Restaurants at the water’s edge

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There are splendid restaurants with a bird eye’s view of the Thames  but to properly experience the river you have to have your feet on the ground or at least stand on one of its bridges and observe its surprisingly busy life. Tower Bridge may be instantly recognisable, a veritable symbol of London, but it is more often seen from a distance even though it is not difficult to time a crossing around the opening and closing of its roadway – happening twice most days  – a grand spectacle and one best enjoyed from the terrace or a window table at  The Butlers Wharf Chop House.

Butler’s Wharf was built in 1873 as the largest set of warehouses on the river and is now mostly luxury flats – one of which featured in A Fish Called Wanda as the place where Otto (Kevin Kline) holds the lawyer (John Cleese) upside down from an upper window – with Chop House occupying part of its ground level. From riverside tables (best secured by making a reservation for early or late in the evening) your meal is enlivened by the sight of pleasure boats dashing by, some lit up by on-board discos, the occasional flashing blue of a speeding police vessel or just pedestrians and skateboarders strolling and sliding by on the embankment walkway.

Dining by the Thames

The view as you dine by the Thames

The strength of Chop House’s menu lays in its steaks and roast beef and the restaurant is a great place for a social meal where the hum of others’ conversations will merge in the buzz of your own table’s chatter. The adjoining bar should not be missed if you like an Indian inflection to creative gin cocktails like The Jensen, an exotic blend with scents of cinnamon and cherry.

In the heyday of Britain’s imperial trade, warehouses like Butler’s Wharf were mostly situated further to the east for this was where ocean-going vessels unloaded and collected their cargoes of goods and people. Limehouse, named after the lime kilns that were built here in the 14th century, was London’s original Chinatown between 1850 and 1950.

Ships from the Orient docked here and Chinese sailors began to settle and make it their new home. It was not a salubrious quarter when Dickens set the grim opening of Our Mutual Friend in a pub, most probably the one still standing and now called The Grapes. Standing on the decking at the pub’s rear – taking note of the warning ‘Don’t Drink and Dive’ – you can chart the river’s tidal movement as the plinth for the Anthony Gormley sculpture submerges or resurrects itself on the surface of the water.

Walk up the street and at The Narrow there are comfy sofas and tables behind retractable glass with moody views of a grey Thames. Pleasing on the eye is the tricolour effect of burrata di Puglia on a plate with heritage tomatoes and a dressing of basil and sherry and your stomach will warm to the signature dish of haddock and mushy peas or a steak that The Narrow’s kitchen is adept at grilling.

Outside 'The Narrow'

Outside ‘The Narrow’

At some stage the Thames needs to be experienced up close and the fun way to do so is from Canary Wharf Pier on the Hilton’s free ride across to the Columbia restaurant at their DoubleTree hotel. The building is a converted old cotton mill and tea warehouse and an adjoining dry dock – the only one left in London – is part of the hotel.

The neighbourhood is Rotherhithe, a marshy area which became a maritime hub for intercontinental trade and from where the Pilgrim Fathers sailed for America in the Mayflower in 1820. The restaurant’s interior décor does not capitalize on this but views back to Canary Wharf and the blinking light atop One Canada Square will grab your attention from one of the window tables and the terrace outside affords great views of the Thames.

Canary Wharf itself has a batch of mostly undistinguished restaurants but Tom’s Kitchen  should capture your attention given that the eponymous Tom [Aikens], at the age of 26, became the youngest British chef ever awarded two Michelin stars. His restaurant at Canary Wharf has been here for two years and it attracts a steady stream of hungry diners who appreciate well prepared and carefully sourced food in a chic environment.

Tom's Kitchen at Canary Wharf

Tom’s Kitchen at Canary Wharf

The restaurant’s choice of hand dived scallops avoids the bottom-trawling that indiscriminately smashes and kills other fish; daily specials are chalked up on a blackboard and could include grouse from an estate in Wiltshire; the Cumbrian steaks come small (220gm) and large (650gm) and the set dinners, which include a superb chicken liver and foie gras parfait, are excellent value for money.

The proximity of the Thames to Canary Wharf is difficult to sense at night for the place becomes more like Gotham City than London’s docklands: towering bland monoliths of black glass, empty roads with only the scurrying figures of late night workers hurrying home. All the more surprising then to discover The Gun at the bottom of a tiny cul-de-sac of Victorian cottages, somehow spared from the surrounding wasteland of concrete and steel.

The Gun - Dining Riverside

The Gun – Dining Riverside

Inside, The Gun at first looks like a cheery East End pub with old mismatched tables, a bar propped up by regulars who appreciate beers such as Birdie Flipper and Lucky Penguin; with a glance to one side, though, the scene segues to white tablecloths, silver service and oil paintings with a maritime theme. At the back of the building is the room with the view – a huge conservatory with wall-to-wall glass windows looking out over the Millennium Dome and the life of the river.

The Gun's Bar

The Gun’s Bar

The Gun’s dinner menu is modern English: cod and chips upgraded to perfectly cooked fish served with fennel, sugar snaps and tarragon butter; classic steaks with pepper sauce; rabbit and goat dishes and a vegetarian offering. The drinks menu offers Chablis by the glass and desserts are offered with suitable wine pairings. Muzak is thankfully absent but, though the space is small, the acoustics do not impose other’s conversations on your ears and you can, instead, sense being close to the witchery of the dark and deep Thames.

by Sean Sheehan