What?: It’s been a crappy old year for play cafes, with two of London’s local favourites shutting up shop for good in the last two months, while the future of the remaining few hangs in the balance. Dalston’s Little Penguin opened back in January, in what was inarguably the worst moment to open a play cafe in the history of play cafes, but it survived nearly four months of COVID-induced closure and has been back quietly serving the young families of De Beauvoir for the last two months. I say quietly because I don’t know a single person who’s heard about this place, which sits on the eastern side of Kingsland Road, nestled between Haggerston and Dalston Junction Overground stations. And that’s a big shame, because it’s actual parental heaven.
Like its neighbour Toconoco and Tufnell Park’s Bear & Wolf, Little Penguin is the kind of cafe you’d gladly hang out in pre-, post-, with and without kids, thanks to its hip, plant-filled, typically Dalston aesthetic; good coffee that comes in all its usual forms as well as in some curious sounding concoctions; and a decent menu that’s supplemented by a counter full of absurdly delicious-looking cakes and pastries (and I have to say I was also really into the emo playlist that the barista lady happened to be listening to when we visited).
The play area, though, is very much the main event here – especially when you’re the kind of person who is, for better or worse, never without their small children. There are sofas, there’s a whole rail of lovely clean dressing-up costumes, there’s a dolls’ house, a slide, a selection of ride ons, a rocking sheep, a full bookshelf, a play kitchen… I’m starting to feel like the voiceover for the conveyor-belt bit of the Generation Game, but you get the idea – there is a lot of stuff in here, not to mention high chairs and baby changing in the adjoining toilet.
My only niggle about this place is it’s literally a five-minute walk from Japanese play cafe Toconoco, which I guess is great if you happen to live in Dalston, but there are so many areas of London that are crying out for this kind of setup. But, while only time will tell whether the likes of Highbury’s Little Highness and Chiswick’s The Parent Hood will rise from the ashes of the Coronavirus pandemic, in the meantime we all need to support the shit out of the play cafes we’ve got left. And this one is an excellent place to start.
Where and when?: Little Penguin can be found at 404 Kingsland Road and is around a five-minute walk from both Dalston Junction and Haggerston stations. Opening hours are 8am-5pm on weekdays and 10am-4pm on weekends.
Facilities: Step-free access, baby changing, kids’ menu.
Best bits: One of the best cafe play areas we’ve been to, and their coffee cups were really cool.
Worst bits: It was really quiet, which was great for us – particularly since, y’know, pandemic – but I hope that wasn’t a reliable indicator of how well it’s doing.
Would we come back? Yep. Another great reason to go to Dalston, and there were already so many.
Roro makes the most of an empty play area at Little Penguin, Dalston.