Located in one of New York’s most enviable addresses under the Brooklyn Bridge, the River Cafe is well-known as a culinary destination for both locals and tourists. For Discovery TravelingMom, this riverside elegant restaurant made her 20th anniversary even more special.

The River Cafe in Brooklyn: Where waterfront views and fine dining meet.

Elegant Dining at Brooklyn’s River Cafe

Brooklyn’s River Cafe is a special destination for tourists and locals alike. High-end dining with a spectacular view, the restaurant staff strives to make the experience memorable whether you’re out with friends or a special occasion such as a birthday, anniversary or proposal. Located in the heart of Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood there’s plenty to see and do near the River Café before and after your meal. This riverside restaurant created a special ambiance and memories for me my husband recently when celebrating our 20th anniversary.

The River Cafe after being re-built post Hurricane Sandy offers views, romance and a unique dining experience.

The River Cafe allows for views of the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan skyline and more. Photo Credit: Eden Pontz / Discovery TravelingMom

The River Cafe

Nearly 20 years ago, my husband and I attended a wedding party at Brooklyn’s River Café. And as I searched for a wonderful spot to celebrate our own 20th wedding anniversary, I wanted to appreciate New York and the many things it has to offer. As I scoured reviews and wracked my brain for a place that would feel special in late October, it came to me. Memories of a beautiful view, good food and music at the River Café. We’d last been there in the summertime when the grass was green and the air was warm.

With less than one month’s notice, I scored a late dinner (10 pm) reservation via phone. The thoughtful female staff member even asked if we were celebrating any special occasions, whether there were any special food requests they should know about, and how important it was for us to sit directly by the window looking over the river. It was clear right away that customer service would be an important ingredient towards a successful meal. (And with more than 200 people on staff, your elegant dinner turns into a true “experience”.)

Entering a Fairy Tale

Holidays are special at Brooklyn's River Cafe.

Seasonal decor at the River Cafe. Photo Credit: Eden Pontz / Discovery TravelingMom

Although accessible from Manhattan via ferry, water taxi, bicycle or walked from a subway stop nearby, we arrived by taxi at the River Café on a blustery, rainy evening. As we arrived at the waterfront restaurant, we turned into a rounded cobblestone driveway. Surrounded with lights and candles, the entrance, even in the bad weather, was warm and inviting — almost enchanting.

Walking inside we were greeted as if we were the only ones dining that night. Yet the River Café averages approximately 200 covers a night. The décor included ample flowers, as well as historic and nautical themed photos, prints and maps. Closer to Christmas when I returned to talk with staff,  flowers were adorned with crystals and stars, joined by a tree and a large nutcracker standing at attention.

To our left, live piano music was playing in the Terrace Room, often used for private parties, brunch and lunch meals. The glassed walls created a tropical feel, as if dining in a comfortable greenhouse or perhaps a plantation.

Walking the Plank

We were directed across the “gangplank” to the dining room. As you enter, you are floating, literally as the River Café is built on a river barge on the waterfront. The restaurant was transformed into

Back in the 1970s, the restaurant was transformed into this space by owner Michael “Buzzy” O’Keeffe, who had a vision for what was then, industrial waterfront property in bad need of care. It took him 12 years to convince New York City officials to give approval for building.

The River Cafe finally opened in 1977. Today, it remains a top-notch restaurant serving New American cuisine and offering ambiance and service.

O’Keeffe also owns the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, just a stone’s throw away. Churning out fresh ice cream throughout the year, a number of desserts on the menu include flavors from this location.

The River Café did have to shutter its doors for 18 months after sustaining damage from Hurricane Sandy. Although many doubted it would ever re-open, it finally did, February 1st, 2014, re-built with the same enthusiasm and quality that it had prior.

Staffers who’d been there before returned once again, including Morgan, one of the restaurant’s managers. He explained that many members of the staff love their jobs so much and have been there so long they are considered “lifers,”  The General Manager started at the restaurant as a valet and made his way up the ladder.

Since its reopening, the River Cafe now serves more meals than ever, having added breakfast to the menu Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 11:30 am.

The View and Staff Stories

Wherever you dine, enjoy a view of the river, although tables directly next to the window are certainly coveted. Other sights to see include the Brooklyn Bridge (you almost feel as if you’re tucked under it), the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. While we are locals, we felt just a little bit “touristy”-which was fun. And for the tourists who ventured out of Manhattan, dining here is a chance to feel more like a local. As we ate, we saw an old-fashioned River paddleboat, ferries adorned with colorful lights and large yachts passing by. Morgan tells of times they are able to watch the Presidential and other motorcades as they are ushered down the waterfront drives across the river. She says the FDNY also puts on quite a water spout show with training boats throughout the year.

