Can the Café Royal recapture its place as the beating heart of intellectual and gastronomic London?
Samuel Muston takes a tour of its lavish restoration
Samuel Muston is deputy editor & food editor of The Independent Magazine. He writes a weekly food column – On the Menu – which appears in The Independent on Friday and i on Monday. And also travel and general features. Follow him on Instagram at @smuston
Friday 01 February 2013
Arthur Conan Doyle clearly thought that a singular event called for a singular setting. So when in 1902 the one-legged news vendor outside Charing Cross station held up his black placard bearing the news, “Murderous attack on Sherlock Holmes”, the article that followed gave one of the most famous addresses in London as the site of the shocking event: the Café Royal.
Readers of The Aventure of the Illustrious Client did not need the exact address on Regent Street to know where Holmes had been cut down. For in the 37 years since it was opened by fugitive Frenchman Daniel Nichols, this four-pillared palace of Portland stone and Italian marble, with its glass front jutting chin-like into Regent Street, had become a centre of events artistic, literary and gastronomic. With significance as large as a bull elephant its telegraphic address was simply: Restaurant, London.
Earlier ages had their taverns and inns, congenial places for this coterie or that, but none welcomed so many and so kaleidoscopic a clientele as the Café Royal. At first its trade was Frenchified exiles and enemies of the Bonapartists who came to this French seed in English soil like Chekhov characters in search of an orchard.
Soon their prattling was accompanied by the high-pitched wheeze of James McNeill Whistler, Oscar Wilde’s epigrams and “dear old” Max Beerbohm’s observations. The Duchess of Manchester brought Mark Twain. G K Chesterton came, sat in the corner and sniggered like it was a joke only he understood. The absinthe-tinged personages of Rimbaud and Verlaine could be seen mournfully slumped on the marble tables. The waiters consistently refused to cash D H Lawrence’s cheques.
It quickly became the home of high bohemia. As one newspaper referred to it, “the home of lost causeries”, and another called it “the hot-air cupboard”. Nothing was done there: it was a place of wit and languor and gastronomic recline. Artists came; artists drank; artists talked, mostly of themselves.
No one coterie ever fully dominated 68 Regent Street, though. New generations came, settled, drank and ate, argued over this and that. Power followed art, too, up the marble horseshoe-shaped stairs to the upscale Domino Room above the café proper. Winston Churchill and Rufus Isaacs drank claret waiting, night in, night out, for the call from the Prime Minister, Campbell-Bannerman. Aneurin Bevan, just up from Monmouthshire, could be seen arguing with friends amid the gilt and mirrors of the Grill Room. The first manager, W Young, was obliged to remind Leopold, King of the Belgians, that while he may be exempt from licensing laws at home he was not at the Café Royal. More decorous were the future Edward VIII and George VI, about whom the waiter’s book laconically recorded: “No fuss. Always plain food. Call head waiter at once and notify the manager.”
And to this magnificent clientele, like greenfly to a rose bush, also came the pimps, the peacocking models, bookies and loafers, conmen and journalists, making popular the new “mixed drinks” and keeping the registers pinging. Alas, cafés, like candles, burn out. From the 1970s onwards the glamour faded, the gilt greyed. There were the odd flashes of starlight, when David Bowie retired Ziggy Stardust, sealing the deal by snogging Lou Reed. Or when Gordon Ramsay had his wedding reception there. But nothing as before.
Rocco Forte took over in the 1950s, the Nichols family having long since retreated to the country estate they had built in Surbiton on all those many absinthes. By the early 2000s it was owned by Starwood Hotels and Resorts. David Shaw, head of the Crown Estates Regent Street Division, owner of the freehold, dismissed it as “a place where journalists and accountants could go for a cheap conference”, adding with a prophetic finality, “we don’t think that’s appropriate”.
