At first sight, Blue Kangaroo looks like a children's play centre with a grown up restaurant attached. The upstairs consists of some pretty basic tables and chairs--several of them high chairs--while the downstairs is a rabbit warren of hoops, climbing frames, knotted ropes and miniature bouncy castles. As you'd expect from a place that's primarily designed for small children--they have to be eight or under to be admitted--the decibel level is through the roof. Funnily enough, it occupies the same space on the New King's Road that was once taken up by a branch of Shoeless Joes I visited occasionally and that place was like the Reading Room of the British Museum compared to this. Unless you live in the flight path of Terminal 3, I can't imagine this is a place that any adult would come to relax.
But appearances can be deceptive. There are hundreds of indoor adventure playgrounds like this all over Britain and what makes Blue Kangaroo special is that it's designed with the needs of grown ups in mind as well as children.
For instance, there's a CCTV system installed so parents can keep an eye on their kids in the basement without leaving the relative peace and quiet of the ground floor.
More importantly, the food is actually quite good. Normally in these sorts of places, the most you can hope for is a burger and chips--great for the kids, not so good for Mum and Dad, particularly if one of them is on the Atkins Diet. In Blue Kangaroo, by contrast, there's food on the menu that won't actually shorten your life. I had a ham and cheese omelette that would have passed muster in any Parisian bistro and my wife enjoyed a very hearty bowl of vegetable soup. It wasn't Gordon Ramsay, but it wasn't McDonald's either.
"Kids generally love play centres, but they're not the sort of places adults would want to spend any time in," says Tony Hagdrup, Blue Kangaroo's 40-year-old owner who happens to be the father of a four-year-old. "That's the gap in the market I was hoping to plug."
During the week, Blue Kangaroo is wall-to-wall yummy mummies, but on Saturdays and Sundays the Dads show up the moment it opens at 9.30am, desperate to unload their little charges so they can put their feet up. In addition to offering a full English for £6.50, Tony Hagdrup makes sure there are ample copies of the papers and the plasma screen downstairs is tuned to Sky Sports instead of Cbeebies. Rather than feel like the hapless victims in some gender swap reality show, the men can flatter themselves that they're doing their share of the childcare while watching the rugby and working their way through a case of Rioja.
So far, there's only one Blue Kangaroo in the UK, but don't expect Tony Hagdrup to rest on his laurels. A former corporate finance whiz kid, he already has his sights set on a second location in North London. To give you some idea of the size of the market Hagdrup has tapped into, the children's party area at Blue Kangaroo is booked solid for the whole of March and April and in order to get a table in the upstairs restaurant at the weekend you have to call at least two weeks in advance. In 20 years time, I wouldn't be surprised if there are as many Blue Kangaroos as there are Carphone Warehouses today.
So what was my seven-and-a-half-month-old daughter's verdict? Alas, Shasha hasn't started crawling yet so she couldn't take advantage of any of the facilities, but at least she got in free. (Babies over nine months get charged an entrance fee that ranges from £2.80 to £3.80, depending on how old they are.) There wasn't anything on the menu suitable for her, either. Blue Kangaroo gave up serving baby food when Tony Hagdrup realised that all the local Chelsea and Fulham residents brought their own, organic stuff to feed to Rory and Isobel.
"We're learning as we go," he says, gazing at the sea of moving children running around his restaurant. "But we seem to be doing something right."