In a world where children should be seen and not heard, a group of 11-year-olds are unlikely to be your first choice as a dinner date.

But Fierce, Birmingham’s international festival of live art, has been challenging that prejudice with its project Eat The Street.

This week-long food extravaganza sees a group of kids who have just left primary school tour a selection of city eateries.

Five restaurants replace the theatre, the children play the role of food critics and their audience is a group of adults whose ticket is the price of their meal.

The idea comes from Canadian arts outfit Mammalian Diving Reflex, the same team who came up with Haircuts By Children, giving a group of 11-year-olds guidance in basic hairdressing skills before setting them up in a pop-up salon, offering passers-by free haircuts.

Eat the Street hinges on trust and audience participation in a similar way, giving children VIP passes to the conventionally adult realm of restaurants, critically appraising their dining experience while the adults tag along.

In Birmingham teachers at Wheelers Lane Technology College, a boys’ school in Kings Heath, chose 25 Year 7 pupils to take part, with six to eight attending each meal.

Over five evenings 74 adults took part, choosing to dine with children they didn’t know and paying their own individual bills.

The week started at independent Latin American restaurant Bodega, followed by Italian chain Piccolino. To finish it off they visited Manzil’s curry house in Digbeth before their last supper at nearby Polish restaurant The Karczma, regrouping afterwards for an awards ceremony based on their reviews.

In the middle of the project, armed with pencils, notepads and camera phones to document their evening, the children arrive in a minibus outside Michelin-starred Simpsons in Edgbaston.

Starting with a tour of the restaurant in Highfield Road, the boys and their companions get a rare behind-the-scenes view of the kitchen led by head chef Matt Cheal and executive chef Luke Tipping.

Sitting a mixture of children and adults at four tables across the restaurant a waiter hurries over as one of the boys picks up his napkin.

“No, no! We do that for you”, he says, taking the napkin, neatly folding it into a triangle and placing it on the boy’s lap.

“Can I get you anything to drink?” he asks.

The boy ponders before briefly raising the accommodating waiters eyebrows with the reply: “A cup of tea”.

Dang Au, 11, tucks into his beef dish at Simpsons restaurant.
 

I’m sitting in the back room with 11-year-old food critics Zakariya and Dang, Mammalian Diving Reflex artistic director Darren, and PE teacher (and tonight’s bus driver) Mark.

Dang, who is still reminiscing about his margherita pizza at the Italian restaurant two nights before, says: “I think this restaurant is a lot more posh than Piccolino because there are multiple rooms... and chandeliers.

“And the food on the menu is more posh. The choice was pretty limited at Piccolino.”

At home Dang eats rice or noodles. Zakariya says he likes “everything on toast” as he orders the lobster with coco de paimpol, chorizo, pepper and rocket (£17).

“What made you order that?” I ask.

“Well... have you seen Mr Bean’s Holiday...?”

Bus driver Mark, who remembers Mr Bean struggling with a whole lobster starts laughing and nodding.

“You could order quail,” Dang tells his teacher.

“I could, couldn’t I,” says Mark, “Do you know what quail is?”

“No.”

The boys’ frank honesty about their newness to this situation seems to rub off on the adults as Darren shamelessly asks a stunned waitress “What is an amuse bouche?”

Spooning down a little glass of lentil soup topped with coconut foam, the boys are more interested in the bread.

As the starters arrive, Dang looks to the waiter unsure which knife to pick up.

“You work from the outside in,” he warmly demonstrates.

Sporting a Call of Duty Black Ops T-shirt and using his phone camera in a Gameboy-style case to capture everything, Zakariya looks pretty content with his shelled “squishy” lobster.

“I thought it would just be a plain plate with a lobster on it in its shell,” he says.

“It’s actually ok. It’s...chewable.”

“What religion are you?” asks Dang, sparking a group conversation about our different beliefs.

The boys want to know about my restaurant reviews and while the adults talk about their jobs, the kids talk about their parents’ jobs and the jobs they want in the future.

Dang wants to be a graphic designer and Zakariya wants to be an architect, adding: “But if this Eat The Street goes well I might become a food critic”.

“Has that got bacteria on it?” he adds, prodding at sprinkles of desiccated coconut on a pre-dessert of lime posset.

The boys aren’t hesitant or self-conscious in judging the food, taking pictures of everyone’s dishes on their mobile phones and making careful note of a wisp of a cobweb in the corner of the room.

They don’t wait for everyone to be seated before digging in and, if they hear a good conversation on another table they yell over to join in.

I find myself sharing tastes of my food with strangers, swapping forkfuls of ox cheek and ham hock.

I enjoy their curiosity as they ask questions with no agenda attached.

There’s also plenty of football talk, which Simpsons’ owner Andreas Antona would approve of, including a debate about how many times Suarez has bitten other players.

“When my mum heard I was coming to Simpsons”, says Dang, “she thought it was somewhere based on the TV series.”

“Would you prefer that?” I ask.

“I don’t think so because they would probably just serve fast food and Krusty Burgers.”

For pudding Zakariya orders a speculoos biscuit souffle (£13.50) (“spongey and squidgy, kind of like an omelette”) while Dang goes for the textures of chocolate and salted caramel ice cream (£10), a dish that sends excitement bubbling across the tables when it arrives looking like a sweet masterpiece.

“Did you consider the cheeseboard?” I ask.

“I would have cheese CAKE,” says Zakariya.

Dang adds: “I don’t like the smell of cheese.”

Year 7 pupils Jack Browse Silvestro and Shea Stevenson at Piccolino's restaurant
 

Restaurant manager Chris McCaughran, who deservedly wins tonight’s award of “friendliest waiter”, says: “Being a Michelin-star restaurant, 90 per cent of our customers have an expectation when they walk through the door.

“Whereas, from the moment the children arrived you could see on their faces they had no idea what was going to happen.

“I heard one of them saying they think the restaurant’s a bit posh. But I can’t believe they ordered what they did!

“They were ordering lobster and quail. I’ve had adults come here asking if they can just have ice cream for dessert, whereas the children were trying out souffles.

“They took risks, they asked questions and they got involved.”

Mammalian Diving Reflex managing director Jenna Winter says: “It’s a good opportunity for the kids to strike up conversations and talk to adults they don’t already know.

“But it’s also great for adults who dismiss kids’ ideas or don’t take them seriously.

“We call it ‘social acupuncture’, poking and prodding at social norms.”

It demolishes the barriers between restaurants and children and between children and adults, and generates a swell of generosity, in the service from the restaurant and the tolerance of everyone involved.

In a society where hoodie-clad “yoofs” are public enemy number one and any adult wanting to hang out with a child they’re not related to is treated with suspicion, this feels like a necessary and fun way to redress the balance.

Before boarding the bus, the boys take their pencils to a questionnaire, rating the restaurant’s decoration, staff, service and food.

Mulling over the food, with options ranging from “The best I’ve ever had” to “The food made me vomit and fart”, Zakariya muses: “Well, I can’t say it was the best I’ve ever had.

“It was just really, really good.”

 

WHO WON WHAT?

Best pizza maker: Piccolino

Friendliest waiter: Simpsons

Best smelling restaurant: Manzil’s

Weirdest food name: The Karczma

Cheesiest cheese: Bodega

And the Best of the Best award went to Manzil’s.