For my 39th birthday just passed I was offered the chance of a child-free dinner and a movie. Having just spent four weeks literally attached to a newborn by the boob, and adding in a week of school holidays that had almost done my head in, it was certainly an attractive offer.
However, when you have three children, including a newborn, finding a suitable babysitter is no longer an easy matter.
For one thing, the baby is feeding every two hours so not only would I be creating a lot of bottle-feeding work for someone, I would have to find at least an extra bottle's worth of breast milk from this poor sapped body. It's in there, I know, but would probably require an industrial-strength pump to extract after the baby's voracious efforts.
So, thinking I was doing everyone a favour, I suggested a family-friendly meal at a Cobb & Co. restaurant, which I thought the children might get a kick out of, the baby might tolerate, and where my husband and I might get to enjoy a little walk down memory lane. In our cases, the memory lane that necessarily included our fathers, both from cultures with highly developed cuisines, glowering as they were forced to eat what was, at that time in the late 70s and 80s, some of the best dining-out New Zealand offered.
In fact, as Ali reminded me, some of New Zealand's best chef's had reportedly trained in the Cobb & Co. kitchens. There appeared to be one of these homely, welcoming restaurants on every corner.
But times have changed and the first sign that Cobb & Co. had changed with them was that there is not one Cobb & Co. in Auckland. The closest, and only in the region, is in Manukau City.
So we herded everyone in to the car at 5pm on Saturday night for our trip south. It was a tragic revelation when I realised that we were heading out to dinner on a Saturday night at 5.30pm in a seven seater vehicle and listening to classic rock. When we got to the empty restaurant at 5.30pm on the dot my horror was complete: surely, we have become our own parents.
Quickly at the table we got the kids interested in the iconic Pink Panther and Traffic Light mocktails, while I ordered a low alcohol beer (trying to resist swigging it while I nursed the restless baby).
The adults' menu had hardly changed. Kiwi classics abounded: prawn cocktail, roast meals, ribs, steaks, and so forth, all covered liberally in gloop. Looking at my eventual main, the roast, I couldn't even tell what was on the plate, as all the contents were covered in either apple sauce, white sauce, or a brown gravy-like substance.
But where the adult meals were pretty much as expected, it was the kids' menu that I felt really missed the mark.
All the kids' meals start with something like corn chips, offer hot chips and the ubiquitous chicken nuggets or fish or hot dogs for the mains, and then a sundae or other ice-cream-based confection for dessert. Not a vegetable in sight; even a plant-based condiment would have been welcome.
I'm not saying that kids need to be dished up plates of veges at every meal, but there should at least be the option, particularly at a sit-down restaurant. Otherwise, we'd just hot-foot it to the local food court or McDonald's and be done with it.
We looked around at who constituted the restaurant's main clientele these days. There were lots of Asian tourists and pensioners but few children, unlike twenty years or so ago.
Touchingly, there was a young couple who appeared to be out on a date sitting across from us.
"They can take a look at us and see how the rest of the story pans out," grunted Ali as he tried to contain a squirming baby, a five-year-old with intermittent ADHD, and a three-year-old who was, as he puts it, "titting off".
"I think it's clear to see just how romantic this meal is by the fact you've sent four tweets in the 20 minutes we've been sitting here," I said archly, "including one from the toilets".
Yes, where the food may have degenerated, the ability of a family dinner to ratchet up the marital hostilities remains as steadfast as ever.
And yet the worst indignity was yet to come.
Paying up, I was confronted with a bill of $140 for the meal. That included two kids' meals and exactly one alcoholic drink (the low alcohol beer).
It was a stupendous amount of money for a meal that cannot have cost more than $20 to make. And yet, there is a gap in the market for family-friendly restaurants serving proper (not fast) food at reasonable prices, where children can become accustomed to the ritual of eating out and parents not lose the will to live in the process.
Unfortunately, that great Kiwi institution Cobb & Co., in my opinion, no longer appears to fill that gap.By Dita De Boni