A&E

Farm to play

Forest on First a haven for young families seeking high-quality seasonal fare

Once upon a time, downtown Los Altos was all about antiques and senior citizens. Now, if you don't have small children and a City Select stroller to put them in, forget about it. Eatery Forest on First, with its in-restaurant jungle gym and farm-to-table fare, is the latest of the downtown businesses catering to young families who want a restaurant experience everyone can enjoy.

Once there was only Linden Tree Books, a landmark in its fourth decade. Now, Mary and Brian Heffernan's The H&H Company operates six family-friendly or child-focused businesses in downtown Los Altos. They and their four daughters under age 7 can walk to all these shops from their home.

Mary Heffernan was preparing for medical school when she opened Academic Trainers, a small tutoring and test prep company in Menlo Park. Brian Heffernan was an attorney. In 2011 they opened Bumble, a full-service restaurant in Los Altos where families would feel welcome and the menu would not be dumbed down for kids. Also important -- given that both Heffernans are from farm families -- was that kids should know food comes from plants and animals, not stores.

There are good and bad sides to this development, depending on your family's age and income. On the one hand, are Los Altos' public parks dangerous? Are young parents too important to pack lunches and meet in a park? Is this is another sad step in the relentless retreat of the wealthy behind pay walls?

On the other hand, the food I sampled was quite good. If I had small children and wanted occasionally to meet a friend for lunch and actually have a chance to talk, I'd probably consider Forest on First a haven.

And as the popularity of farmers' markets have shown, it's nice to know whose hands have brought forth your food. Producers and their locations are listed on a chalkboard at Forest on First. They are as close as Hidden Villa in Los Alto Hills -- source of eggs, produce and sometimes a pig.

It is a challenge to keep up the seasonal menu. Even in California, diners expect to eat avocados all year.

Another challenge is changing the menu fast enough to keep up with produce availability. On our visit, a menu item called butter lettuce salad ($12) was made of baby red romaine and green-leaf lettuces, not butter, and had Brazil nuts in place of almonds. Still, it was a large and luscious mix, studded with woodsy maitake mushrooms, mild ricotta salata and tomato vinaigrette.

The tuna sandwich ($12) also had a minor case of false advertising: Instead of watercress there was arugula. It's an expensive tuna sandwich, but you are paying for hunks of freshly toasted focaccia from Berkeley's Acme Bakery, not a couple thin slices of commercial bread. You're also paying for celery heart, capers, Castelvetrano olives and tuna conserva (poached, not canned).

Crispy baby artichokes ($8) are perfection with mint aioli. Toto, we aren't in fast food land anymore.

My one complaint was that the iced coffee ($4) from San Francisco's Blue Bottle had been sitting too long and was bitter. Others have complained that the drip coffee ($3) takes too long and that the smoothies cost $7.

Other amenities include cold filtered water, garbage bins -- simplified into plastics and organic, dishcloth napkins and real tableware.

During our lunch, the only kids eating were in round, woodsy high chairs. You have to be at least age 2 to play in the tree house, a play structure that hugs the perimeter of the dining room, equipped with climbing ropes and walkways. Those playing were totally happy. We did see to-go boxes for leftovers, containing $6 sandwiches from the kids' menu. The kids' menu also offers spaghetti with meat ($7) or vegetarian ($6) sauce, macaroni and cheese ($6) and fish and chips ($6).

You could argue that dining in a play area does not prepare kids for behaving in real restaurants. Also, online reviewers have complained about the menu prices and the $5 charge for children to use the play structure.

"You can't have awesome and cheap," Mary Heffernan said.

If it were free, people would come just to use the play structure and crowd out the people who want to eat. On weekdays they have "happy hour" from 3 to 5 p.m., when it's just $1 to play.

H&H's next project is a ranch in Fort Jones, up near the California-Oregon border. There they plan to raise cattle, chickens and pigs, and particularly focus on free-range pasteurized eggs. They also plan to utilize the ranch to educate children about sources of food.

Once upon a time, before the antique stores, Los Altos was all about apricot orchards. H&H is bringing back a bit of that agricultural heritage.

--- --- ---

Forest on First

129 First St., Los Altos

650-383-5760

forestonfirst.com

Hours: Wednesday-Monday, 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Tuesdays.

Reservations: no

Credit cards: yes

Parking: street and city lots

Alcohol: no

Children: yes

Outdoor dining: yes

Party and banquet facilities: no

Noise level: high

Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

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