With its iconic reputation, the River Café seemed like an apt spot for a pre-baby luncheon for my sister. Although we were celebrating new arrivals, the River Café has been a long-standing pillar of London’s high-end restaurant scene. Established in 1987, it’s enjoyed an enduring success, serving Italian fare made from the finest produce and wines to match. Ruth Rogers, the sole remaining founder since the death of her partner Rose Gray in 2010, is still behind the pass, alongside the very knowledgeable and friendly staff.
Aside from the food, on which more on later, the highlight of the lunch for me was the design of the restaurant – Richard Rogers, after all, is behind this. Seeing the open kitchen and the stone-oven in action envelops you in all the fun of the fare. The female head chef was particularly inspiring: focused, dedicated to her craft and radiating a natural kitchen flare, she seemed totally ebullient and passionate about her food. In keeping with the baby-shower spirit of the lunch, typically on a London July afternoon it was drizzling and so we didn’t opt for one of the garden tables in the courtyard, but these would be perfect for a summer afternoon proper.
The menu itself continues the well-curated design of the space: printed on a single sheet of A4 in an attractive swirly typeface, it’s headed not just with the day’s date but also whether it is lunch or dinner. It all feels very bespoke – as though the meal has been designed just for you.
For starters, we shared the Pizzetta (£20), alongside two plates of antipasti: Mozzarella di Bufala (£20) with frigitelli pepper, yellow tomatoes and chopped olives, and another plate showcasing bought-in deli ingredients (olive tapenade, borlotti beans, rainbow chard, and light courgettes) and the sweetest tomatoes I’ve tasted this season. I was so amazed by these tomatoes that I asked the chef where they’d be sourced and, it turns out, they’re from Natoora, imported direct from Milan. The chefs even gave me one to take home! Both plates simmered with an earthy, seasonal freshness.
And let’s not forget the pizzetta. This was quality – topped with dreamy tallegio, capers, and fresh and wild oregano, each cheesy mouthful was moreish.
For mains, the family enjoyed bowls of the various vegetarian pastas: Ravioli (£21) with fresh buffalo ricotta, River Café garden herbs, Capezzana olive oil and parmesan; Farfalle with slow cooked tomatoes; and the star of the show, Farfalle in a buttery, lemon, crème fraiche sauce. Each pasta, especially the latter, was testament to the success of pasta fresca: a simple sauce, fresh herbs and minimal fuss.
I went for a salad not featured on the a la carte menu but composed of the finely displayed produce on the pass: Swiss chard, pale aubergine and potatoes, broad beans and, of course, more tomatoes. I’d quite happily eat plates like this for every meal: it’s not overly fussy, but just quality produce that’s simply prepared allowing the natural flavours sing through.
For afters, we shared a selection of dolci (each £10): the Chocolate Nemesis; Almond Tart with Strawberries; River Café summer pudding with Valpolicella; and scoops of gelato, of course – caramel, roasted almond and stracciatella. The rich chocolate cake had the most moussey, sexy texture – it must have been made with about 10 egg whites! The highlight for the family was the almond tart – finely ground almonds are, after all, a staple of Italian deserts.
This lunch at the River Café really reminded me of how relaxing and luxurious lunch can be – especially when enjoyed with family. The cheerful disposition of the atmosphere is so contagious you almost don’t notice the retina-melting price of the food! £20 quid for a (generous) bowl of pasta?! It’s worth it though, once in a while, especially when you leave holding a treasure of a tomato to take with.
River Café, Thames Wharf, Rainville Rd, London W6 9HA