Riverside Studios in Hammersmith is responsible for some of the best of classic British TV, but the channel has been changed with its redevelopment into modern studios and a flagship restaurant, Sam's Riverside, from esteemed restaurateur Sam Harrison. James Stagg takes a look
If you have some 18 months to think about the opening of a restaurant after signing the deal, the chances are that every detail will have been thought, re-thought and refined until you have the perfect site.
That's certainly what Sam Harrison hopes, having had to hold off the opening of Sam's Riverside due to complications linked to the larger build. For an operator who is very much on the floor, it has meant countless hours honing the layout of the room and agonising over everything from technology to teaspoons.
The restaurant forms a small, independent part of the redeveloped Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, which includes flats, studios for theatre and television, and a cinema. It had been due for completion at the beginning of the year, but complications with the energy supply needed to support the requirements of live TV, such as Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, has held the project up.
"In all honesty, I've had a long time to think about it," Harrison confirms. "We signed heads of terms in March 2018 and even then we didn't get on-site until May this year, so it's probably been too long. The time has meant that I've overthought some things, but in many ways we've come full circle and ended up back where I wanted to be: with a grown-up version of the old Sam's."
Back to his roots
The site itself is a high-profile return to west London for Harrison, who sold Sam's Brasserie in Chiswick and Harrison's in Balham to the Hawksmoor Group in 2015. In hindsight, it was a canny move, after Hawksmoor closed its Foxlow outpost in Chiswick in 2018 followed by Balham earlier this year.
"I think restaurants generally have a lifespan," Harrison says. "Sam's in Chiswick was a great business, but Chiswick had changed and become saturated, and there wasn't much growth left for us. The market only got tougher and tougher. It's hard to sell an independent business, so being able to make my investors and myself a little money was great. It was good timing for me."
Having sold up in 2015, Harrison took more than a year out "doing a lot of travel, sleeping and recharging". He adds: "I then moved to the Cotswolds and I was close to buying a hotel, but I was gazumped at the eleventh hour, which I'm quite pleased about in hindsight. I realised that I'm a London boy at heart."
Having lost out on the country hotel, Sam turned his sights back to London and, thanks to the fact that a former Sam's regular was on the Riverside Studios management team, word got back to him that an approach would be welcomed.
"When Riverside Studios decided they wanted an operator in here, I'm sure the obvious thought would have been to go to a safe bet, such as the Ivy or a larger operator," he explains. "But being creatives, the head TV guys thought that approach wouldn't quite fit.
"Guy Hornsby [Riverside Studios' executive director] apparently said one of his favourite restaurants was Sam's in Chiswick and, fortunately, the agent knew me, so they got in touch." The result was Harrison taking on a 20-year lease and funding the project, thanks to his relationships with other Sam's Chiswick regulars.
"I like building relationships with locals," he says. "All my investors on this project are customers from Chiswick who became friends and then investors. "Some of them are high-profile, celebrity investors. We have wine trade investors and a founder of Caffè Nero. They all got to know me as a restaurateur and liked what we do, in our own personal way. Not many operators work on the floor, so that's how I got to know them."
Rumour has it that a well-known celebrity double act is very much involved with the project, and Harrison hopes that the restaurant will attract their calibre of guest to raise the profile of the business and boost post-show trade.
"I wanted to do Sam's with a proper budget – which I didn't have last time – and for it to be more sophisticated and a bit more wow," he says. "We think it'll be a mixture of a great local restaurant, a destination and a place that everyone working on shows wants to come after work. There will be a lot of celebrities and interesting people – we want them to think that this will be the place they go."
The restaurant itself certainly has the understated glitz to appeal, with refined art deco touches and a palette of stained oak, brass and marble among polished concrete floors, all framed by large windows allowing maximum light, with views down the Thames and across Hammersmith Bridge.
In the kitchen, head chef Harvey Trollope, whose CV includes John Williams' premier sous chef at the Ritz London and head chef at Marco Pierre White's Wheelers of St James, is delivering refined brasserie food. Other key recruits include general manager Andrew Bloomer, who worked with Harrison in Balham, and bar manager Ivan Ramos, who worked at both Sam's and Harrisons.
"What's great is that the regulars are coming in and hugging the waitresses they recognise," Harrison explains. "The majority of those who came to the soft launch were regular customers who are really happy to see us open again. It's quite touching. When you open a new restaurant, normally it's from a standing start, but for us there's inbuilt love and goodwill."
Harrison and Trollope have been supported pre-opening by Rowley Leigh, who has provided a sounding board for ideas. "At Sam's I had Rick Stein as a mentor and as someone I could bounce the food side of things off," Harrison says. "Last year Rowley and I were talking about the project and he expressed an interest in working with us. He not only has an encyclopaedic knowledge of food but he's a restaurateur who is passionate about wine and the design and flow of a space. He's also great fun.
