20 In Culture Corner/ Life in London

Mystery & Memories of The White Elephant on the River, London

This is going to be a bit of a long post without many photos, but fascinating, so stick with me!

One cold February day in 2010, when the sidewalks were strewn with dried up leaves left over from the Autumn months, I went for a walk along the Thames. I came across a building with boarded up windows, white columns out front and a tattered roof. It looked like a place that was host to many stories – once grand, now neglected.

I took a photo, as I tend to do while I’m walking around London, and I posted it on the blog I was writing at the time – Little London Observationist. It’s been almost a year since I stopped writing there, but still, the simple post I shared in the link above continues to encourage comments.

Villa White Elephant on the River

I didn’t give the building much thought until I saw the buzz that this photo seemed to generate. The comments started to unravel the history and the stories of a place called The White Elephant on the River (which may or may not be the building in the photo. One comment suggests this is a building down the street from the famous White Elephant on the River and was possibly owned by the same person.).

Google searches don’t seem to bring up any additional information, which I thought was fascinating given the prestige it seemed to have according to some of the comments. It seems this old club/restaurant was in its hayday during the 1960s and 70s and was frequented by quite a few celebrities.


Photo: Thanks to Rosemary DeLaney for spotting this one online!

Google does tell me that this same address is now the site of expensive flats like this one sold for 3.6 million.

One of life’s little luxuries is to be given a special glimpse into the past and so I wanted to share some of the stories about this place from that old post. I don’t know how much is true or whether they are all talking about the same place since there seem to have been different branches of the club / restaurant, but read these and tell me you’re not intrigued too!

  • Graham shared that it was once a place to see and be seen, but the food wasn’t all that impressive.
  • right_writes agrees with graham and adds it was very posh. He says, “It is also almost opposite Dolphin Square, a 1930s housing development, that the very fashionable and poshest people used to live in… eschewing “old buildings” like the two-up, two-down properties in Chelsea and Fulham. My wife used to provide visiting nursing services to a lot of very wealthy old people that lived there during the early 1980s… By this time, these wealthy people were living in utter squalour.. Presumably, they just hadn’t noticed as they became more feeble.
  • Neal noted that he has a cookbook from the restaurant with celebrity recipes in it (which seems to be this one or possibly this one).
  • Thanks to Graham Lubin for scanning these images of his cookbook:

