Bean Sprouts6719 Frank Lloyd Wright Ave.Middleton, 608-826-6986beansproutscafe.comFor more photos, click gallery
"This is the best they've behaved in any restaurant," the mother remarked as her toddler cruised through the four-foot-tall mini-door made just for kids.
Parents know that bringing young children to restaurants is a roll of the dice. Restaurants aren't generally configured for kids - at most you get some paper and a crayon for distraction. If the kids don't become hysterical from boredom, you're ahead of the game. But it's unlikely you'll be able to relax much between the judgmental stares of fellow patrons and the restless antics of your excitable offspring. This is no way to eat a meal.
But there is another way.
On Frank Lloyd Wright Drive in Middleton, you'll find Middleton Hills, one of Wright disciple Marshall Erdman's last architectural projects, designed to serve the philosophy of integrated commercial and residential development. The vision was one of a healthy neighborhood, where residents spend time on stoops and in their yard, and can walk to restaurants and shops instead of climbing into the minivan for a trip to the mall.
Bean Sprouts is one of the successes of that community-based architectural gambit. Nestled near a Copps grocery store and retail outlets, Bean Sprouts caters to the parent and grandparent demographics with a cafe that's specifically designed for young children but makes all ages feel at home.
The decor is lime green, white and avocado. There are cute jokes for parents, like the portrait of a bean lounging in the sun labeled Baked Bean. There are crayons and wooden shakers that emulate spice containers and have a satisfying heft and shake (but are really filled with dried beans). Knives are not part of the silverware set. The bathrooms feature a Boppy, a changing station, and in addition to the standard-sized Kohler, there's a miniature toilet, low to the ground.
But there's something beyond tricking the room out for kids on the agenda that stands in stark contrast to Chuck E. Cheese, and it fits perfectly with Erdman's vision: The cafe is providing sensible food to the community.
The chief attribute of the menu is healthfulness. Condiments are light, ingredients are fresh or tend to the preservative-free, and portion sizes are tiered so kids don't waste food.
Baby Bites ($2.50 for 3 oz., $3.50 for 5 oz.) include Sam I Yam, pureed organic sweet potatoes with rosemary, and Easy Cheesy, broccoli and cauliflower in a Gruyere sauce.
For main dishes, the "kid" size is $5.25, "adult" size is $7.95, and "big daddy" size is $9.45. Wheat 'Za comes in several variations, including zucchini with broccoli, caramelized onions, and wilted spinach chicken and cheese. The turkey pepperoni and cheese on pita bread was a hit with the 2-year-old - he devoured it all and wanted more ("look, he ate the cheese and that whole piece of pita!" said the proud daddy).
The Bunchkin Burger sports a very tasty turkey burger in a wheat bun, garnished with lettuce, a healthy spear of pickle and tomato. Tasty, healthy and affordable - take that, Happy Meal.
The Noodle-Dee-Doo was popular with all age groups ("I like the cheese!" said the chipper little 4-year-old Wisconsin resident), while the adults enjoyed downing forkfuls of wheat corkscrew pasta from this gently healthier version of mac-and-cheese.
The Little Slugger Sandwich with Mediterranean Vegetables - zucchini, eggplant and red bell peppers - was called "refreshing" by the grandparents in the group.
Main dishes are available in three sizes, and sides are served with all. A banana with flecks of carrot and a daub of honey was deemed "not for grownups" by the irrefutable logic of the 2-year-old. The "polenta flower" - fine-grained cornmeal baked with thyme and rosemary and cut into a flower shape with a carrot stalk for the stem - was playful, if a little bland, and everyone loved the sublimely sweet-and-tart melon bisque.
The kitchen's fine touch with the delicate bisque is reflected in the smoothie menu (all are $3.50). Choose from yogurt mixed with pureed blueberries, raspberries and grape juice (Purple Gurple), strawberries, banana, pineapple juice (Pink Patootie), or peaches, tofu and pineapple juice (Peachie Smoocher). There are specials like the Pink Elephant, made with strawberries, mango, grape juice, summer fizz and yogurt.
We all loved the idea of a smoothie bar for all ages as kind of an updated hangout spot for the '00s: "Meet us down at the smoothie bar after school!"
Also community-minded is the calendar of events hosted in-store. Book & Cook Story Time is Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, 10:30-11 a.m. and is free. There's Tea for Twos-Day, $8 per person for three courses, including a flower-shaped sandwich with pesto, turkey and cheese; yogurt with wild blueberries and cinnamon-sprinkled graham cracker strips; and Harney & Sons tea. The Bitty Baker cooking classes Thursday and Friday allow kids to explore baking in a safe environment.
Everyone felt that the prices were fair, if a bit on the high side. That's a function of bundling the overhead of a child-friendly environment into the cost of dining. In the restaurant industry, a sizable hidden cost is dealing with children. They require extra attention - in some cases, lots of extra attention. And with prices so high in the stores, good food is at a premium, so by providing healthy food in a fun all-ages venue, Bean Sprouts has found a very positive community center, just as Erdman would have wanted.
Singular sensation: Healthy food for the toddler set
Bean Sprouts joins an exclusive club in North America as a restaurant that serves healthy food for the toddler set. It's a combination that is surprisingly rare, which puts Middleton way ahead of the curve.
Of course, there are plenty of restaurants in the Chuck E. Cheese mold, where kids are welcome but the food is junk. In Canada, St. Hubert goes halfway with a kids' room for play with quality toys, crayons and puzzle place mats. They also serve nut-free desserts, virgin drinks and free juice and Cheerios while you are waiting for a table. But the food itself isn't particularly healthy: mozzarella sticks, French fries, and chicken sandwiches with Brie are all fairly fatty.
Then there is the Arizona mini-chain Sweet Tomatoes, but it doesn't quite map either. It's a salad and pasta bar in a family-friendly environment (think of it as a healthier and tastier version of Applebee's or Olive Garden), but it's not specifically geared to the very young.
The famous P.B. & Ellie's Cafe in Portland, Ore., qualified as a true peer, offering fresh, organic, local ingredients in fun-to-eat packages for kids along with a play area and food that grownups like, but it closed this spring, leaving Bean Sprouts nearly alone as a healthy restaurant for young children.