The River Café: The Best Restaurant on the Thames

IMG_2141Being back in London for a few weeks after almost a full year in the States, I decided I needed to try and catch up on all of the restaurants I’ve been missing out on. My go-to human dining guide in Los Angeles recommended I go to The River Café the last time I was in London. Now, a year later, when my mother offered to take me for lunch, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to finally see why he had recommended this restaurant over the million others London has to offer.

Discreetly located in an old Hammersmith warehouse on a narrow street that runs parallel to the Thames, The River Café is tucked away as if intentionally impossible to find. In fact, we drove past it twice and finally had to ask for directions. My mother had been before but so long ago she couldn’t even remember how to find it, nevermind recognize it once we got inside! Being the darling daughter that I am, I put it down to senility – until I read that the restaurant had burned down a couple of years ago.


If the wood fire oven were slightly larger, it would conceal the whole clock projected behind it

If the wood fire oven were slightly larger, it would conceal the whole clock projected behind it

The co-proprietor Ruth Rogers is conveniently the wife of London’s most famous architect, Richard Rogers. And yes, he performed his husbandly duty and designed the £2 million refit – although I think he should have saved his energy. The 22-year-old establishment looks more like a canteen than a classic mainstay. Its bar superfluously stretches from one end of the already-long room to the other, high ceilings prevent you from hearing anything in the consistently overbooked dining room, and a large projected clock is hidden on the far back wall, but is not concealed enough to disguise how ridiculous it looks. Despite all our aesthetic complaints, after a beguiling smile from our waiter and a delicious white peach bellini – generously served in an elegant highball glass rather than the usual stingy champagne flute – my mother quickly forgot about the noise and focused on fulfilling her mission to find white peaches this late in the season.

Ever since we went to Harry’s Bar in Venice (where bellinis were apparently invented), it’s become a ritual for me to make my mother her favourite cocktail every time I come to visit. However, the recipe will only work with white peaches or nectarines, which in London in September are nowhere to be seen. Having been obsessed with finding the elusive vital ingredient ever since I got to London 3 weeks ago, when my mother spotted white peaches on the menu at The River Café, I noticed her sudden rush of elation as she sent our waiter on a quest to find out where they could possibly have come from. 

IMG_2143Continuing our detective work, I clocked a plate of wild mushroom pasta arriving in front of the woman next to my mother and we both immediately decided to follow suite. Mysteriously, it wasn’t on our menus. After a lot of confusion our waiter realized that it was because we had only been given the set lunch menu: an easy mistake in my eyes, an intentional con in my mother’s. In any case, we got our Papadelle with Scottish girolles. Thank God. I later looked more closely at the menu and discovered that the cheapest “Secondi” plate would have set us back £29 and most probably have ruined my appetite – having been the one to insist we go there. We also ordered a green side salad with tomatoes lightly drizzled with olive oil and fresh lemon juice.  This seemingly innocuous  dish turned out to be a small revelation as, for once, the tomatoes actually tasted like a tomato should.

The wide, flat, Papadelle pasta was simple but delicious. It tasted like it had been made fresh on the premises – which I assume it had – and the texture was perfect. It had been subtly immersed with thyme, parmesan, and fresh chopped chili the latter of which I had asked for. Although I think it could have been a bit more flagrant, I notoriously always try to add more flavours when I should know better, and the wild mushrooms were perfect just the way they were. In fact so much so, we ended up buying a bag of them to take home at Morton and Bennett (the restaurant’s local deli in Turnam Green).

Ruthie Rogers and Rose Gray’s Italian recipes are famous for their use of seasonal ingredients (they change the menu daily) and exquisite simplicity (using Tuscan peasant dishes for inspiration). And they are clearly doing something right as the establishment’s third decade of regulars are consistently willing to pay eye-watering prices, they’ve just published an 11th cook book, and proteges like Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and Sam Clarke have adapted their style thus continuing their legacy.

Fig Dessert, after we'd eaten some and neatly redesigned the plate for the photo

Fig Dessert, after we'd eaten some and neatly redesigned the plate for the photo

After our meal and another glass of Prosecco, I had a cappuccino to wake me out of my coma. They only have whole milk, a cunning tactic as I find it is guaranteed to make coffee taste a whole lot better. My mother and I then decided to share a dessert. To my delight, the waiter recommended the baked figs, which have recently become a bit of an obsession of mine, to the point my boyfriend has “endearingly” nicknamed me Fig Face. About 10 of them arrived, oozing light, juicy syrup, sprinkled with almonds, and a blob of thick cream on the side. Although I thought there was no way we would be able to, we licked the plate clean.

To match the food, the service was impeccable. In my favorite restaurant critic A.A. Gill’s words:

“The River Cafe has the most pulchritudinous and elegantly friendly waiters in London. It’s not unusual for middle-aged customers of either sex to fancy the staff of either sex; but the River Café is the only place where every time I come here, I’m convinced that all the staff really fancy me.”

Girolles, Eirschwamm or Chanterelles from Morton and Bennett

Girolles, Eierschwamm or chanterelles from Morton and Bennett


Despite barking out endless requests at him, our waiter never ceased to charm us with his patience and huge flirtatious smile. When my mother quizzed him about the “proper” name for girolles, he couldn’t answer her question but endearingly informed us what he knew of their origins and demonstrated what they look like fresh using his hands for effect. Most importantly (for my mother anyway) our waiter even tried to end our impossible mission to find white peaches – he sent over their manager who consulted with the chef and informed us they had been shipped over especially from Italy. Despite the bad news, he drew us a map with two alternative places we could try, which is how we came to find the deli with the girolles instead. The charm even extended to the owner of Morton and Bennett, who guessed my mother was Austrian and told us he had just got back from his daughter’s wedding there. He was able to inform us that girolles are called Eierschwamm in German and also knew the word my mother had been pressing our waiter for: chanterelles.



Being the darling daughter I am, the next day I went to Portobello Market and found the last piece of the puzzle: white nectarines. Victory was mine and my mother got her favourite bellini.


A.A. Gill’s review of the River Café:

The River Café Website:

Richard Rogers website:


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