How do you judge what makes a restaurant ‘iconic’? Is it in the year it’s been open? Or the amount of times it is written about? For some, perhaps, it’s how often it features in pop culture, or the wider gastronomical rhetoric. If we’re judging a restaurant on its sheer impact on the dining scene in a city, then they don’t come more iconic than The River Cafe.
Opened in 1987 by Ruth Rogers and her late business partner Rose Gray, The River Cafe quickly shaped what it means to dine in London. At the time, cooking was centred on the overthought and overwrought, with seasonality being a predictor of the weather rather than an attitude to cooking. Rogers and Gray shook things up, cooking a hyper-seasonal menu with the kind of food they knew from their time eating in Italy. Out of their cafeteria-style restaurant in Hammersmith, they were launching a quiet food revolution that fundamentally changed how British people eat – like I said, pretty iconic.
And that’s before you even get to the restaurant’s notable alumni. As much as The River Cafe has had a resounding impact on food culture in London, its influence extends beyond simply its ever-expanding riverside locale. Name check any hot new opening in recent years and there’s a high chance the head chef has, at some point in their career, spent a substantial amount of time at The River Cafe. Take, for example, Anna Tobias, the chef-owner of Cafe Deco, or Avinash Shashidhara, head chef at Pahli Hill. There’s Yohei Furuhashi from Toklas, and Pastaio’s Stevie Parle; Sam and Sam Clark worked there before they opened Moro, and even Jamie Oliver has worked there – in fact, it was while working at The River Cafe that he was scouted for his subsequent BBC TV show.
Another way to define an iconic restaurant: one that endures, almost a time capsule, where time is paused as soon as you walk through its doors. The River Cafe remains largely unchanged since its early years – it may have grown a little, repainted the wood fired oven and set up a shop next door, but the bones of the cooking and the intentions behind it remain unchanged. “We have a house style of cooking that hasn’t really changed over the last 35 years,” says Sian Wyn Owen, one of the two executive chefs at The River Cafe. “It’s nice to be part of something that has been slowly growing but set upon these solid foundations,” continues Joseph Trivelli, the restaurant’s other executive chef.
The two of them have worked together for 22 years, and between their combined experience alongside that of the two heads of front of house, Charles and Vashti, there is almost a century of experience at the helm of this restaurant – and that’s before you add owner Ruth Rogers into the equation. It’s the kind of staff retention most places can only dream about – something Wyn Owens chalks up to a “respectful working environment”. Wyn Owens describes a kitchen where staff work reasonable hours and are paid respectful wages, which allows them to avoid burning out and creates an environment that encourages longevity.
We have a house style of cooking that hasn’t really changed over the last 35 years
Trivelli’s take on it is slightly more specific. “I think the longevity of The River Cafe is to do with Sian,” he tells me, as she chuckles somewhat self-consciously in response. But aside from that, he largely echoes Wyn Owens’s sentiment. “I think it’s all the staff retention,” he says. “You know, Sian saying she was nervous about doing this interview at midday because she’s meant to be on the pass in the kitchen. I can’t imagine there are many restaurants this big where you come and eat where the executive chef even got changed in the morning.”
It’s something I see throughout our interview. Wyn Owens pops up to taste a sauce, whips into the kitchen to help finish off a dish, and answers queries from chefs with ease and respect. When our conversation turns to the menu, she talks me through the ingredients and dishes she’s most excited about and when we get to the olive oil she lights up – it’s fresh in this week, grassy, green and distinctly peppery. Before I know it she’s off again, leaping up into the kitchen to serve me up a glug of it with simply grilled bread so I can try it for myself. It was one of those come to jesus dining moments – all I was consuming was charred white bread with olive oil, and yet I was enraptured.
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The restaurant is synonymous with many things – particularly of culinary importance – but visually, at least, there has always been a tendency towards bold colours. Take, for example, the bright blue carpet in the restaurant. Or, perhaps, the boldly painted wood oven that is currently a distinctive fuschia. Just as the restaurant’s cooking has woven its way into the wider London consciousness, the decor has served as the decisive stage for this food to be served. It’s this strong visual identity that has led to the development of The River Cafe’s newest book: The River Cafe Look Book. Co-authored by Rogers, Trivelli and Wyn Owens, the book, while ostensibly for children, explores the strong visual link between food and art, and presents the dishes on the page as art themselves. It uses bold colours and distinctive imagery to entice the younger generation into cooking the recipes that sit within its pages.
It’s a concept that feels almost distinctly linked to The River Cafe as a whole: a restaurant that doesn’t take itself or its food too seriously, but rather encourages the ingredients to do the talking. “We don’t scrimp on any of the produce,” Wyn Owens tells me. “And I think it’s that quality that underpins the success of The River Cafe. You know – it isn’t a cheap restaurant, but what you get is the best of what there is available. We do the menu for lunch and dinner every day, so the menu changes twice a day. So what you’re going to eat for lunch was just cooked at 10 o’clock this morning – nothing was cooked yesterday. If you were having lunch at home today, you wouldn’t have started cooking yesterday. You’d start cooking today, wouldn’t you? And I think that’s one of the things that keeps The River Cafe at the top of its game.”
They say that adaptation is key to survival, but never has this been less true than at The River Cafe. When I ask how the restaurant has changed over the two decades that Wyn Owens and Trivelli have been there, the answer is short and to-the-point: "I don’t think it has."