In deepest Fitzrovia (that peaceful bit just north of Oxford Street) is a subtle little restaurant — and it is a restaurant, café is somewhat of a misnomer — that glows with warmth and invites you to join the gossiping crowd inside. The Riding House doesn't actually have a great deal of horsey paraphernalia, but it does boast stuffed squirrels clinging to the wall lamps and an alarmed-looking pigeon on the way down to the toilets.
There are two rooms — a vast dining room-cum-bar area in green hues, dominated by a tiled island of an open kitchen, and a smaller, separate section. We were led to this more discreet-feeling salon, which was lovely and intimate but did mean I had to keep craning round to see what sort of action the main room was getting. There are also private 'stables' you can hire for a function in the basement.
Our charming and very stylish hostess, in polka dots and red lipstick, talked us through the £4-6 small plates and advised us to share three of the former to start. Of the varied cuisines and ingredients, we went for the pumpkin fritters, chicken liver parfait and seared scallops. The first two were delicious and almost pudding-rich — though more gorgonzola to offset the pumpkin's sweetness would have been welcome — while the scallops were a bit of a let-down, doused in a cold black bean sauce and some spring onion on a decorative shell platter. I also couldn't sniff out the truffle butter advertised with the parfait.
Mains zoomed up a notch: my juicy sirloin steak made me want to dial every steak-lover in my contacts list and share the joy with them (great chips and béarnaise too), while Danielle's kedgeree had perfectly cooked rice, tender haddock and a beautifully runny boiled egg. But her highlight — after much protestation that we couldn't manage another bite — was the decadent chocolate fudge sundae. Her verdict? 'Whoever decided to add macaroons and chunks of honeycomb is a genius.' Let's just say she found room.
The ample cocktail menu, divided into quirky sections: we tried a zesty Vicar's Tea Party (Horticultural) and cinnamon-sprinkled Tundra (End of the Road).
The service was personal and friendly, with lots of recommendations for the undecided.
The brunch menu may tempt you back the next morning.
The not so good:
The décor is a little confused — Mad Men-esque lampshades and cocktail glasses meets taxidermy and orange-red leather. The lighting was also too dim to take a decent photo of our lamp squirrel.
An offbeat, reasonably priced restaurant with a pleasant level of intimacy and familiarity. You feel you could come here once a fortnight for 'the usual'.
The Riding House Café, 43-51 Great Titchfield St, London W1W 7PQ (+44 (0)20 7927 0840; ridinghousecafe.co.uk)