White Elephant on the River Celebrity Cookbook

White Elephant on the River Celebrity Cookbook

White Elephant on the River Celebrity Cookbook

White Elephant on the River Celebrity Cookbook

White Elephant on the River Celebrity Cookbook

White Elephant on the River Celebrity Cookbook

  • Pablo notes he remembers going to a party there in 1991.
  • Paolo lived on Oakley Street in SW3 and worked there as a waiter in summer 1991. He said The White Elephant was frequented by wealthy people giving gratuities of up to £500. Sunday brunch was £25 and always full. Orchestras played and there was dancing. At the time, staff were all Italian except for Brazilians who washed dishes. The three owners had taken over the business from an elderly lady who sometimes came to eat there.
  • John Gormley says he was there in 1979. Ray Ellington was the resident musician and everything was extremely expensive. His host was an arab prince out to impress. It was the haunt of royals and celebrities. The evening he was there, a famous face could be seen at nearly every table and each table had at least three waiters. A 5-course meal was about £200 a head plus drinks and service – a night to remember. John still has two hand leather bound his and hers address books with 9ct gold edges and white elephants on the front – unused in their boxes. Each has Ray Ellington’s autograph in each. They were bought for everyone at the table for £75 each.
  • Lynne remembers it being a fantastic restaurant in the early 80s.
  • Valter, who is Italian, worked as waiter there in 1977. He notes that the
    exact address is: 129 Grosvenor Road London SW1V 3JY. He still has his work suit and brown tie with a small white elephant on it as a souvenir. He also noted that live music was played by Ray Ellington, sometimes with Rosemary Squires. Each night famous people came to meet and dine here with a beautiful window view over the Thames. Some names include
    Shirley Bassey, Rod Stewart with Britt Ekland, some Arab Princes and many others. There were also BBC celebrities. He says the staff were mainly Italian with a Greek cook.
  • Leslie V says the resident band was called Graffiti and then they had another band called Italian Dream.
  • At the time of her comment, Helen’s mum was mum dating the drummer from that time…
  • Alice remembers that in the later 1980s, her dad was asked to re-upholster the furniture to a very high standard because Frank Sinatra was booked to play a private concert there. He worked long hours every day all week in order to get the job done in time for the concert. Although he was proud to be asked to do the work, he remarked that he found it a bit queer that he was never once offered a cup of tea or glass of water in the whole time he was working on the site.
  • Leslie V says that the restaurant Alice was referring to is the The White Elephant in Curzon Street, W.1 (owned by the same person). Frank Sinatra only went to that club and the refurbishment was done there. He never went to the The White Elephant on the River. Leslie’s husband worked at both the White Elephant On the River (129 Grovensor Road) and the Villa Elephant on the River (which used to be the rival Villa Dei Cesare), for 30 years. He met all the famous people mentioned in these comments and many more.
  • old bag says went there many times with her then boyfriend. She notes the interesting people, fine food, music, dancing and enjoying herself.
  • Margie Ranieri says: “In August 1976, this 23-year-old from Westlake Village, California had a bursting piggy-bank that allowed me to take a trip to London. The first day I took the train to Windsor Castle where, unbelievably, I met my best friend’s mother-in-law and her youngest son from my hometown who were in London to visit her brother. He took us to lunch at The White Elephant on the River. I have a photograph of us standing at the front entrance under a canopy of white with the name in green-gray lettering. I recall the River Thames was quite low from an ongoing drought.”
  • Geoffrey Phillips says him and his wife had their wedding reception there on November 25, 2001. It was a magical evening with superb food and service.
  • Bob Andrews had a memorable night there. Georgie Fame stood in for Ray Ellington who was unwell and it was a brilliant session. He recalls Bernie Winters in there with his dog.
  • Mr Jazz Drums played drums with Ray Ellington and Georgie Fame. He remembers it as such an exclusive eatery with simply the best sophisticated music in London. Ray Ellington and the band eventually moved on to the Rooftop Restaurant at The Park Lane Hilton.
  • Christine Manley enjoyed several memorable nights wining and dining here. She remembers great food and fantastic service. She says she must admit it was also nice just sitting at the bar and having a drink before dinner.
  • Ian Menzies says the picture is of the Villa dei Cesari as it used to be. He went there often in the late 60s and early 70s. There was always a great atmosphere and the Italian cuisine was superb.
  • Elena commented in 2013 to say she just rented her apartment at 128 Grosvenor Road – previously the White Elephant on the River restaurant.
  • Julie Shani Shelton worked for a fashion magazine in London in the late 70s and mixed with the rich and powerful. She says it was not uncommon to see Joan Collins in the powder room, Janet Street Porter guffawing at some bore’s jokes or the waiters accidentally spilling Spaghetti carbonara over legs after their hefty dance sessions.
  • Betsy Cohen says “I too recall those heady days. At the time I was a young socialite, recently left Bedales, and mater and pater despaired of me. I decided to run orf to London and party. I was probably the prototype to all these frightfully gorgeous wildchilds of the day Mandy Smith e.t.c. Anyways dahhlings, I decided to go there one night with Georgie Allen. Oh lorks, what laughs we had. Rod Stewart leered at me, Diahann Carroll glared and Katherine Hepburn farted and followed through, running to the toilet and clutching her knick knacks dahhhhlliiinggsss x.”
  • LJ says this is the ‘old’ Villa dei Ceseri which was renamed Villa Elephant On The River, but is owned by the same person who owned the original Elephant On The River (129 Grosvenor road) which was sold for an obscene amount of money in the late 90s and flats were built. His father was the General Manager for both restaurants.
  • Kim was as a loyal customer for around 20 years at both The White Elephant Clubs – on Curzon Street in Mayfair and this one on the river. Both were excellent in food quality and service. She saw Mohammad Ali, Don King and Tyson at Curzon and many royals at the River.
  • CCF agrees there’s a lot of confusion between the pictured place which is Villa dei Cesare, later called Villa Elephant on the River at 135 Grovsvenor Road and the White Elephant on the River at 129 Grosvenor Road. He thinks the 129 restaurant shut first in the early 190s and the 135 restaurant changed its name to add Elephant on the River to cash in on the fame of 129. He thinks 135 shut around 2002. One of these was used for interior shots as a casino in the film The Long Good Friday.
  • James Hook went here after a Fleetwood Mac concert at Earls Court.
  • Nour ElNile worked for the government of Nigeria in the 1980s and was a few times tasked with taking large groups of Africans there. They were all either in insurance or diplomats or politicians. Service was excellent, food was good, the view over the river were enchanting.
  • Barbara Lake spent many a happy time here, dining and dancing the night away in the mid and late 80s. She also remembers Ray Ellington and Rosemary Squires were at the Rooftop Restaurant at the Hilton.
  • Alessio worked here as a commis waiter from June – September 1996. It was open every evening except Monday and for Sunday brunch. Pay was about £140 weekly including tips. It was an elegant place with orchestra every night and an excellent wine cellar. There were three owners, two of which were Italian. He remembers Brazlians who washed the dishes.

It seems that this place deserves to have its stories told, which is why I wanted to re-open the conversation. I invite any of you who have been to this place to share your own tales in a comment here. If you have any photos, send them to me at littleobservationist@gmail.com and I’ll add them to this post with your credit.

