled cheese triangles, apple slices, cheese slices, potato chips and strawberries. But in the end, her parents packed up nearly all of the food; she was more taken with the toys in the back of the space.

Parents should know that 3 is just about the perfect age for Play Cafe. In our group, the not-quite-1-year-old was too young for the toys, and the 8-year-old was a little too old.

The adults enjoyed chips and sandwiches, including a warm grilled turkey "Rachel" ($9), messy with turkey, Swiss cheese, bacon and kale slaw that dripped onto the plate. The Play Cafe grilled cheese ($8), which added tomato and avocado to a combination of goat and Swiss cheeses, was gooey and tasty.

"Ants on a log" ($2.50) was a trip back to childhood. The celery, peanut butter and raisin snack was prepared exactly as we remembered.

The Play Cafe salad ($9), a mixture of roasted beets, walnuts and goat cheese served over mixed greens dressed with a bright vinaigrette, was also appealing. Like the sandwiches, it was straightforward and simply prepared without any surprises. But it worked.

All three meals were appropriate for the setting, too: they didn't need to stay warm to be enjoyable, so they withstood multiple interruptions.

Drinks Play Cafe allows BYOB, though we didn't spot anyone taking advantage of the policy during our visit. Instead, we opted for crisp glasses of berry-scented iced tea ($3), a nicely brewed glass of iced coffee ($3) and — for the kids — plastic cups of orange juice ($2.50).

We were less enthusiastic about the Play Cafe smoothie ($6), a pretty purple combination of blueberry, lime, mint, avocado and coconut milk. Based on the bright color, we expected the drink to be full of zingy, sweet-tart blueberry flavor. Instead, the muted taste of avocado dominated.

Dessert The kids in our party gobbled up brightly colored rainbow cookies ($2 each); they were a sweet and simple end to the meal.

Service The cafe's set-up is casual, with diners ordering meals at the counter then grabbing tables and high chairs as needed; someone from behind the counter delivers food when it is ready.

During our visit, everyone was friendly, chatty and in good spirits. The restaurant was busy, so the sandwiches took a few minutes to make it to our table.

But with the kids occupied, no one minded the short wait. A few extra minutes of talking in peace — while everyone was happy and entertained — felt like a gift.

Nearby reviews: Dish Baltimore - Hampden/Woodberry

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Play Cafe

Back story: Opened in Hampden earlier this summer, Play Cafe caters to parents of young children who want to sit down and grab breakfast, lunch, snacks or coffee while their children play and socialize with other kids.

Parking: Street parking

Signature dish: The Play Cafe grilled cheese is a grown-up version of the kiddie classic, layering Swiss and goat cheeses with tomato and avocado for a gooey, savory hit.

TVs: None

Where: 3400 Chestnut Ave., Baltimore

Contact: 410-469-9784; playcafebaltimore.com

Open: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday (weekday hours will extend to 6 p.m. starting the last week in August); 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday

Credit Cards: All major

Reservations: Not accepted

Bottom line: Pint-sized Baltimoreans will have a blast in Play Cafe's fun play area, while the adults who love them semi-relax with likable sandwiches and salads

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