"Along with Harvey we've all had our own input and we've ended up with a menu that reflects all of us. My old customers can see elements that are familiar, while others can see Rowley's influence and Harvey's too."
The menu is billed as modern European, with the Anglo-French influence for which Leigh is known. It includes grill classics such as bavette steak and chips and pork shoulder steak with chimichurri to tempt down those in the flats above looking for something simple, alongside the likes of grilled octopus, pimento potatoes and saffron aïoli; hake, crab bisque and beluga lentils; and brick chicken, black cabbage and poor man's Parmesan.
All in order
Trollope has the luxury of a large, open plan kitchen to serve the 70-cover restaurant, 19-seat private dining room and 11 at the bar – as well as a 50-cover terrace in summer. Once the studios are up and running, Sam's will also be offered as a catering option for canapé and bowl food receptions for up to 150 in a next-door event space.
"We've worked with Design LSM to design the kitchen in two halves," Harrison adds. "The front can service the restaurant, while the back can do events and catering. We're already doing functions upstairs and I think that we may even do room service for some of the flats. People have also asked if we'll do dinner parties for them, so that's a whole new revenue stream for us."
With the restaurant itself split into separate sections, Harrison has thought hard about the flow of staff to ensure efficient food delivery and a focus on attentive service.
Waiting staff pick up dishes from a runway behind burnt orange banquettes situated by the open kitchen space before passing through a passage behind the marble-topped bar to appear in the dining room without disrupting any diners. "I call it the Scalextric track," he says. "I just loathe it when you have a busy bar and people are trying to fight their way through.
"Even in the design of the restaurant, we could have got more covers in, but I'd rather do 70 well than 85, where it's all a bit tight. It's very much brasserie-style, but people spend money when they get better service. If the waiting staff have more time to spend with guests and they feel comfortable, they will order more drinks and a pudding."
To add to the comfort, and to make use of the restaurant's enviable position, every table in the main dining room has a view of the river. There is just one floating table – a six – but they will feel secure thanks to all the seats being armchairs.
It's all part of the vision that Harrison has spent such time over, ensuring all guests feel that personal touch and the best possible service, wherever they are in the restaurant. And the time spent on strategy seems to be working, even if it has had some positive, yet unintended consequences.
"We've found that, particularly at weekends, people enjoy the view of the river and the bridge and the ambience so much that they stay for cheese and more wine," he adds. "We've had to move some into the bar so as we can get ready for dinner – but it's a nice problem to have."
Taking the helm in the day-to-day running of the kitchen of Sam's Riverside is Harvey Trollope. The graduate in fine art was Marco Pierre White's head chef at Wheeler of St James for two years before moving to the Ritz London as premier sous chef. He says that working alongside Harrison and culinary director Rowley Leigh on the new restaurant has been "an interesting experience and a challenging one", with plenty of input into the final menu creation.
He adds: "Sam had lots of ideas and vision that he wanted to bring to the menu. Rowley bought a lot of experience and inspiration. I then had to take it on board and bring it to life." Though it may seem complicated and with competing interests, Trollope says the trio have a straightforward philosophy for delivering dishes: "We buy the best we can and the let the produce speak for itself."
The dishes are brasserie in style, with a menu that takes a focused approach to the breadth of offer, with around six oyster and seafood options, six starters, six mains and six grill options, plus sides.
"My favourites on the opening menu are the raw silver mullet with dill and lemon, the clams and trotters with white beans, 17:03 10/12/2019a the steak and kidney with dripping on toast," says Trollope. "Then to wrap it up it would have to be the queen of puddings!"
The new Riverside Studios form part of Hammersmith's Queen's Wharf development, which is located on the north bank of the Thames next to Hammersmith Bridge.
The arts centre has been closed for five years for a redevelopment that has doubled its size and added 165 flats to the site, as well as state of-the-art TV studios, a cinema and flagship restaurant in Sam's Riverside.
The original studios were founded in the 1930s and produced classic British television such as Hancock's Half Hour, Doctor Who and – perhaps most famously – TFI Friday, which Chris Evans presented from its bar. The space has now been reimagined to open up the riverside, which was previously inaccessible, affording fantastic views over the Thames.
Artistic director of the space William Burdett-Coutts says to see it open after the five-year project is "a dream" and that Harrison has "pulled off a little wonder with his restaurant".
He adds: "While the old building held an extremely fond place in the hearts of people across the arts, television and film worlds, it had all the benefits and problems of a ‘found space'.
Essentially, it began life as a Victorian factory and, through a number of different incarnations, played a part in all these different worlds.
"Today the new building combines all these interests into a fantastic new public facility that can realise the potential for this incredible site in London. The artists that have passed through the building are legendary and we look forward to welcoming many more in future and making this a place the public feel they can enjoy and cherish."
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