Don't, whatever you do, refer to Riva as a "neighbourhood restaurant". When I made the pilgrimage to this famous Italian eatery in South-West London, the owner was keen to impress upon me that, on the contrary, it was a "destination restaurant". "Most of our customers are from outside Barnes," said Andrea Riva, glancing nervously at the other diners. "You see that girl over there? She's a model."
Standing outside Riva on Church Road in Barnes, you can see why the owner is anxious to disassociate himself from this sleepy suburban backwater. It's flanked by a newsagent on one side and a video shop on the other. Barnes is one of those London dormitory villages on the far side of Hammersmith Bridge that will always play second fiddle to Richmond. The most that can be said about it is that it's not quite as unfashionable as Roehampton.
In fairness to Andrea Riva, the appeal of his restaurant does extend beyond the investment bankers, television executives and advertising men who make up the local population. As you make your way down the long, thin dining room towards the lavatory at the back you pass a trophy wall in which Riva's various gongs are displayed. These include awards from Time Out, Decanter and Carlton Television, but the tribute the owner is proudest of was that paid by the singer Bryan Ferry. He included Riva in the "thanks to" box on his 1994 album Mamouna.
Andrea Riva's claim that it's a "destination restaurant" was borne out on the night I went there. My dining companion was Helena Boas, the founder of Bodas, an upmarket underwear company, and she recognised an ex-manager of a high-street clothing chain and a senior executive of M & C Saatchi. The "model" turned out to be a blonde teenager who'd worked as a waitress at Riva the previous summer, but there was no disputing her prettiness. The only fish out of water was a white rasta who looked like he'd come straight from an anti-war march. Helena, who lived in Barnes for 19 years, said he was almost certainly a pupil at the nearby St Paul's Boys, one of several good independent schools in the area.
The décor is more French than Italian. With it's ochre walls and small, elegant tables, it reminded me of the restaurant in the railway station in Bonieux, a place that gets a name check in A Year in Provence. Like many restaurants with huge reputations, Riva is quite small, with room for only 50 covers. This enables the owner to visit every table in the course of a normal evening, laughing and joking with the regulars and making various recommendations from the wine list.
I began with Frittelle--the Italian word for fritters--which consisted of Mediterranean prawns, balls of salt cod and calamari in a light, crispy batter, followed by a Dover soul that had helpfully had all the bones removed. Both were extremely good, as were Helena's two starters: langoustines followed by risotto alla primervera. As you might have guessed, Riva is a fish restaurant, which is appropriate given that it's only five minutes walk from the river.
By far the nicest thing about Riva is the atmosphere, a testimony to the warmth and charm of its owner. It has just the right blend of efficiency and informality, the hallmark of a well-run restaurant. It's been popular since the day it opened 13 years ago and I have no doubt it'll continue to thrive for many years to come. Barnes may be the residential equivalent of a waiting room, but with a restaurant as good as this on its main thoroughfare, it has its compensations.