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Head of the river

Published 3 September 1995
Style Magazine
112th article

Service with a smile: Ruth Mayer, left, one of the River Cafe managers, with her staff (Arnold Crust)

From time to time, not too often, thank goodness, friends phone and say "Can you get me into this (or that) restaurant, they're full." So far I am batting 100% in success. But when a long-time employee's mother-in-law recently came from Los Angeles and wanted to relive memories at the River Cafe and had been told there was no table, I thought "Oh!"

I'd only been to the River Cafe once and hated it. A lot of overhyped twaddle set in an industrial area that should be reserved for works outings and demolition crews. The food was equally dreary. That was some years ago, so maybe they'd forgotten my pained expression and my non-return. I phoned and spoke to the boss, a Mr Richard Leslie. Of course there'd be a table for my friends! What a sensible man, I thought. He deserves promotion. I must go along and see him.

So I rang some weeks later and asked for Mr Leslie, but he'd left! A Mr Giles Boden was the new chap in charge. "He's in a staff meeting," said the lady on the phone. "Well, when he's finished perhaps he could be so kind as to call me back," I said somewhat icily. Although why Mr Boden should interrupt a staff meeting to speak to me I agree is not self-evident.

Anyway, Mr B called and I booked for that very night. The River Cafe was once ever-so-chic, but as new Italian places have sprung up like truffles, it's not so talked about now. I parked carefully outside a lovely Edwardian terraced house and a nice blonde lady inside waved at me through the window and smiled. Then we walked into the ghastly compound that is the River Cafe. A small area was jam-packed with cars, but a polite car-chap said: "Can you give me your keys, Mr Winner, we'd like to bring your Bentley in here, the neighbours don't like us." "That lady liked me," I said, "she smiled and waved." "Yes, she's the only one," responded the doorman. "Well. since I've parked in allied territory, I'll stay there," I remarked as I wafted toward the restaurant.

Mr Boden had suggested an outside table would be best. Having done that, he then sensibly took the night off. A pleasant, dark-haired lady showed me the chosen spot on a paved area overlooking a modest lawn. "It's depressing," I said. "Why?" she asked. "Because there's that very large group next to it," I replied. I wandered into the restaurant itself to look for something more suitable. I noticed it had considerably brightened up. A bar now extended down the longest end of the room and behind it people were bustling. It's sort of high-tech cheerful, if those two words can possibly cohabit. The waitresses wore long, aprons, but as they walked by. their backs revealed the tiniest of miniskirts. They were very pretty. Even the diners looked all right. I picked a table that was just good enough. A view of the gardens, but, as Vanessa pointed out, they should plant some bushes to hide the car area. I suggest they start now.

The menu was in squiggle script I could hardly read. The bread was appalling. The olive oil tasted like varnish. The salt and pepper were in little open bowls, inviting people to take them with their fingers. And who knows where the fingers might have been! This will be a total nightmare. I said to myself, trying to figure out which of the passing mini-skirted waitresses had the longest legs. Then things improved dramatically. My first course of rotolo, fresh pasta roll of spinach, marjoram, chanterelles and ricotta, was very, and I mean very good. The calves’ liver with pancetta (I thought it was crisp bacon), red chicory, mint and casteluccio lentils was equally fine.

The dessert was totally historic. It was almond and plum tart, but light, fantastic pastry, good filling. "Who made that?" I asked. pointing to my empty plate. The dark-haired lady-boss paled. "Why?" she said nervously. "Is the person here?" I continued. "With her hair scraped back, at the bar," she pointed. I got up. A frisson of tension was evident throughout the room. I walked over to the counter. "Did you do the almond and plum tart?" I asked a lady with her hair in a red carnation clip. "Yes," she muttered, inwardly seeking somewhere to hide. "Totally brilliant," I said, smiling and shaking her hand. "Congratulations." You could feel the sigh of relief echoing from the strange waving-metal ceiling to the straw chairs.

I don't know why people think I always knock things. I am kindness itself. Occasionally.


Indiana Jones rides to the rescue of the Temple of Doom! Mr Winner's review of the Temple restaurant at Bishopstrow House (Style, August 20) came at a very inopportune time for both the hotel and ourselves the new owners of the hotel. Our purchase was agreed one week prior to his visit, and we take possession on September 8. Imagine our horror at reading Mr Winner's salty comments about our proud prospective purchase. I wish you could have known how magnificently the staff has laboured under the demoralising "for sale" sign placed over the hotel by the absentee owners. From September 8 we will refurbish, reinvigorate and rekindle the glory of Bishopstrow House, which will join the Feathers hotel in Woodstock and Morton's club in Berkeley Square as properties of ours that strive for, and hopefully achieve, excellence in their respective fields. We challenge Mr Winner to land his helicopter on our landing grid (ref: 10 metre 38978/14426!) in six months' time, when he will be greeted by a totally different experience.
Howard D Malin, Director, The Feathers hotel, Woodstock

My wife and I always read Michael Winner's column and mostly agree with his opinions, but his column of August 20 clearly showed that he has not been to the Nare hotel, Veryan, Cornwall. This is an obvious exception to his remarks concerning "my only excellent food in the West Country". We have stayed there twice and, on both occasions, the weather has lurched from passable to foul. The restaurant and food were the highlight of the stay. The quality and presentation was excellent. It is prepared and presented by a friendly and trained staff, headed by an exceptionally good maitre d'.
Mr and Mrs PF Easton, Wokingham, Berks