The Riding House Café is an all-day affair serving, as is the way so often these days, a format of small plates of food. It opened in May 2011 and is run by the owners of the Bermondsey brasseries Village East and Garrison, and is near the site of what was the Middlesex Hospital. The premises are large, seating 140 covers at one time, plus a private dining room downstairs, and the place was heaving on the weekday night of my visit and was turning tables at a brisk pace. It has a casual atmosphere, with no tablecloths, wooden floor and old-fashioned lampshades, and was quite noisy due to the sheer volume of customers.
The small plates ranged from £3 to £5, but if you are in the mood for something more substantial there were main courses at £10 - £15; vegetables were extra at £3.50 per dish. The wine list had a few dozen choices, all under £100 a bottle on the list and starting at £16.50 a bottle. Nelson Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2010 was £27 for a wine that retails at £8, The Limelight Riesling 2010 was £44 compared to a shop price of £14, while Tardieu Laurent Cote Rotie 2007 was £99 for a wine that you can pick up in a shop for £37.
Sausage of venison and pork was served on a bed of properly cooked puy lentils, the sausage cut up when served and having quite good flavour (14/20). This was better than anchovies served with piperade (peppers, onions and tomatoes) on toast and garnished with basil, that was decent but a simple enough dish that needed better quality ingredients to really shine (12/20). Salt cod fritters were good though, with crisp outside and served with an excellent, spicy red pepper aioli (14/20).
Fish and chips involved somewhat tasteless haddock with pleasant batter, decent mushy peas and chips that were tolerably crisp (13/20). Sweet potato and chickpea cake was nice enough, though a layer of grilled cheese added nothing (12/20). A nectarine and raspberry fool had good raspberries and under-ripe nectarines, but with pleasant shortbread (13/20). Mango sorbet had good texture but did not have a lot of fruit flavour (12/20). An almost laughably small double espresso was £2.30, though was perfectly drinkable.
Service was friendly, and we encountered that true rarity in London: an English waitress (though the illusion was spoilt slightly when it turned out that she was really a dance teacher just filling in). The bill came to £68 a head with a couple of glasses of wine apiece. This was an entirely pleasant experience, reminding me a little of the Soho House group restaurants like High Road House. As with the latter, the owners here have hit on a successful formula, with the seemingly cheap elements on the menu adding up to more than you initially expect. However providing good service and a pleasant atmosphere clearly is the key here, and that has created a genuine commercial success.