A little more than 30 years ago, a simple canteen opened in Hammersmith providing Italian-inspired lunches for an architectural practice in an old converted warehouse on the banks of the Thames. Within a few years, the canteen expanded and it is now arguably London’s most successful and durable restaurant – the River Café. It has stuck to its Mediterranean origins and still serves some of the finest Italian cuisine north of the Alps. What is more extraordinary is that there is no practical public transport to get there, yet day in and day out, it serves upwards of 100 covers for lunch and dinner at prices which can comfortably nudge £200 for two. Not that the clientele are especially local – they range from any number of people who bugger around in the arts, to rock stars and even Oprah Winfrey or members of the Hollywood elite who might be temporarily working in Britain. Co-founder Ruthie Rogers is a classic Woodstock generation veteran with an enduring loyalty to those values. Which might explain why she was rather shaken once when she discovered that a courtly old gentleman who shook her hand and praised her cuisine was actually General Pinochet. Like I said, it appeals to all types.
So given this formidable record of success and a sprinkling of stardust, is there room for a rival establishment slightly upriver in the shadow of Hammersmith Bridge? Well, Sam Harrison thinks so, and he is the brains behind Sam’s Riverside, which opened its stylish door earlier this month within the newly developed Riverside Studios.
There is no disputing the superiority of the vista from Sam’s, which only has a public footpath between its large windows and the turbid waters of the Thames. The prices too, are roughly half of Ruthie’s, though the last thing that River Café devotees look at is the bill. But is it attempting to take on such an icon? Not really – it is aiming more at a casual West London audience and I suspect they will flock here. For a start, Sam Harrison really is a local, having run two successful places in Chiswick and Balham. It was crowd-funded directly from his previous client base, which is a useful way to get the punters in. The food too, doesn’t have an especial bias towards Italy. Rather, it is what could be termed Contemporary Anglo-Euro, which is no surprise given that Rowley Leigh, of Kensington Place and Le Café Anglais fame, is the culinary director. The head chef is Harvey Trollope, who has solid credentials from having recently worked at the London Ritz and before that at Wheeler’s.
The décor is reminiscent of a Post Modern Ocean Liner with concrete columns and large flat circular lights, which could be mistaken for H.G. Wells era UFOs. Next to the superb vista of the Thames, there is a Crittall Wall, which divides the private dining area from the main restaurant. There is space for around 100 covers including a large square shaped bar and in the more clement months, there is outdoor dining. Sam Harrison may be an Etonian but there are no superficial signs of it – he is a hard grafter with lots of front of house experience.
I have been a couple of times, including during the prelaunch and it has the feel you get when a place is going to take off.