Last orders at the Café Royal

After 143 years, the London institution frequented by Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde has closed its doors

Andy McSmith
Tuesday 23 December 2008 01:00 GMT

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The last of the tea and toast has been taken, the waiters, caterers and cloakroom attendants have all gone home, and a part of the capital city's social history has closed. The Café Royal, where Winston Churchill waited anxiously to know his political future, and Oscar Wilde began the quarrel that ruined him, has served its final cream tea.

The last private party was held in a cellar on Saturday night by a regular customer and, on Sunday night, there was a cocktail party for 450 past and present former head waiters, sales staff and other associates of the club. Yesterday, the rooms were opened to the public to display the curiosities accumulated in 143 years of serving London's wealthy clientele. Then the doors were locked shut.

"We have had 15,000 people through our doors in the past 26 days, for the Christmas season," said Paul Boon, who has been director of operations for two years. "I would absolutely dread to think how many people have visited the Café in 143 years."

Exceptionally, the closure of the Café Royal is not a story of the recession. The Crown Estate, which owns the building, is embarking on a £500m redevelopment to open up the southern end of Regent Street and create 44,000 sq ft of new open space. After Trafalgar Square, it will be the biggest new open space in central London for 30 years.

The frontage of the Café Royal and the public rooms overlooking Regent Street are all Grade I listed, and will be preserved but the inside of the building will be converted into a hotel run by an Israeli company, Alrov. It is expected to be finished in time to take guests visiting London for the 2012 Olympics.

The final act in the Café Royal's history will be an auction in three weeks, where an abundance of little curios and half-useful artefacts could, even in these difficult times, raise millions of pounds. Should you happen to need a large, early 20th-century Venetian clear glass and gilt decorated 20-light chandelier with wrythen twisted arms and suspending tear-shaped glass drops and can afford to bid, say, £8,000, you should get yourself to Knightsbridge for the 20 January auction.

There, you could also pick up rugs, figurines, ornamental table lamps or candle holders, a giant oak barrel for storing brandy, or an iron machine for recorking wine bottles, which comes with a seat attached.

The most curious lot, perhaps, is the original Café Royal boxing ring; the blue tarpaulin still shows bloodstains from the savage fights staged there. John Sholto Douglas, the ninth Marquess of Queensberry, was both a regular customer at the Café Royal and a patron of amateur boxing. A revised set of rules for boxing matches were published under his name in the 1860s. The Marquess could not abide the relationship struck up between his neurotic son, Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie, and Oscar Wilde, though he had one amiable meeting with Wilde at the Café Royal in 1893, when he was temporarily won over by the playwright's charm.

But the charm wore off, and the Marquess left a misspelt calling card at Wilde's club, "for Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite". Wilde had a council of war at the Café Royal with George Bernard Shaw and Frank Harris, who urged him to let it drop, but he was intent on suing the Marquess for libel, a misjudgement that would land him in prison and ruin him. He stormed out, never to return.

Andy Fleming, an occasional customer, said: "I remember turning up for a New Year's Eve bash. Nobody said anything but I felt out of place because I was in a jumper – quite a smart jumper – and nearly everybody else was in dinner jackets. At three minutes to midnight, the band said their next number was eight minutes long, so they suggested we do the countdown then, so we counted in the new year three minutes early."

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