The luxury cruise puts itself in a different class of eating on the go. Water, moonlight, dinner, candles and music theoretically create a heady, romantic, effect. Past experience, however, has taught me that this combination is a short cut to room spin. Add an interior designer trying to recapture the glamour of a bygone age for the cruise market, and a boat is not an obvious venue for dinner.
All this, plus the fear of being trapped on board in a nautically themed fancy-dress party we wouldn't be able to leave, was on my mind as my consort and I prepared to board the riverboat restaurant, the Silver Sturgeon. This sister of the Silver Bonito and "the largest, and most luxurious cruise boat on the Thames", launched this summer with food that's the equal of London's more expensive - say pounds 30 a head - restaurants, promised to challenge our prejudices.
Other passengers clearly needed no persuading. Canoodling had started before we'd cast off, with one couple necking on deck as dusk fell. We were breathless from a sprint across cobbles to Tower Pier for the 8pm departure and our free buck's fizz, and if there had been enforced socialising between passengers, we'd missed the party, though the pianist was playing "Sleepy Shores" with such gusto we asked to be moved to a table across the dance floor. Small groups and couples were milling around their tables, or visiting the pristine and fragrant lavatories (dispelling memories of cross-channel ferries) to check the straightness of slinky hemlines and cut of blazers.
But not all were dressed for business dinners, and the smart, steel and blue design - a key feature seems to be metal pillars and balustrades which look as if they've been rubbed in different directions with a Brillo pad and give you confidence that the kitchen is spick and span - of the Silver Sturgeon's interior doesn't play to the glitzy aspirations of the corporate market. Neither does the menu. It's created by Alison Price, it's pleasingly seasonal and sounds as appetising, though with more limited choices, as anything you're likely to find in one of the trendy restaurants that have sprung up along the river bank.
These may give you one great riverscape but we were losing count of the number we'd clocked as we tacked towards the Houses of Parliament. And no one was rushing us to order so they could clear our table for the next sitting. As we turned round and sailed back under Blackfriars Bridge, we were presented with chilled cucumber soup, tasting of nothing more than a cucumber, which is enough when there are better distractions outside the window. Chicken and leek terrine, the meat and veg layered with seams of herbs, with well-salted (the secret of an uninsipid salad) green leaves, and a punchy chutney, was very good, I noticed, at the expense of a second sighting of the Globe Theatre.
A veteran of the twice-yearly company get together in three-star hotels, and a man whose idea of a romantic evening is a takeaway and the Test Match highlights, my consort considered his marinaded salmon with horseradish cream "conferency" but went on to eat his main course - pork with mustard sauce, caramelised apple, noodles and spinach - with better grace, appreciation even. Cod with mashed potato, a tomato and thyme sauce, and crunchy courgettes and broccoli was again well-composed and seasoned. The kitchen steers a proficient, not too cautious, not too controversial course.
This occupied us for a dull, dark stretch of river between the City and Canary Wharf, occasionally lit up by a surprising number of other glowing party boats, freeze-frame scenes of laughing and dancing or sober sightseeing. It made me realise there's a whole river night-life I'd never known existed and that, actually, I'd been missing something, especially if you can get a decent dinner thrown in. And out on deck under a moonlit sky with a view of Greenwich ahead and a paddle steamer passing, we had an almost Now Voyager on-board romance moment.
Back down for a more or less happy ending: a lovely, smooth lemon mousse, and a light tart filled with rhubarb and ginger ice cream, followed by forgettable coffee. The pianist returned after an interval when Dinah Washington was piped on deck, Silver Sturgeon moved back to the pier and the dancing started, and we quit before the moment passed into bathos.
The evening cost us more than a ton for two - wine not included in the price. At shore prices, the food probably accounted for pounds 30. But, for all our cynical resistance, the once-in-a-lifetime dinner cruise had proved more captivating and no less palatable than a stationary evening at any of the restaurants we passed in the night
Silver Sturgeon, Tower Pier, London E1 - Bookings 0171-878 2002. Sailings Mon, Wed, Fri, Sat; board 7.30pm- 8pm, depart 8.30pm, disembark 10.30pm-11.30pm. pounds 49 a head, wine extra. All credit cards except Diners Club. Wheelchair access
More floating food
Leven is Striijd, West India Quay, Hertsmere Road, West lndia Docks, London E14 (01 71-987 4002) Lunch and dinner served by arrangement. This handsome barge moored at Canary Wharf doesn't go anywhere, and has a pontoon for eating outside. It's function is functions, and there's no hire charge, but meals (for up to 22 people seated) are pounds 30 for lunch, pounds 32 for dinner. Ingredients are high quality; menus, in the modern European vein, are flexible.
Feng Shang, Cumberland Basin, Prince Albert Road, NW1 (01 71-485 8137) Lunch and dinner daily. Like a floating pagoda among the houseboats on the Regents Canal at Camden, the Feng Shang is spacious and attractive, defying that sinking feeling you get from lavish-looking Chinese restaurants. On two decks, generous amounts of rewarding cooking are served: there are dishes from north China as well as the usual Cantonese repertoire, and vegetarian versions made from wheat gluten to resemble flesh. Staff are plentiful and attentive. Minimum charge, pounds 12 per person
El Barco Latino, Temple Pier, Victoria Embankment, WC2 (0171-379 5496). Open daily, food served noon-midnight, Mon-Wed, Sun, noon-3am Thur-Sat. A test for the sturdiest sea legs. A Colombian drinking, dining and dancing experience on a barge moored on the Thames. There's no view from the window but plenty of Latin rhythm in the hold. Plus hearty portions of Colombian food, with a set menu of pounds 13.50. Steady with the bottled beers...Reuse content