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20 Comments

  • Reply
    Rosemary
    April 14, 2015 at 12:57 am

    I’m from Louisville, Kentucky and had dinner at the White Elephant on the River in London in the mid 1980’s. Our bill was around $1500.00 for four and it was worth it! I was 28 years old and married to my husband who was an attorney. We met a barrister while dining and he invited us to a private casino in London. As we were leaving the restaurant, out of nowhere, our waiter, who was young, wrapped my fur around my shoulders he whispered he was coming to New York in couple of weeks. I just smiled. Odd, huh? Well, that same evening, my husband was gambling and I went in to another room to watch the American World Series Baseball. There was an older gentleman sitting with me having tea and watching the game. We exchanged business cards as I was leaving. He said he was coming to New York in a couple of weeks, too. Oh, well. A few weeks later I’m in the middle of cooking dinner and the phone rings. It was him! He wanted to fly me to New York to have dinner with him! What a hoot. I smile every time I think about that night.

  • Reply
    GRAHAM
    April 14, 2015 at 8:58 am

    Has anyone ever seen a copy of the White Elephant Cookbook. I used to have a copy. It was quite lavishly produced. In it, celebrity regulars shared their favourite recipes. My memory is probably failing me here but there was a recipe for ‘Curry Chicken Knockers’ by, I think Roger Moore, although it could be someone else! I actually made this dish a few times.

    Would have been around the early 80s

    • Reply
      beally
      April 16, 2015 at 8:43 am

      Curried Chicken Knockers! p.34 by . . . .wait for it . . . .Oliver Reed !!! 🙂

      • Reply
        beally
        April 16, 2015 at 8:44 am

        He also did ‘Prawns Mergertated in Sherry !!!! 🙂

    • Reply
      Stuart Livingston
      August 12, 2015 at 7:00 pm

      I have a copy of the cookbook. I worked at the White Elephant on the River six nights a week for four years playing drums with Mike McKenzie and Johnny Hawksworth. In fact we opened the place in 1972 when Stella Richman and her then husband Alec Hyams owned it.

      I have loads of stories of great nights with famous people there and fond memories of the staff, Domenico, Orlando et al. I’m now 65 and live in the Gold Coast Australia.

      • Reply
        Pino
        July 13, 2016 at 6:22 am

        Hi Stuart my name is Pino, remember you in the band with Mike and Jonny , I was a waiter for about five years there I’m now 61 and still work in the restaurant business in Washington DC, I’m so happy to have heard your story about the white elephant on the river, you took me to some great memories; I always tell the story about your band, for example Mike Mackenzie not knowing what else to sing , he would repeat a song saying that it was as a request for a lady at the bar, and we would look and see that the bar was empty Lol , thank for the memories

        • Reply
          Stuart Livingston
          August 31, 2016 at 2:25 pm

          Hi Pino….I remember you well. I think I have a photo somewhere of all the staff outside the front entrance on Grosvenor Road. Great memories! Mike died a long time ago, Johnny Hawksworth moved to Australia around 1980 and died here a few years back aged 85. His crazy wife Pauline passed away two years ago in Sydney. She used to phone me all hours of the day and night and talk about the old days.
          Love to hear your story sometime.

      • Reply
        myron kazanjian
        March 22, 2017 at 11:29 pm

        In the 1980’s I took 2 of my nieces to a restaurant called, I thought, Elephant on the Thames, in London. Do you remember if this was a different restaurant from White Elephant on the River? I would love to know.

  • Reply
    Barbara Lake
    April 14, 2015 at 6:16 pm

    Thank you Steph for including me in this fascinating piece.

    The White Elephant Cookbook written by tv executive, Stella Richman in 1973 is available on Amazon. Also on other sites.

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/168551258/Hunting-Elephants-in-Curzon-Street#scribd

    • Reply
      littleobservationist
      April 15, 2015 at 10:28 am

      Thank you for sharing your memories! I’m curious about this cookbook…

    • Reply
      beally
      April 16, 2015 at 8:55 am

      she was the partner of the owner, Victor Brusa who died in 1965, 5 years after opening the White Elephant in Curzon St. . .profits went to the N.S.P.C.C (according to the book)

      My book is 2nd edition 1979, 1st was 1973! 🙂

  • Reply
    David Hill
    July 21, 2015 at 11:05 am

    I was probably their best customer. Certainly ate there every week through the 80’s and 90’s. Some corrections. The Elephant on the river was the sister restaurant to the White Elephant in Curzon street. It was never the white elephant on the river….simply Elephant on the river. When the owners discovered that the property value far out wayed anything they could make by serving food they sold up for redevelopement. One of the owners was “Orlando” who explained all this, plus I think he had had enough by then.

