Luncheon with Niven at the River Cafe


“Derek and I go to lunch at the River Cafe. I have duck, he has the penne. We both drink Champagne. At one point, the deluded bender - high on the festive spirit and a couple of Bellinis - even goes as far as to tell me he knew we’d ‘always had a great respect for each other’’’.


You know how I was banging on about John Niven and his ‘Kill Your Friends’ book? And how, by the end of the book, I started Googling every name and Google mapping every place?

Well, one of those Google mapped places was the River Cafe. Having not been satisfied by all the online pictures and comments; and wanting to somehow squeeze out of it something more, I set myself after P, innocently reading his paper on the sofa.


  • P?

  • Hmm.

  • Have you been to the River Cafe?

  • Yes.

  • And?

  • And, what?

  • Tell me something about it.

  • Nothing to tell, I was there on business.


As you know, P had been in the same sh***y business as Steven Stelfox from the book, and Niven himself.

Yet this is all I get. Which is nothing at all.

So, the River Cafe remains this mysterious place shimmering in the distant, obscure Hammersmith. The same Hammersmith that I’ve always found dark and ugly with its vast motorways and huge hospitals. Not attractive at all. Except now there is something there that sparkles and calls me with a siren voice - The River Cafe.

Low and behold, a month after finishing the book, I find myself accepting not one, but two bookings in the Hammersmith area, where I have been refusing to go for the past three years.

Which means, before I even start asking myself why I am doing this, I see shimmer on my inner vision screen and hear a tiny little voice saying, “I’ll just pass by and have a little look at the River Cafe”.

So, this is the day. I go up and down the Hammersmith area - nothing has changed here. The hospitals are as big and ugly as I remember them, except the staff are even ruder and more bullying than I recall.

While being made to wait in the patients’ queue, despite being a professional coming to work, I marvel at the ‘Zero Violence’ sign that says something like, ‘NHS staff will not tolerate any rude or abusive language or violent attitudes’, and I wonder who might out-trump the gentlemen serving the seven-pregnant-women-strong queue - a master of bad manners and unspeakable attitude.

Yet, I later leave the hospital in an excellent mood - we’ve done a wonderful job, the young psychologist and I. And the NHS had shown, once more, its double face of both heaven and hell.

The afternoon is bright and windy. There’s a spring in my step as I head towards the Thames. Then, here it is - just like in the pictures - the River Cafe.

The little voice that had previously said, “I’ll just pass and have a look” has suddenly grown in stature, and now says (while I open the door):


  • May I have a coffee and a dessert?

  • Our last sitting was at 2.15pm, says the pretty American blonde, but I will call the kitchen to ask if they can make an exception for a dessert.


It turns out they can, despite it being 3.30pm. And, here I am, in the shimmering (and I can assure you, it really was shimmering) River Cafe.

The impression of sitting on the bottom of a swimming pool comes from the bright blue carpet and the play of birch and bamboo leaves in the bright afternoon light.

All the tables are busy. All of them. And, yes, just like in Kill Your Friends, with young people. All under, or just about, 30.

Men and women both, not predominantly men.

They don’t look too business like, or too boho. To my surprise, they look… normal. And not just normal in the sense of not crazy on drugs and rock’n’roll as the protagonists in the book; but also more European and content. Not as sharply dressed and ambitiously looking as the average young Londoner.

Well it seems that, in London, you need at least a couple-of-hundreds’-worth-of-lunch in order to look normal, satisfied and content.

There are young women with no high-heels, no short skirts, no skinny jeans, no highlights or straightened hair.

Where did you last see this? Correct - on the continent. I wonder who these women are… singer-songwriters? Writer-writers? Travellers?

There is just one exception to the abnormally-normal-looking women. Of undefined age, dark lace bodice and… golden belt! She looks like she hasn’t been home since last Friday evening. Her companions look random. A man in his twenties, a man in his thirties, both slightly drunk. A young woman, completely sober and with an executive look, she had been seriously working at this lunch. Yes, they look like The Golden Belt Diva and the boyz from the music business. The younger is Steven, the older Derek and the secretary Nicky.  

In the shimmering light, the voice that used to be mine, orders a Grappa Pino Nero (instead of a coffee) and Panna Cotta. Both are delicious. While I usually have to control my voice not to order a second drink; here I have to watch that it doesn’t order a second dessert. The Panna Cotta is spotted with black vanilla dots, covered with white chocolate fondue and sprinkled with pinkish pomegranate rubies.

At the end of my micro-feast, the River Cafe, which up to this moment was looking like a small brasserie, started looking like a canteen, as the staff started queueing for lunch at the same counter where they had laboured until a minute ago. They then sit to have it at the tables just freed up by diners.

This cheered me a lot. Really, what a magnificent attitude: our staff eats the same food and sits at the same chairs as you do. And this without the usual servitude. No, we won’t hide, we won’t wait until you leave!

Bravo! The River Cafe also imposes a fixed tax of £1 on every bill. For charity. Chapeau!


River Cafe, February 2018