Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the nature of the Heaps' writing for Downtown Boulder.
For diners with kids, there are always the usual go-to restaurants. But why not try something a little more adventurous? Think outside the kids' menu. From casually eclectic to fine dining options, Kids' Kritics authors Maryn and Colter Heap can point you in the right direction.
Twins Maryn and Colter are not your typical food critics. For one thing, they are 13. They have disarmingly charming smiles and easygoing modesty. But along with their winsome ways, they each also possess sharp powers of scrutiny, observation skills and intent focus. They further have a unique depth of experience when it comes to culinary exposure. In fact, one might even say they've been cultivating broad, refined palates since before birth.
Maryn and Colter are daughter and son of chef Bradford Heap and his wife, designer Carole Vilate, the pair of restaurateurs behind local culinary establishments Colterra, SALT, and Wild Standard. "We've been pretty spoiled with early exposure to a variety of amazing foods and the whole journey of restaurant life," Colter says. "We always heard our dad talking with chefs about different food options, and with farmers at markets."
When the twins' homeschool teacher, Linda Schwartz, suggested last January that they put together a blog for a writing project, critiquing restaurants from a youthful perspective seemed a natural fit. From the start, Maryn and Colter made it their site mission to encourage families to veer off the kids' menu when dining out. "We all know kids' menu options aren't typically the best or the healthiest," Colter says.
Despite their longtime experience with elegant, interesting foods, the twins can relate to kids' menu appeal. "When I was little, I would only eat kids-menu style food," says vegetarian Maryn. "I was super picky. Quesadillas and grilled cheese — that's all I ate. But as I got older I started to learn more and more about how great it is to try new things. With our blog, we want to open up exciting worlds of food to all kids."
Under Schwartz's guidance, Maryn and Colter developed a set of guidelines for themselves, as well as criteria for evaluating restaurants. The one common denominator tying together their reviewed and prospective restaurants: no kids' menu or obviously easy "kids foods." The duo particularly enjoys visiting ethnically diverse restaurants and other eateries that families with kids might dismiss as off limits.
Maryn and Colter created a seven-page spreadsheet to track their experiences, assessing each establishment for qualities such as location, ambience, service, menu and pricing. The goal was to set standards that would allow the pair to evaluate each restaurant equally and objectively, like a science experiment, the pair explained. Once the Kids' Kritics began getting out into restaurants and posting reviews, what started out as a writing assignment quickly became something much more personal. Over the months, it has steadily evolved to become a part of a shared identity. The project is one they are each passionate about, and willing to go the extra mile for.
Restaurants are reviewed monthly. They've reviewed eight so far, including Blackbelly, Chautauqua Dining Hall, and T/ACO. The twins spend on average one to three hours at each restaurant, and reviews are only posted when there are genuinely favorable things to say. "Our goal is opening kids' eyes to what's outside the kids' menu, and encouraging them to be more daring, try new things," says Colter. Maryn adds, "We do the dirty work for kids who are maybe a little uncertain about trying things outside of the regular pizzeria or burger joint. We're all about enjoying the positive, not looking for the negative."
Followers in the thousands
When Kids' Kritics was initially launched, Maryn and Colter anticipated about 25 followers, comprised of family members. Their predictions proved wrong. They shared their site link in SALT's newsletter, and after the second blog post was published they noticed a significant jump in readership. By the fourth post, the number reached about 1,000. Today, the site enjoys roughly 2,600 followers and counting. Downtown Boulder has invited the pair to write a "My Boulder Itinerary" for its Love the Local spotlights at LoveTheLocal.com.
Alongside the steady and stupendous growth of the Kids' Kritics site, critics Maryn and Colter have also grown and flourished. "Their writing skills have just skyrocketed," says teacher Schwartz. "Each has developed such an individual, clear sense of voice. Writing for thousands of readers is so much more relevant than writing for a letter grade from me."
In addition to progressing as writers, Maryn and Colter have developed knowledge of website development, organizational skills and diplomacy. They have cultivated respect for each other's individual, differing perspectives, and found ways to best work as a team. Most of all, they themselves have become even more adventurous eaters.
"It's funny to think how picky I once was," says Maryn. "Trying new foods is really exciting. I appreciate that even more since we started this project. You've got to find things you really love, and I've found so many things. I love cauliflower tacos. We first tried that when we went to Leaf, and I brought two orders home. And the Brussels sprouts at Chautauqua — they are amazing."
Colter was never a finicky eater. "I pretty much ate whatever was put in front of me," he says. Nevertheless, the practice of reviewing restaurants with the Kids' Kritics mission in mind has led him to branch out beyond his expectations.
"It's definitely a different way of looking at food," he says. "I'm more open-minded now. I even ate oysters. From the start I said specifically, 'We're not eating oysters.' I mean, we're 13." It wasn't long, however, before Colter found himself stepping up to the challenge, though not necessarily one that bears repeating anytime soon.
"For this blog we have to try really weird things sometimes," Maryn says. "But usually they're better than expected. Mostly, they're really, really good. And the trying part is really, really fun."
Officially, the Kids' Kritics project will be completed by the end of this school year. But Colter and Maryn don't intend to stop reviewing and writing. Does "professional food critic" fit into their visions for the future? Maybe. "Being a food critic as a career would be lots of fun, and interesting," says Colter. "But I've always been interested in animals, too. I may decide to become a veterinarian."
"I love food and baking," says Maryn. "I'm not sure what I want to be yet, but I know something with food would be fun."
Regardless of what the future holds, without doubt Maryn and Colter Heap will each continue to explore bold, daring, adventurous paths. For a holiday special edition, Kids' Kritics will be reviewing Frasca Food and Wine. Follow their ongoing tasting adventures at kidskritics.weebly.com. Contact the daring duo through the blog or at firstname.lastname@example.org. They read and respond to every message with relish.