The result of those words opens fully for business next month: The Café Royal Hotel. The old café rooms (all Grade II-listed) have been wrapped in a 159-room shawl of a hotel. Designed by Chipperfield Architects, it was conceived by the Israel-based Akirov brothers, fans of hotels with history, and it features the state-of-the-art Akasha spa, a host of Louis XIV function rooms, a leather-walled members’ club with an honesty bar, three dining rooms, a screening room and two bars (one with seafood; one with absinthe).
The bedrooms are now luxurious in a modern, muted way. You could get lost in the shower. The walls are the same ashlar as the blocks on the Regent Street exterior, the vast bed the same size as the vast Carrera marble bath. Installing them was “like making your bed standing on it”, Melissa Johnston, the lead architect, says. “We wanted everything to look like it had always been so – the modern parts a gentle seamless continuation of the old.”
One doesn’t need to stay there to enjoy it. Walk in today off Regent Street, through the marble ante-room and cross the lobby into the Grill Room and you are back to the time when Charles Dickens’ Dictionary of London described it as a place for those “who know how to order”. Back when a decorator would not immediately be defenestrated if they suggested covering each wall in mirrors, gilt caryatids and a tripped-out fantasia of French decorative ornamentation that runs from Louis XV to Louis Philippe. Today you can have a cocktail and an oyster here. The entertainment has not yet been settled, though. “Who do you get for a room like this?” the deputy manager asks. “We tried some burlesque artistes but the room drowned them right out.”
If you want dinner or lunch turn left from The Grill and cross the sunlight-yellow atrium to the soon-to-open 60-seat café or the 10 Room. The latter is a vast space of red leather banquettes and grey marble, its high ceilings giving the slight air of a squash court, an effect nicely ameliorated when the lights are lowered.
The executive chef, Andrew Turner, has riffed off old recipes here. Chicken pot-au-feu is back, for instance. “I took inspiration from the book Parnassus Near Piccadilly, which listed some old recipes. We gave things a contemporary touch – we lightened the beef consommé and served the ‘duckling with orange’ with pickled turnips and hibiscus jelly.” One dish that needed no lightening on the snowy Sunday I sat down there was the suckling-pig stew served with its own crispy breaded ribs.
Alas, the Domino room upstairs will only be open to those staying in the hotel (price: £540 a night) or members of the club. Sad because this room, “the haunt of intellect and daring” as Beerbohm had it, witnessed so many minor tragedies in the life of English arts, letters and politics. It was here Wilde began on his journey to Reading Gaol. George Bernard Shaw and Frank Harris, a literary editor and confirmed café royalty, had bidden Wilde to dine with them after he had begun proceedings against the Marquis of Queensberry over his “to Oscar Wilde posing as a sodomite” message. Harris implored Wilde to drop the case and go abroad. The “red-leaf-lipped” Bosie implored otherwise, vehemently. Had not his father, who had codified the rules to boxing but settled his own quarrels with a horsewhip, gone too far when he entered the café the week previous and announced that if he found Wilde and his son dining he would strike the writer across the face with his cane and smash the café? The party broke in ignominy and Wilde would soon be writing de profundis.
In his time with Bosie he had spent £5,000. A good deal of it at the café. The draw? Apart from its clientele, the food. For 60 to 70 years, the place had led the charge in English food (along with Cesar Ritx) – helping change us from a nation composed of trenchermen, to one in which a gourmet could hold his head high.
From the days of the gastro-critic Lt-Colonel Newnham-Davis eulogising chef Augusto Oddenino’s parfait de foie gras in The Sporting Times (motto: high Toryism, high churchism, high farming and old port forever!) through to the mid-20th century, Nichols’ high standards were maintained. And they are back.
People have a strong faculty for myth. It seizes on places and it has seized the Café Royal for its own. It is a fabled place. Whether it will now attract such names as it once did, so incongruous and bright, we will see. It may now be an expensive hotel, but surely even the chilliest puritan would wish this piece of London’s history well.
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