The River Café is an eatery which has been on my dining wish list since arriving in the UK over three years ago. Established in 1987, it has become one of the most enduring and iconic restaurants on the London dining scene, surviving two major economic recessions, a devastating fire, and more recently, the death of one of it’s co-founders Rose Gray. It gained a prestigious Michelin Star a year after opening, which it has retained ever since.
Initially opened as a staff canteen, the restaurant rose quickly from its humble beginnings and soon gained popularity among London’s movers and shakers. The River Café has numerous claims to fame. It is widely credited as enlightening the British dining public to the fact that there is more to Italian cuisine than spaghetti bolognese and tiramisu. It is also renowned for revolutionising restaurant design - it was one of the first restaurants to have the now familiar open-plan kitchen. But perhaps the most notable of all, The River Café is responsible for introducing the world to Jamie Oliver.
Barely out of his teens, Jamie trained at the River Café for three years, having moved there from Antonio Carluccio’s Neal Street restaurant. During the recording of a documentary about the Café, Jamie was asked to film a five minute segment. A sharp-eyed producer noticed the appeal of the cheeky chappie, and not long afterwards he was offered his own TV show. The Naked Chef was born!
Being a massive fan of the inimitable Mr. Oliver, and an even bigger fan of Italian food, I certainly didn’t argue when my husband suggested the River Café as a birthday treat! Bearing in mind the popularity of the restaurant (it has become a place of pilgrimage for many J.O. devotees like myself), we booked our table a month in advance. We were unperturbed when we were politely informed that that first evening sitting was from 7pm to 9pm - this is a common time restriction in popular, high turnover restaurants. But boy, were we kept to the clock! Arriving at 7pm on the dot, we were ushered to our seats so quickly that I barely had time to take in the surroundings. Being one of the first parties to arrive, the wait staff descended upon us with breathtaking swiftness. After perusing the menu for barely a minute, our waitress began pestering us for our order. We requested more time to consider the menu. The wine list, being entirely in Italian, was confusing, and so Hubby asked for the sommelier for some much-needed advice. Before the sommelier arrived, we were again asked for our food order, at which point we got a bit huffy, declaring that we would like to order the wine before food.
Scarcely five minutes after our arrival, we ordered our food and wine and I excused myself to visit the ladies room. Upon returning to the table I was astonished to discover my entrée sitting waiting for me, going cold. After gulping down our first course, our second course was served with the same lightening speed, and by 7.30pm we were ready for dessert! By this stage the restaurant had filled to capacity - which was no mean feat considering the number of tiny tables crammed like sardines into every available space on the dining room floor. The place was packed to the rafters, a hive of activity! Wait staff jostled with customers trying to manoeuvre in the tiny spaces between tables, our chairs were being constantly bumped by other diners, the cacophony of noise was deafening.
Stubbornly determined to remain at our table until the 9pm curfew, I lingered over my dessert for an hour, which gave me time to absorb the setting. If I am honest, I didn’t find the décor aesthetically pleasing. After being almost destroyed by fire in 2008, the restaurant was completely refurbished, and I suspect the design has lost some of its charm. What was a state-of-the art lay-out in 1987 now feels like a school cafeteria. Paper coverings over the tablecloths were quite off-putting. One would at least expect linen table coverings from a Michelin-starred restaurant! The bathrooms are painted in headache-inducing neon colours. And let’s not forget the ridiculously huge projection clock which dominates the back wall of the restaurant – a constant reminder of our two-hour time limit, just in case we forget ourselves and start to relax over dinner!
The food was delicious, but not without its faults. The crab linguine was overpowered by too much fennel; the chilli-and-garlic squid was so hot it numbed the roof of my mouth. Desserts of gelati and the signature chocolate ‘Nemesis’ cake were sublime, although our after-dinner cappuccinos were almost cold! Prices were exorbitant. A small plate of pasta cost almost £20, while my husband’s medium-rare steak set us back £35. The owners certainly know how to squeeze customers for every last penny!
On the whole, I expected much more from this iconic restaurant. The food was good, but so it should be for £100-a-head. There is a disconcerting sensation that one is on a conveyor belt, being hurried in and out as quickly as possible to maximise turnover – the “churn ‘em and burn ‘em” system is barely disguised. The River Café is not for the faint-hearted. However, if you are brave enough to try this restaurant, don’t risk a trip to the loo – you may very well miss a course!!