In the same way that Empire State Building, Central Park, and Broadway are such New York City’s institutions and landmarks, some other places in the city, like stores and restaurants, have almost the same reputation and importance in the city – they are known as some of the city’s institutions. And The River Café is indeed a New York institution as elegant as ever. Known as the most exclusive fine dining American restaurant on the water in NYC, this place has been on my list for a while – but it’s simply not the place you for some ordinary dinner – at least, not for me, lol. A close friend celebrated her birthday last year and she told me the best things about it, so we also decided to celebrate my birthday there last year. Unfortunately, because of some work opportunity, I had to cancel our reservation – and life happens, so we just forgot about it – but this year, I was willing to make it happen, no matter what, lol. My birthday fell on a Sunday, so I made a reservation for dinner on Friday. I don’t share a lot of restaurant reviews here – but I think this one is worth it.
The River Café
The River Café’s history began in 1977 when Michael “Buzzy” O’Keeffe, a former Wall Street executive, and his friend and fellow financier, restaurateur Roger Baumann, discovered an abandoned space on the Brooklyn waterfront beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Remember: at that time, the area was not what it looks like today but the two friends got inspired by the location’s breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline, and they envisioned creating an upscale restaurant.
The beginning was challenging – hence, the area was not yet a popular dining destination, but despite initial struggles, The River Café garnered attention for its exceptional cuisine and incredible views. The River Cafe has been in business for over 45 years – even after overcoming the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 – in a city where 80% of restaurants close in the first five years.
I have to be honest – I always thought The River Café was a tiny restaurant – but it’s not. When we were there, besides the area where we were seated, there was another salon with a wedding taking place. As mentioned previously, the restaurant is located beneath the Brooklyn Bridge – nowadays, that’s a very busy area, but there is a beautiful garden at the entrance and when you arrive at the restaurant, it feels like you are in a very exclusive place – not in the middle of the busy Brooklyn Bridge Park. By the way, don’t skip the garden, it’s such a unique and photogenic scenario.
The restaurant itself it’s so beautiful. When you arrive, you are greeted by the hosts – they check your coats and they open the door to the main salon – the ambiance exudes sophistication and warmth. As I mentioned, we were celebrating my birthday and I made sure to let them know that fact when I made the reservation – and everyone that greeted us told me “happy birthday”. I can’t deny – it does make you feel special. There are hundreds of restaurants in the city – a lot of them with excellent food – but I guess a lot of people would agree with me that the service can make a difference. I’m reading a book called “Your Table Is Ready: Tales of a New York City Maître D‘” and he mentions how service really matters in the restaurant industry and yes, it matters, a lot, especially in experiences like this. You get what you pay for, that’s what they say. Moreover, I highly recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about the NYC restaurant industry backstage; it’s “a front-of-the-house Kitchen Confidential from a career maître d’hotel who manned the front of the room in New York City’s hottest and most in-demand restaurants” – he also worked at The River Café and he talks about it on the book.
I also requested a table at the window on my reservation – this girl was celebrating her birthday! – and they called me to confirm the reservation two days before, I inquired about the table, but they told me they couldn’t guarantee that in advance. I think that fact made the fact that we actually got a table at the window even more special. Since everything you see from the window is the East River, the bridge and the city views, it looks like you are on a boat, you know? The big windows also help to create that feeling.
When we arrived, our table was not ready yet, so we waited at the bar – which is elegant and has beautiful views. In front of the bar, there’s a piano – and someone playing it, lol. I love the fact the music has the perfect volume, not too low, not too loud, perfect to have conversations without screaming or whispering, lol.
The dress code
Of course, a restaurant like The River Cafe requires a dress code – and honestly, if you are paying to dine at a place like this, you shouldn’t complain about that – there are places and occasions in life that dressing up is really worth it, and I think this is the case. Choosing a special outfit for a special occasion at a very special place elevates your experience – I guess so. Of course, I love the casual “I don’t care about how you look” vibes in the city – but as someone that loves fashion, I like to spend some time on my outfit.
With that being said, be aware of The River Cafe dress code. According to their website, jackets and shirts with collars are required for gentlemen. Ties are preferred and casual footwear like sandals are not permitted. For reference, my husband didn’t wear a tie. Casual jeans and athletic attire are not allowed in the restaurant.
I wore a floral dress with puffer sleeves from Sezane and low heels sandals.
Also: they ask the guests to limit photos and videos – I was not allowed to bring my camera to the salon with me, so I had to use my phone to take these pictures.
The food, drinks and price
The River Café opens from Wednesday to Sunday, for dinner only, from 5pm to 10:30 pm and it features a classic American menu of “elegance and refinement” according to their website. And, in case you don’t know, it’s a Michelin-starred restaurant. They offer a fixed-price menu for $195 per person (plus taxes and tips). You can check the whole menu here.
I don’t know if they change the menu often – but I will talk about our choices.
For starters, Thiago had the Gnocchi and Truffles, with fresh Australian black truffles shaved tableside. I had the Softshell Crab – honestly, I didn’t know what to expect, but it was surprisingly delicious. Love the texture and the sauce. Thiago’s gnocchi was also delicious – melting.
For main, Thiago had the Beef – a char grilled Niman Ranch strip steak served with red wine braised prime beef short rib and marrow, smoked shallot Béarnaise. I had the Branzino and wowww, it was amazing. It had a wild shrimp crust – so so so good! – with lemon, olive oil and saffron nage, classic Romesco sauce, Romanesco cauliflower.
For dessert, Thiago had the Lemon Soufflé – this as probably the only thing we didn’t like it because it had a strong taste of eggs – and the Chocolate Brooklyn Bridge – a dark chocolate Marquise, passion fruit ice cream, banana~macadamia ganache, banana spuma. This dessert was divine, it had a mousse texture and the citric ice cream was a great match. We also had handmade chocolates and confections.
It’s good to remember that the chef also sent us some amuse bouche and other small plates – plus, they also serve warm bread with butter.
Now, let’s talk about drinks! The River Cafe has one of the most outstanding wine lists in the world – you can order wines by bottle, half bottle, and glass. They also offer craft cocktails. We had one cocktail each and we also got a half bottle of wine – because we were not planning to drink a whole bottle, lol. Their sommelier helped us to choose the best option. Regarding prices, you will spend, on average, between $20 and $30 on each drink (in case you order a glass of wine or a cocktail).
So, answering the main question: is The River Café worth it? For us, yes. My husband and I love to have food experiences – we go from street food to fine dining, for us, it’s all about exploring flavors and, why not, the experiences. It was a special occasion and we like to spoil ourselves occasionally. It’s a whole package: the views, the environment, the service, the food. Of course, you can probably find great food in the city for less – but again, fine dining is not about JUST the food, it’s about the experience, it’s not about being frugal – it’s about indulging and allowing yourself. If you like that, you sure will love The River Café. Some people don’t care enough about it and would rather spend their money on other things – and that’s totally fine!
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Content creator and journalist in New York City. Here, I share lifestyle, beauty, NYC tips, thoughts, and the struggles about living in the most amazing city in the world! I’m not gonna pretend to be another person: I’m a Brazilian immigrant and I think this is my soul, it is part of who I am. I hope you enjoy my content! Follow me on Instagram!