Why anyone would go to London's Oxford Street of their own free will amazes me. There are no shops there that can't be found in a more pleasant setting elsewhere (unless you actively want knock-off football shirts) and the pavement rage that goes with a visit negates any pleasure gained from buying something nice. The most unlovely section is the north-east quadrant, from Oxford Circus to Tottenham Court Road. Once you're past the flagship Topshop, it's lacklustre chains all the way.
However, if the shopping is dire, the eating possibilities are improving. And a welcome addition is the Riding House Café. On the corner of Great Titchfield Street and Riding House Street, it occupies what was once a branch of the Slug and Lettuce chain (pubs, like boutiques, can gang up on you).
Café might be a bit misleading – this bustling, modern place may be casual, but it's most definitely a restaurant. Then again, the River Café doesn't serve tea and toasties either. And thank god they haven't fallen prey to the ghastly catch-all "eatery". A rather sweet new café in Kensington has guaranteed itself a wide berth by using that word in its title.
Those clever chaps behind Village East and The Garrison have done their homework. RHC has all the right elements – a bookable restaurant area with leather chairs and banquettes, low lighting and clubby wood panelling. Loosely divided by vintage front doors, the other area has a white-tiled bar, low-slung seats for drinkers and a long dining-table for drop-ins to eat at, refectory-style.
Do they need to say there's a New York feel to the place? It's now said so often that I wonder whether, by osmosis and the explosion of gastropubs in NYC, we can assume both sides of the Atlantic have merged. Anyway, the menu's the thing: there's a deal of good things on offer – from chorizo hash browns to spiced whiting to steaks to rack of pork – once you're past the small-plate bit (which I daren't comment on, for fear of boring myself I've banged on about it so much). I'll say just this – a place that sees at least 20 walk-ins a night in search of cocktails and some bits and bobs to soak them up is the ideal venue for little plates everyone's forks can fight over.
Me, I'm in the restaurant bit, about to plunge a steak knife into today's special, a 6oz fillet with Béarnaise sauce, thin-cut crisps and a cursory grilled tomato (£25). No, it's not original, but sometimes (well, almost always when I'm in W1 and have had the lifeblood drained out of me) I just want a decent steak and chips.
Here it's more than decent. There are also Chateaubriands to share (at £42), sirloins and rib eyes – fillet is often less marbled and flavoured than other cuts but here the almost barrel-like tranche is a perfect marriage of texture and taste (it's pretty damned salty, though, which is just how I like it. Don't order if you're on a dread low-sodium diet).
Mr M, slightly sour-faced at being steered away from beef, perks up considerably on the arrival of his hash browns. A hefty white frying pan is placed in front of him, with a mound of soft potato and chunks of sausage, oozing their rust-coloured oil. A tangle of mushroom sits alongside, and also on ooze patrol, a perfect poached egg. It's a handsome dish, packed with flavour and definitely an imaginative take on a short-order classic (and a bargain at £10.50). Everyone I've mentioned it to has said, "Ooh, I'd like that," which is a sure sign that the kitchen's got it right.
One thing they did get wrong: I had artichoke dip with crostini as a starter (£4). It was so unexpectedly hot it seared the roof of my mouth and brought tears to my eyes. So my tasting was impaired somewhat after, but a cooling, very eggy crème caramel for pudding goes some way to fixing things. Meanwhile, Mr M has a hot-fudge sundae with macaroons and honeycomb – well, I had to let him after the steak denial. It was tip-top.
The atmosphere at RHC is its greatest asset. I felt looked after, well-informed and relaxed. Nobody needed to explain the menu "concept" to me and I didn't feel rushed, despite the non-stop walk-ins. If you must go to Oxford Street (shudder), head north and gird your loins with a "full and proper breakfast" here, or afterwards treat yourself to a restorative mojito and a steak.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
The Riding House Café, 43-51 Great Titchfield Street, London W1, tel: 020 7927 0840. Mon-Fri, 8am-11pm; Sat-Sun, 9am-11pm. About £100 for two including wine
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Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2011' www.hardens.com
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