Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Cafe/Playroom Review: Lemon Tree (Santa Clara)

What fun it is to visit -- and review! -- a new offering in the South Bay kids' scene!

Yesterday morning, Toddler X and I joined some pals at Lemon Tree, a recently-opened cafe/party venue/play room on El Camino Real in Santa Clara. We had a wonderful, relaxing experience, and I'm so excited to share this delightful spot with you!

What is it?

Lemon Tree is a pleasant little cafe with a lovely playroom for toddlers attached. Or, wait, is it a bright, well-stocked toddler playroom, with a very attractive cafe attached? Or a really cute weekend party venue that spends its off days during the week hosting parents who want to sip coffee and nibble on sweets while their little ones play happily with an array of toys a few feet away?

Okay, you guessed it: the answer is (d) All of the above.

Lemon Tree is the brainchild of a local kids' party designer/planner and a local photographer who envisioned a venue where people could host kid-friendly parties on the weekends, with design and planning managed by the in-house team, and where parents could relax on the weekdays with a coffee while their children enjoy the playroom. While I haven't been to a party there yet, I've seen pictures of recent events, and they look amazing. And from my experience on Monday, I can testify that the weekday experience is downright delightful.

The Cafe

The main portion of Lemon Tree functions as a cafe during the week, and offers plentiful seating and lovely decor. At the counter, Lemon Tree serves a small array of prepared foods (including sandwiches), snacks (including kid pleasers like yogurt pouches, cheese sticks and Pirate's Booty), pastries and bottled/boxed drinks.

Lemon Tree has also partnered with the Japanese restaurant next door to offer an array of bento boxes and sushi rolls for delivery to the cafe -- I had a salmon terriyaki/gyoza bento box, and it was good (not earth shattering, but tasty).

One of the most pleasant things about the cafe is the free tea and coffee available with paid admission for a child (see below for more on that). They have a large Keurig machine set up next to the counter with an array of coffee and tea K-cups available, and you can help yourself.

There is also a large water pitcher with orange slices to keep you hydrated, and a basket of magazines underneath. I sort of felt like I was in a spa.

One corner of the cafe area is set aside for the crawling/almost-toddling set, with soft pillows surrounding a low table (perfect for pulling up) containing several baby toys and cute plush rockers. We had an almost one year-old with our group yesterday, and she had plenty of fun exploring that area.

There are also plentiful Ikea high chairs for convenience.

The Playroom

The front section of the cafe has been carved out as a playroom, and it is just delightful. The playroom is open to the cafe as a whole, but the space is delineated by rugs on the floor and a partial wall (set between the crawlers area and the main play room). The playroom is not huge, but it is well-stocked with enough fun to keep toddlers entertained for a few hours (our two 3 1/2 year olds happily played for almost two hours, and only left because we had places to be).

So, what's so great? Well, first off -- the light. The front of the playroom is a huge window, so the room has tons of natural light, and the white walls, light rugs, and adorable yellow and grey detail make it feel calm and spacious.

Next (and, of course, most important from the kids' perspective): the toys. The owners have done a wonderful job picking toys that toddlers would love, from a whole bin of Green Toys trucks to a beautiful train table to a KidKraft kitchen to all the Hape toy fun you could dream of (if you dream of Hape toys...which I do). Seriously, they have our beloved Switchback Racetrack, the Hape Master Work Bench, the Playfully Delicious Grill -- everything. Toddler X was delighted.

They also have books (and the owner says they're in the process of adding board books to the baby area), an adorable teepee, an activity cube, and many other toys we didn't even explore (Toddler X and his pal were so happy with the big items already out on the floor that they barely glanced inside the storage unit to see what else was available).

Finally, there is an art table, where the owner set out coloring pages and stamp sets for the kids to enjoy. Toddler X was reluctant to leave.

The Overall Lemon Tree Experience

I mentioned before that the hot tea and orange-infused ice water made me feel like I was visiting a spa, and I meant it -- our whole experience at Lemon Tree was peaceful and serene. The kids played happily while the three moms sipped drinks and chatted -- indeed, we actually got to have real conversations (!!) because the kiddos were fully engrossed in the playroom. If I were there by myself, I could have read a book or magazine and sipped tea and been equally at peace.

But here's a caveat: during our visit, we were the only ones there. Lemon Tree just opened last month, and has been doing an extended soft opening of sorts, so not many people know they exist...until now, I guess. With just three moms and three kids in the open space, it was calm and relaxing, particularly because our kids were playing as peacefully as I've ever heard/seen them play. Another mom and her daughter arrived as we were leaving, but aside from that, it was just us and the very kind owner.

