I delivered recently a speech on the history of Cafe Royal on Regent Street, which opened as a hotel in 2012 having gone through a massive restoration. I’m sharing this with you below.
Narrating the story backwards, Hotel Café Royal has existed in its current form for five years having launched in 2012. Starting in 2008 when The Crown Estate embarked on a rigorous renovation of the quadrant bloc of lower Regent Street, which till then had remained downtrodden and forgotten about in comparison to the Oxford Circus end. These revival plans included an amalgamation of a Barclays Branch, Country Fire House and the historic Café Royal, that would see the introduction of a modern great hotel into the area. Walking through the corridors in the hotel you’ll sense slight elevations at certain points. These signal your departure from one building to the next.
The aptly named Hotel Café Royal is part of the Israeli group of hotels known as The Set, identified by the historic buildings that they occupy.
David Chipperfield Architects and Donald Insall Associates undertook this renovation. The two creative offices have shown immense sensitivity towards the historic nature of the buildings. The façade has of course been spruced up but not modified; the marble in the main entrance has been restored, the Grill Room, presently known as the Oscar Wilde room, has been brought back to its former glory, 25 000 gold leafs were used on the ceiling and wall panels to do so.
Hotel Café Royal was never a hotel, and so rooms and suites had to be constructed from scratch. David Chipperfield, used Portland stone as a nod to the material used in the façade, Carrera marble for the bathrooms and oak panelled walls for the suites. All allude to heritage but are designed for contemporary design enthusiasts. As lead architect, Melissa Johnson said We wanted everything to look like it had always been so – the modern parts a gentle seamless continuation of the old.
Somehow, Hotel Country Fire House does not have the same metropolitan and cosmopolitan feel to it as Hotel Café Royal. The name, of course is not coincidental. It pays homage to Café Royal, which opened in 1865 on the same premises.
In that year, Daniel Nicholas Theveron, a former Parisian wine merchant, opened a café- restaurant in 1865 at No 16-17 Glasshouse Street. Business was doing well and by 1870 he expanded his premises to include no 8 Air Street and no 68 Regent Street. In the basement of the new premises were a wine cellar, whose magnitude became famous throughout London, and a billiard room. On the ground floor were a café, luncheon bar and a Grill Room designed by Archer and Green. Until they were closed in 1909 the floors above had private rooms. The Domino Room with its marble topped tables and red velvet seats, was from the 1890s until the 1920s a famous and fashionable meeting place for artists and writers. Sickert, Augustus John Beardsley, Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohn and Whistler, who signed his bills with a butterfly mark, were all regular customers at The Domino Room.
In the summer term of ’93 a bolt from the blue flashed down on Oxford. It drove deep; it hurtlingly embedded itself in the soil. Dons and undergraduates stood around, rather pale, discussing nothing but it. Whence came it, this meteorite? From Paris. Its name? Will Rothenstein. With Rothenstein I paid my first visit to the Bodley Head. By him I was inducted into another haunt of intellect and daring, the domino room of the Cafe Royal. There, on that October evening – there, in that exuberant vista of gilding and crimson velvet set amid all those opposing mirrors and upholding caryatids, with fumes of tobacco ever rising to the painted and pagan ceiling, and with the hum of presumably cynical conversation broken into so sharply now and again by the clatter of dominoes shuffled on marble tables, I drew a deep breath and, “This indeed,” said I to myself, “is life!”
Of course so much of the above depended on the design of Regent Street itself. Initially designed by Nash in 1808 – 1811 we owe the shape of the quadrant and the sweeping curve of Regent Street to Nash, but The Set inherited little from the first Café Royal as by the end of the 19th century it needed a refurbishment. In 1895 under the guidance of Sir Reginald Blomfield, Regent Street gets a facelift, and it is to him we owe the stylistic tone of the Quadrant. As early as 1923-24 Sir Henry Tanner redesigned the premises in order to conform to the other buildings of the Regent Street Quadrant, much to the disappointment of one client, Thomas William Hodgson Crosland, the British author, poet, journalist and friend of royalty who wrote They might as well have told us that the British Empire is to be pulled down and redecorated.
During this renovation phase, the original Domino Room is converted into The Grill Room. Parts of what we see today, the gilded walls and the caryatides originate from when it was The Domino Room. The Grill Room quickly became famous across London for serving simple yet delicious English food. Edward VIII and George VI patronised this café. An entry in the waiters’ instruction book ran as follows ‘Prince of Wales, Duke of York- lunch frequently. Always plain food. No fuss. Call head waiter at once and notify manager.’ In an ad found in the 1950s the management make a special note to mention that food requests that are off the menu can also be catered for at The Grill room as long as the chef is granted advanced warning. Such was the loyalty felt towards the guests.
Today the Grill Room is the Oscar Wild Room where the afternoon high tea is served. Note the red leather tulip shaped sofas. They were made by Poltrona Frau to resemble the red velvet armchairs that Oscar Wild once confused with tulips having drunk too much absinth in the first Domino Room. In the renovation of the 1920s the Domino room was moved upstairs to the first floor. It is from here that Winston Churchill and Rufus Isaacs drank claret waiting for the call from the Prime Minister, Campbell-Bannerman. Today it is the members’ club.