While we are locals, we felt just a little bit “touristy” — which was fun. And for the tourists who ventured out of Manhattan, dining here is a chance to feel more like a local.

During our anniversary dinner, our view included an old-fashioned River paddleboat, ferries adorned with colorful lights, and large yachts passing by.

Manager Morgan told of times past watching the Presidential and other motorcades as they were ushered down the waterfront drives across the river. She says the FDNY also puts on quite a water spout show with training boats throughout the year.

Another part of “the view” inside the restaurant may include proposals or customers celebrating birthdays or anniversaries.

Javier, one of the maitre d’s, had some charming stories to tell and wasn’t shy about claiming the River Café’s spot as “the most romantic restaurant for proposals.” He told of a special code for proposals, so the staff knows to keep things discreet so as not ruin the magic moment.

“After all, you wouldn’t want two guests proposing next to each other, right? They must have their own unique experience!” Javier said.

One story included a year in which 11 couples from around the world celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary (from the same date) on the same evening. He asked if he could re-arrange the tables to allow them all to eat together and take a photograph. They said yes. And some of these couples still keep in touch to this day. And yes, all the happiness is infectious.

The River Cafe menu aims to please just about everyone.

A starburst of steak tartare at the River Cafe. Photo credit: Eden Pontz / Discovery TravelingMom

The Food

Although I’m not a professional restaurant reviewer, I enjoy good food and consider myself to be somewhat of a foodie. At times, my biggest complaint with restaurants in which you’re spending a decent amount of money is portion size. I loathe walking out feeling overfull due to large “Americanized” portions. I also dislike feeling hungry at “nouveau” restaurants with bird-like portions.

That was not the case at the River Cafe, as Chef Brad Steelman (in the post since 2000) designs portions that seem to be “just right”.  As it’s always a fixed price menu, there are a certain amount of courses (typically three, sometimes four) to look forward to. Selections are seasonal as Chef strives to source fresh and local, but the best possible ingredients. The menu stays fairly consistent.

We tried the Wagyu steak tartare, made with hand-cut Kobe-style beef and a “starburst” of accompanying condiments including cognac gelee, chives, mustard and quail egg. It was (as they say in New York) like “buttah.”

Our main course was poached Nova Scotia lobster with squid ink cavatelli, lobster claw and spinach gratin. (Usually, my husband and I try to get different items and share but on this night we got exactly what we wanted and enjoyed them thoroughly.)

For dessert, we did choose different options and did some taste testing. There was nothing left of our milk chocolate soufflé or apple almond pave. Another specialty of the house, a chocolate Brooklyn Bridge, was tempting. But in the end, we enjoyed watching a neighbor at another table indulge in the architectural sweet.

Although some may claim that the menu isn’t “edgy” enough compared to other restaurants these days, it provides something for just about everyone without being over the top. The wine menu is a combination of fine and extraordinary.

The Dress Code

The River Café does require men to wear jackets for dinner. (They keep a range of jackets in the event you’ve shown up with reservations but without a jacket.) If you’re a tourist coming for the experience, this is not a hip, ripped-jeans kind of spot. For lunch time on the weekends, a bit more casual attire is permitted. Some special holiday dinners, such as New Year’s Eve, may be black tie required.

It’s worth noting that for holidays, the River Café only takes reservations one month in advance. While that helps even the playing field for guests Javier says they typically fill up within about three hours.

For a holiday such as New Year’s Eve, they hold a black-tie, five-course event. You’ll be joined by a six-piece orchestra, dinner and dancing, a bottle of champagne, caviar and more. This special event will set you back with a hefty price tag starting at $695. Too rich for my blood, but there’s no doubt it will sell out. (A more casual alternative is available in the Terrace Room for a more moderate, although still expensive, price.)

In this day and restaurant age, it’s hard to find a spot thats enjoyable to both locals and tourists-especially if they’re eating together. But the River Café manages to strike a strong balance, letting you float through your meal, feel comfortable and enjoy the experience—regardless of which contingent you represent.

Get to the River Cafe by boat, bike, car or foot.

Consider taking a ferry or river taxi to the River Cafe from Manhattan. Photo Credit: Eden Pontz / Discovery TravelingMom