Hangouts

Savour a healthy lunch (and five minutes’ peace) at Belsize Park’s 36 cafe

Unlike other parent-focused cafes, 36 falls more into the category of 'coffee shop with a play area' than 'play cafe'.

What?: We had been embarrassingly overeager in our anticipation of this Belsize Park cafe, having shoehorned a walk past its window into most days since we were alerted to its imminent launch some weeks ago. But while it was apparent from our pavement recces that this seemingly nameless new arrival’s main draw – the all-important play area – was small and filled with little more than a petite playhouse and the same IKEA Duktig play kitchen Bab has at home (not to mention the garishly hued filth magnets that are those bloody interlocking foam floor tiles), I was excited to welcome a new play cafe to the area, having berated NW3’s – aka Pramstead’s – ridiculous lack of parent-friendly hangouts since we moved there pre-baby, nearly two years ago.

We’ve since crossed the border into NW6 but 36 is still our closest play cafe and I was keen to try out our future-favourite haunt before anyone else noticed its arrival, and we were in luck. Bab and her little friend were the very first visitors to check out the play area, a baby-gated space in the back corner of the cafe that was so secure we couldn’t work out how to get them in there, let alone worry about them escaping. We resorted to hoisting them over the bars little adorable little convicts and they had a lovely 10 minutes or so exploring the Wendy house, rummaging through the tubs of box-fresh toys and cooking up a storm in the sparkling new kitchens before getting bored and demanding to be freed.

Like I said, this play area is small and, unlike other parent-focused cafes such as Tufnell Park’s Bear & Wolf with its large, toy-rammed playroom and Highbury’s Little Highness with its sizeable soft-play area, 36 falls more into the category of ‘coffee shop with a play area’ than ‘play cafe’, but that’s ok. Space in the cafe itself is limited – so much so that there’s no dedicated buggy parking, which wasn’t too much of an issue for two of us but could pose a bit of a problem once harassed local parents get wind of the presence of a child-friendly caffeination station on their doorstep. The owners could feasibly have devoted more space to their tiniest patrons and their parents, but then they’d run the risk of alienating those child-free customers who just wanted to pop by for a latte.

So why would you bother if you were urchin-free? Well, Wendy houses and toddler snacks aside, there is a distinctly grown-up feel to this place with its exposed brick walls, naked lightbulbs and fancy salads. There is a lovely, zen feel to the space (although I wonder how long that will last with additional children added into the equation), even if the NYC loft-style decor felt a little unfinished in places, with building dust still sprinkled on surfaces, high chairs still with the assembly instructions taped to them and a general sense of disorganisation that made even us eager beavers feel like they’d opened prematurely. Factor in the delicious pastries and super-friendly staff and I’m in no doubt that, once it overcomes its teething troubles, 36 is going to be a massive success – though hopefully not so much it becomes preschooler pandemonium.

Where?: 36 England’s Lane is an eight-minute walk from Belsize Park (Northern), 12 from Swiss Cottage (Jubilee) and Chalk Farm (Northern), and 18 from Hampstead Heath (Ginger).

Best Bits: The play area, obviously.

Worst Bits: The lack of buggy parking is a bummer.

Facilities: Baby changing, step-free access, Ella’s Kitchen meals and snacks available to buy.

Would We Come Back?: Yes.

Bab washes up in the play area at 36 England’s Lane, Belsize Park.

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