If you talk about game changing Italian food and drink in London then you should really be talking about three things: 3am espressos at Bar Italia, garlic butter dough balls at Pizza Express, and the River Café.
This is, literally, the mother of Italian restaurants in London. Before the River Café plopped itself down in Hammersmith in 1987, the UK thought antipasti was a movement against pastries, and that anything rocket related was NASA’s business. The River Café changed that by serving the kind of Italian food we take for granted these days. Fresh tagliatelle. Radicchio salads. Pomodoro sauce. You name it, they probably did it here first. But the most important thing of all? They’re still doing it very well.
Restaurants with this kind of reputation often have the same associations: high price, formal atmosphere, and staff who appear to have been born with the sole purpose of keeping you overly hydrated. The River Café is only the first of these. What’s another mortgage anyway? This isn’t one of those restaurants that makes you feel like you’ve arrived for a job interview as soon as you enter. It’s big, bright, and, most importantly, buzzing. This is a restaurant full of people who are happily eating £23 plates of mozzarella. Firstly because it tastes good, and secondly because the canteen-ish atmosphere makes it feel like a reunion with friends you’ve never met. It’s a place to spend proper time and proper money in.
There’s something timeless feeling about this restaurant. When are people not going to want to eat veal taglierini and bit of lip-smacking lemon tart? Or a crispy taleggio and potato pizzetta, followed by a chargrilled bit of lamb with borlotti beans? Especially with the Thames on their left, and that bloke off that series to their right. It’s neither cool nor uncool. It exists partially hidden (on the riverside) and in its own price bracket (up in the sky), both of which have allowed it carry on doing what it’s always done.
But it’s the way in which things are done at the River Cafe that stands out most of all. Yes the food here is priced high, and not everything is great. You might find yourself looking at a middling plate of monkfish and seeing an unpaid £40 phone bill. But god is this place classy. Sizeable charitable donation from ‘Anonymous’ classy. There’s no pushing here. No judgement. Mention to your server that you’ll be sharing a £40 secondi, and your wood pigeon will wordlessly arrive on two separate plates. This food isn’t advertised for sharing, but of course it can be. Which is ironic considering a lot of London’s ‘sharing plates’ restaurants seem to be the opposite. What we’re saying is, actually, you can come here and share a pizzetta, have a pasta each, then split a whole Dover sole - all for around £50 quid a head. We’ve done it and felt comfortable, in every sense of the word.
Ultimately, The River Cafe is what lots of people look for in a special occasion restaurant. Somewhere with both reputation, food, and atmosphere to match. Plus that gut-wrenching feeling when the bill arrives. That combination may not be game changing, but it’s a lot harder to find than you think.
Pizzetta With Taleggio, Rosemary And Potato
A pizzetta is like a mini pizza but not of the mini-pizzas-after-a-laser-quest-birthday-party-variety. This one is cheesy with some crispy bits of potato. It is delicious.
Culatello Di Zibello With Radicchio, Walnuts, Balsamic
Yes, this is a plate of ham, leaves, and nuts. It’s a squirrel’s feast. But it’s the tastiest squirrel’s feast we’ve ever had.
Panzotti Di Zucca
Things bathing in butter and cheese tend to make our heart beat a lot faster, but we won’t bring our personal lives into this. All you need to know is that this pumpkin-filled pasta is a very good order.
Taglierini is a type of ribbon pasta. What do you do with ribbons? You tie them. Are we saying we want to be tied up in this pasta? Yes.
Risotto Ai Frutti Di Mare
Langoustines, red mullet, scallops, crab, and a bit of champagne for good measure. It tastes like being on a yacht. It is yacht life. N.B. We have never been on a yacht.
Whole Pigeon, Pancetta, Liver Crostino, Roast Potatoes
Small bird, big price. Don’t be put off by paying £40 for this though. As, firstly, you can always split it, and, secondly, it tastes fantastic.
Whole Dover Sole With Capers And Artichokes
Dover sole is a classic and this one is cooked perfectly. Even better is that it’s a relative bargain at £40, especially when you can easily share it between two or three of you.
Leg Of Lamb, Horseradish, Trevise Hearts, Borlotti Beans
A lot of this plate is a bit charred and caramelised, and it’s generally quite lovely.
You know that tk-tk-tk noise you make with your tongue against the top of your mouth? That’s what this tart makes you do, in a very good way.
This is a River Cafe classic. It’s a cake that turns into a mousse as you eat it, and it’s rich and delicious.