    The last Manager was Mario, and he had an idea to approach the owner of the (competing)restaurant Villa Cesari, just a few yards away that was also now closed, to move the Elephant there. Originally it continued to be called the Villa Cesari, but then evolved into Elephant…Villa Cesari. Unfortunately the woman owner wanted huge rents, there was economic downturn and people didn’t want dinner dance anymore and after a good effort, it closed…around 2002. Many sad eyes on the final night. I am still in touch with the band members, The head waiter works at the Aubrigine at the complete Angler in Marlow…Mario…? I don’t know but would love to find out.

    The head Chef was Angelo (his special dish was Angelo Prawns)
    Memories are the huge plate of Giant prawns presented, when you only found out the cost after you had finished, because they were priced each…!

    Always fresh salad and olives when you arrived.

    I have so many tails of this place. I personally sang live on stage with Mariah Carey….a popular place for her and her backing singers when she was in London.

    On the last night I took a full set of crockery….I’ll see if I can find them.

    Very sad loss indeed…;(

    • Reply
      Luca
      October 16, 2015 at 8:40 pm

      Hi, my name is Luca and I worked at the Elephant on the river as comis waiter in 1993 – 1994 and I have so many beautiful memories as well about this place. I could not resist to reply to you and say how happy I am you have writen this article. I still have some pictures with the italian band used to play there. I remember all the people you mentiont on your artical manager Mario, Orlando, Domenico and fantastic chef Angelo. I remember the night when Mariah Carey came with backing singer and many other celebrities ….what a place it was! With a beautiful view of the river and concord was passing every night.

    • Reply
      Stuart Livingston
      August 31, 2016 at 2:39 pm

      Hey David…. a correction for you. It was indeed called the White Elephant on the River (see second photo above) and yes it was the sister business to the White Elephant in Curzon street.
      When I worked there in the early 70’s Stella Richman & her then husband Alec Hyams ran the place, Dominico was the MD, Orlando the head waiter and Mario a waiter. Later on Dominico and Orlando became the owners and Mario the Manager. I saw him there some 30 odd years later when in London on business. Tempus Fugit!

  • Reply
    Gordon Dix.
    August 23, 2015 at 12:32 am

    White Elephant(on the river). What super memories !. My wife Thelma and myself were very frequent visitors during the late 60’s and and throughout the 70’s. Lots of fun and superb service together with entertainment second to none. Thanks to Ray Ellington and company.Can never forget the Giant Prawns !!. Every time one returned the plate got larger, as did the bill!!. Wish we could return to those FABULOUS times.White Elephant, we miss you.

  • Reply
    Belinda Wright
    October 5, 2015 at 2:25 pm

    can anyone remember when the Elephant on the River moved from its original home into the Villa Cesari…I trying to pinpoint the year…I know that it was definitely in its new home at Villa Cesari by December 1999 because I had my post 40 th birthday bash brunch there …but when did they close the doors on the original restaurant….

  • Reply
    PE
    April 27, 2016 at 12:11 am

    Hi, I now live in a flat at 129 Grosvenor road and I learned to tell cabs to drop me “where the White elephant used to be” and every cabbie still knows it. Very interested to read these stories. If it’s not too much to ask – I have started collecting some souvenirs from the White elephant – if you have something spare and/or are willing to part, would love to chat. Cheers

  • Reply
    Janet Piller
    March 11, 2017 at 12:33 am

    My husband and I were both American journalists assigned to our different bureaus in London in 1976-1978. As Bureau Chief, he had a membership to the White Elephant. I remember this is the first place I have ate artichoke vinagrette (which I loved immediately), though I wasn’t sure how to eat it! The food was amazing, arriving in covered metal serving dishes and chafing dishes. The dessert trolley was equally amazing. They made a chestnut mousse that was incredible. It was very elegant, very reserved. I loved frequenting it.

  • Reply
    Hayley Rowe
    July 9, 2017 at 9:13 am

    I don’t know where it came from but I had a sudden memory of The White Elephant on the River and Villa dei Cesari. When my mum was dating her second husband we would drive to London from Basildon for a day out on a Sunday. We would drive along the Embankment and it became a ritual of mine to look out for both restaurants. I would desperately seek out the White Elephant afraid I miss it as we drove past and quickly to follow would be Villa dei Cesare. I was about 12 at the time and knew nothing about either restaurant but I just loved to see them. It was so lovely when I googled it to come across all these comments and details, a real trip down memory lane. Thank you.

  • Reply
    christian bonett
    August 28, 2017 at 4:12 pm

    I worked there for about a month as a musician (bass and vocals) and bandleader with Michael Goode (drums) and Ian Clyne (piano) in late 1972 or early 1973. Decor was tres rococo. It was almost devoid of customers at the time. But one night we did attract a couple of paying customers who had a couple of drinks at the bar and then left – Michael Caine and Roger Moore! Memories…

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