Early one evening, as I entered the sun-drenched terrace of The River Café in west London the other week, I was confronted with a scene now commonplace in the world’s top restaurants.
A young couple were sitting there, sipping their champagne and having fun. All this suddenly stopped as their waiter arrived with two plates of colourful food and their mood turned serious. Then, having carefully perused their orders, they reached for their cameras and started snapping away.
As I looked around, however, what struck me was just how different The River Café, which has just celebrated its 25th birthday, is from every other restaurant.
Ruth Rogers, the sole remaining founder since the death of her partner, Rose Gray, in 2010, is still behind the pass. Now in her mid-sixties, Rogers remains passionate about her food and determined to ensure that the 185 customers booked in that evening have the best possible time.
The menu looks just as it has always done: printed on a single sheet of A4 and headed not just with the day’s date, but also whether it is lunch or dinner. Down the left-hand side are the dishes in Italian, next to the English translation, and dotted throughout are ones that the restaurant has made its own: chargrilled squid with red chilli and rocket; crostini topped with crab, girolle mushrooms, tomatoes and summer squash; at this time of year, a whole grouse roasted in the wood-fired oven; and chocolate nemesis.
Two factors in why this restaurant has changed so little are that, despite numerous blandishments over the years from hoteliers and developers, the original partners have never moved, either physically or philosophically. It remains their only restaurant and is still true to the principles laid out in the introduction to its first cookbook in 1995.
In this introduction they declare their shared love of Italian food but also how they were affected by the new restaurants then opening in California, which overlaid European rustic cooking with American simplicity and directness. These influences are still obvious today, as shown not just by the main ingredient in each dish, but also what accompanies it.
The best example of this is the carne cruda di vitello, finely chopped raw veal with a salad of mâche and Parmesan, a dish found in the restaurants of Piedmont, northern Italy. This calls not just for buying the best meat and dicing it precisely, but also for adding the secondary ingredients in exactly the right quantities – and then having the confidence to do no more.
One consequence of this approach, coupled with the march of time, is that the menu prices now no longer seem as high as they once did. The River Café will never be inexpensive because of its ambitions and because its location (in a heavily residential area) means that it must be vacated by 11.20pm, so tables cannot be “turned” to generate volume. But while the pasta dishes at £16-£18 deliver a gross profit many chefs will envy, the main courses at between £35-£40 do not require the expensive side dishes that today inflate so many restaurant bills. With a burnt-caramel ice cream, a panna cotta with grappa and raspberries and a tangy, dry 2000 Etna Rosso from Massimo Calabretta in Sicily, my bill was £175 for two, including service.
That did not include the other aspects of this restaurant that never change. There is the tranquil 10-minute walk along the Thames, having turned off the hectic Fulham Palace Road. And the prospect, before turning into the restaurant, of looking into the windows of the architectural practice Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, of which the restaurant occupies the ground floor.
The combination of the food, the (occasionally, overly) relaxed service and the space means that The River Café also attracts two other distinguishing features of restaurants in Italy: families and children. But the noise of the planes as they fly into nearby Heathrow means that this can only be London. For some, however, even this has its advantages – many visitors ensure that lunch or supper here is the start or end of any trip to the capital.
The River Cafe
Thames Wharf, Rainville Road, London W6
020 7386 4200