SquareMeal Review of Riva
An institution much loved by its elegant local regulars and occasional celebrities, Riva is renowned for simple, well-prepared Italian cooking. It’s not wildly better than others, nor wildly more expensive (though the menu and notable wine list take no prisoners), and its unassuming, slightly scruffy terracotta surroundings are no more chic. What distinguishes the place is its charismatic owner, Andrea Riva, who has a knack of remembering names, faces and food preferences. He’s prepared to go off-menu for favoured diners, recommending whatever he knows will suit them – so dinner can be exceptionally personal. The rest of us must choose from a list where risottos and the roast suckling pig attract praise, and the tiramisu provides a satisfactory ending. The pallyness can wind up some newcomers, who feel excluded from the inner circle and who know there are only two ways in – either become a regular or become famous.
Forget the trendy interiors and Instagrammable opportunities recent restaurants on the scene have brought us, Riva is all about hearty Italian cooking served up in a somewhat plain dining room. Here aesthetics are secondary to the menu of chef Andrea Riva. Often touted as one of London’s food critics’ favourite spots, this Barnes gem counts Jamie Olive and Gordon Ramsay among its fans while it’s cited as a haunt of the London Evening Standard’s restaurant critic Fay Maschler and the late British writer and critic AA Gill.
The dining room is flanked with one mirrored wall which goes some way to making the narrow corridor-like space feel wider, while tables are dressed in crisp linens and decorated with retro posies of fresh flowers. The wooden, functional chairs are dressed up with white seat cushions and various Italian artworks adorn the space.
Service at Riva is often recognised as some of the warmest in the capital, thanks to the owner’s talent for remembering names and welcoming returning guests like old friends. He famously alters dishes in line with regular diners’ requirements and closes the restaurant if he can’t be there. This attitude waterfalls through to the rest of the team, creating a fun atmosphere where guests feel like they’ve built a real rapport with the staff. If you’re lucky enough to become a regular, you’ll notice your welcome becomes warmer each time.
The menu is all in Italian, so may need some deciphering should you not be blessed with being bi-lingual. Even once you have managed to untangle the listings you won’t be much more the wiser, with brief descriptions like ‘chicken breast’ being the sum total of the detail offered up. Throughout, the dishes pay homage to the northern Italian region of Lombardy, celebrating the robust flavours found there and elevating them to new heights.