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.
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:
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll add them to this post with your credit.