I'm not at all suggesting that the experience at Lemon Tree won't be equally enjoyable once the crowds build, but I think it wouldn't be a fair review if I didn't mention what is sure to be an anomaly (zero crowds) during our first visit. If there had been, say four or five other kids in the play area (particularly if they weren't all affiliated with our group), there may have been more noise, less pleasant sharing of toys, and no doubt more little feet running back and forth to mom insisting that they need another yogurt pouch or bag of Pirate's Booty. If there were seven or eight other kids in there, it would have been downright busy. As the months go by, and Lemon Tree's exposure grows, I'll try to visit at various times of the week and share when the crowds seem to be lower...or maybe I'll keep it to myself, because ahhh, that spa-like atmosphere was just delightful!

It's also worth noting that you supervise your own child at Lemon Tree, so the degree of relaxation and your ability to chat with other parents is closely tied to your child's willingness to play alone or with other kids. The play area isn't really large enough for adults to hang out, so those whose kids are happy to play 10 feet or more away from mom will have the best experience. There are no play supervisors assigned to the play area, and it seems appropriate to pick up after yourself when you're done playing.

Chatting with the owner, it sounds like the playroom was designed with an age range of 8 months through 2 or 3 years in mind, but with the many pretend play offerings, I'd say up to 4 year olds would be perfectly happy here. However, given a 3 or 4 year old's relatively greater size than a younger toddler, and their broader use of space, if there are more than, say, 6 older kids in there, it might begin to feel a bit crowded.

One other thing I have to mention: Lemon Tree was absolutely spotless during our visit, with hand sanitizer available and organic cleaning products in abundance. Everyone must take off their shoes or wear shoe covers. The toys are pristine (but, of course, they are brand new) and the play room carefully arranged.

Worth noting...

It's tough to find negatives with such a lovely spot, but no cafe/play space is perfect, and a thorough review means discussing the downsides too. Here are a few:

  • The location isn't as idyllic as Lemon Tree itself. While inside Lemon Tree all is lovely and bright, once outside the doors, you are standing on El Camino Real, just feet from the back side of Adult World -- and yes, that's exactly the kind of store you think it is. A sign on the back of the store faces Lemon Tree's parking area, though the entry and parking are on the far side of the building, not visible from Lemon Tree. This doesn't worry me at all -- it's not like you can see the "novelties" hanging in the store window -- but some might feel uncomfortable about its proximity, especially given that the front of Lemon Tree is a large picture window. I don't see this ever being a problem, but I definitely know moms who might feel uncomfortable with it, so it's worth reporting.
  • Parking may be a hassle. The available parking right in front of Lemon Tree is very limited, and we were there on an empty day. Take a look at their Facebook page for a map of where you can and can't park in the lot.
  • It's not a great spot for a very physical, high energy kid. The easy flow between the play area and cafe is really nice on a quiet day like yesterday, but it could be problematic if the group of kids present includes one or more who are particularly rambunctious or inclined toward physical play. The play area is designed for pleasant pretend play, relaxed artwork and cooperative train tabling. It isn't deigned for kids with lots of energy to burn, and with the limited space in the play area, I could see higher energy kids romping through the cafe, definitely detracting from the overall relaxing vibe. I have nothing against high energy kids -- Toddler X certainly is one, though he was delightfully calm yesterday -- but if your child is seeming pretty wiggly on a given day, it might not be the best time for a Lemon Tree visit.
  • Following up on that last thought, your experience may vary greatly depending on the crowd present. As I mentioned, we had a remarkably relaxing time at Lemon Tree yesterday, as it was just our group present and the kids played peacefully and happily together. Depending on the mix of kids present at any given time, both with respect to ages and personalities, your child might be completely happy in the play area or not want to be there at all. Unlike larger venues, there's not much space to separate two children who aren't doing well together, beyond taking one of them away to sit with mom.
All that being said, Lemon Tree is overall an absolutely delightful place, and definitely worth a visit if you have your weekdays free.


Hours: Lemon Tree is open Monday - Friday from 10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Weekends are reserved for events only. If you may be visiting Lemon Tree, I'd definitely recommend following their Facebook page, as they occasionally close during the week when hosting large play groups, and they update their Facebook page accordingly. (For example, I just saw posts that they'll be closed next Monday morning and Tuesday afternoon.)

Cost: The cost for admission is $10, which includes a parent and one child. Additional children are $5 each. Admission includes free coffee and tea, and, as of now, there is no time limit. There are no in-and-out privileges, and you may not bring in outside food, except baby food. I meant to ask how many adults are covered by the $10 admission -- what if I were to bring grandma along, for example, or a kid-less friend? -- but I'll check with the owners and let you know.

Location: Lemon Tree is located in a strip mall at 3427 El Camino Real in Santa Clara, just east of Lawrence Expressway (between Lawrence and Nobili, on the same side of the road as that large shopping plaza that has the Chili's in the corner). It is right next to Tangram Studio (a photography studio) -- that's an easier sign to spot.

Parking: Parking is a minor issue in this location. Lemon Tree has use of the few angled spots directly in front of their building, and the parallel spots bordering El Camino Real, as well as some additional spaces in the back. You can not park in front of other buildings in the strip mall complex.

Enjoy yourself!

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