Jilly Cooper’s fictional hero Rupert Campbell-Black has ‘never been to Hammersmith’. I have but I wish I hadn’t. I love the Westway because it takes you away from Hammersmith. Even so, it possesses the River Café — it is not a café — a famous and influential Italian restaurant. It was ten when Tony Blair came to power, but inside it is as if he were still here, playing air guitar while chatting about PPP.
It is inaccessible, taunting its clientele to go to Hammersmith. It feels as if it takes more than an hour to get to the River Café from anywhere that is not Hammersmith. How do they get there — by helicopter? There is a heliport at Battersea but what then? The 295 bus, apparently, and then a short walk. Or you could go on the way to Heathrow airport, as recommended, in all seriousness, by a guidebook. You wouldn’t know you weren’t in an airline lounge. Or you could go by boat, if you are Cardinal Wolsey.
The River Café was founded by Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray. Ruth Rogers is married to Richard Rogers, the architect responsible for the Millennium Dome and, therefore, among other things, the creator of the Queen’s angriest ever public facial expression. To celebrate the River Café’s 30th birthday last year, Lady Rogers gave an interview in which she said: ‘I don’t get angry with people who don’t know what asparagus is’. Which I think means she does. To be rich and have a social conscience is a terrible fate. The lefties who loved her have gone. Her values dangle on a string.
Lord Rogers built this house. He took an oil storage facility called Duckhams — tall and brown, in brick — and made a ‘canteen’ for the architects in his nearby practice. It is tall and light, with huge windows and blue windowsills. The river here is interesting to look at: late middle–aged, brown and wide, with nothing to enchant it. Henley is behind us and the Tower is yet to come. It looks bored. It knows it is in Hammersmith.
Inside, it is calm, clean and soothing and it doesn’t feel like an Italian restaurant at all. How could it when there is no heat, and no drama? It feels like an architectural practice that serves poised and expensive food. There is a large clock on the wall, for control of time, and a long, clean open kitchen.
Here, in the mad words of another guidebook, ‘knighted creatives’ dine. But not by themselves; there aren’t enough of them. That gave me hopes of Ian McKellen, but he isn’t here. I thought I saw a famous footballer — dining with his publisher? — but I can’t name him. If it looks and feels familiar, it is; everyone has copied the River Café. Thus it is judged a success. The baskets of carrots clinging to mud in Shoreditch; the heartless renovation of industrial buildings; Google HQ; Heathrow Terminal 5; CBeebies — they are all, oblivious or not, descendants of the River Café. The food, too, is influential; there were never so many oversized pepper pots in suburban Italian restaurants after 1987. It is as if they were taken in the night. As restaurants go, it is important, and it knows it. You could stir the hubris with a stick.
So we eat calm, controlled Italian food — excellent tagliatelle al ragù (with rabbit, veal and pancetta) and nothing else. I’d rather go to Italy, which is slightly more accessible than Hammersmith.
I think again of Jilly Cooper. She is a woman moved to create fairy-lands, and Ruth Rogers does the same. But it’s a tight, cracked fairyland selling £19 plates of pasta, and in Hammersmith. Still, the river washes on.
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