By the 1920s Café Royal was the umbrella name for an establishment that included two restaurants The Grill and Le Relais and two bars Nicols and Bobby’s, in addition to 9 floors of private function rooms. It is during this period that we gain The Pompadour room, named after the mistress of King Louis XIV. I can only assume that it is named after her because of the mock Versailles decoration, which had come back into fashion at the time. Although, all function rooms were decorated to the highest of standards and with contemporary facilities, no other room was as impressive as The Pompadour room, and as a result it is Grade II listed.
In a brochure from the 1950s a special mention is made about the availability of these rooms for businesses to host conferences in them. As a historian, this material is important to us as they offer insight into the zeitgeist of the time. Indeed the 1950s were a decade of a new kind of corporate behaviour and institutions, as society became more liberal, places like Café Royal had to adapt. Bohemia’s safe haven moved towards providing a platform for the expression of a new business manner. Appropriately, the brochure mentions the evolution of the space into a banqueting room where once Whistler and Oscar Wilde dinned.
I have found that the danger many historical establishments, particularly those of the hospitality and entertainment nature, run into, is becoming pastiche as they resort to stopping the clock in order to live in their bygone glamour. Contrary to many such institutions, Hotel Café Royal’s history has embraced the rapidly changing face of London and acknowledges that a city is a layered and fluid entity.
Today’s brochure quotes Winston Churchill To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often. Funnily, it resonates with a pamphlet from the 1950s advertising Café Royal as an establishment with a continuous policy of updating that ensures it constantly meets the demands of an ever- changing society. The acknowledgement of the need for change is refreshing.
One cannot do Café Royal justice by just talking about the architectural changes that it underwent, as most importantly this space witnessed the evolution of British society into a socially fluid and more liberal one.
50 years ago this year homosexuality was decriminalised, such a landmark moment in British social history. 150 years ago, Oscar Wilde’s life and career came to an end as he fell out with his lover’s father in Café Royal, an argument that led to Wilde’s imprisonment. As his works entertained the wealthy, the social research conducted by Charles Dickens on his walk down from Camden Town to Café Royal, offers us insight into poverty stricken London at the time. On Café Royal, Charles Dickens’ wrote in his Dictionary of London as a place for those “who know how to order”.
Fast forward to the years of WWI, when Virginia Wolf and her husband frequented Café Royal. This is the days of Suffragettes and women’s rights, and Virginia witnesses an argument between a young couple at Café Royal. She decides to write about this in her realist novel Jacob’s Room. Male critics slam the novel but even so it provides a vital piece of documentation for a society in flux. That a young woman could have made such a public display of her emotions in Café Royal suggest the erosion of conservative boundaries that once kept women in check. It is these boundaries that forced Virginia Wolf into self-publishing her work as no literary agent would go near her work. Now the practice of self-publishing is the norm, and more often than not associated with the success of 50 shades of grey instead of Woolf.
By 1950 the descendants of Daniel Nicholas Theveron sold Café Royal to the Rocco Forte group. In 1951, it became the home of the National Sporting Club and black –tie dinners before boxing bouts were regularly held here. Hugh Cecil, the Fifth Earl of Lonsdale, and John Sholto Douglas, the ninth Marquess of Queensberry, wrote the famous Queensberry Rules for Boxing at Café Royal in 1867 and for this reason are considered the founding members of the club. As one said boxing and the Café Royal have always been hand in glove.
While the boxers tended to come from Britain’s working classes and the promoters and managers were often middle-class businessmen with some money to throw at the game, the senior administrators and many of those at ringside came from public schools and the higher echelons of society, including stockbrokers, the landed gentry and royalty.
Boxing historian Miles Templeton.
Skiing has also strong ties to Café Royal as it is here in May 1903 that a group of young men and decided to found an organisation to promote the sport in Britain. The Ski Club of Great Britain was born more than 100 years later has upwards of 29,000 members.
As I write this from the Pompadour Ballroom, I overlook Air Street, which creates a stygian arch bridging the commercial luxury of Regent Street with the once grimy backstreets of Soho. Standing on Air Street, you can get a sense of Café Royal’s unique location. To the south lies St James’s and Piccadilly, both owned by The Crown Estate. To the West is Mayfair, the aristocracy’s stomping ground from 1720s till now. Behind is Soho, which in 1865, the date Café Royal opened, was a bizarre entity – a home to aristocratic families, religious émigrés, and budding Shakespeare actors, who attended the academy on Soho Square. To the north is Fitzrovia and Camden, their social history penned by Charles Dickens’ alter ego Boaz. The locale is pivotal to the institution’s history.
No other commercial entity has attracted people from so many different walks of life: a social commentator, a playwright, royalty, boxers, authors and artists, all of whom regarded it as their favourite drinking spot. That is the unique history of Hotel Café Royal and its architecture simply fortified it.