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Situated on the corner of London's Shaftesbury Avenue and Windmill Street, famous for its theatre 'which never closed', the Trocadero Restaurant was one of the most exclusive restaurants in Europe when it opened in 1896. Located close to Piccadilly Circus the history of the site is well documented and its first reference can be found in Lord Claredon's, History of Rebellion published posthumously in 1704. Originally a tennis court, it became a circus, a theatre, a club and a venue for music and dancing when Robert Bignell (a wine merchant) opened the Argyll Rooms (named after the famous rooms in Argyll Street which burned down in 1832) in 1851. It attracted the nobility and the demi-monde (fringes of society) of the period and became famous for its masquerade balls. Because of the rooms notoriety the licence was not renewed and the Argyll Rooms closed in 1878. Between 1878 and 1895 the rooms were leased to a number of theatrical agents until 1895 when Bignell's granddaughter granted a 99-year lease to Lyons; Bignell having died in 1888.

Lyons rebuilt the property to the design of W. J. Ancell and J. Hatchard Smith as an exquisite restaurant with a 6 ft deep x 90 ft long frieze, depicting Arthurian scenes, running round the beautiful marble foyer entrance. With the main restaurants on the lower and ground floors the upper floors were given over to private function rooms which could be adjusted depending on numbers to be catered. The famous Long Bar opened in 1901. It was a strictly male preserve, and its visitors' book, first instituted at the request of overseas visitors so they could trace friends with whom they had lost touch, bore addresses ranging from Tooting Bec (in London) to British Guyana, Waziristan, Fiji and the French Cameroons. In December 1937 it changed its name to the Salted Almond cocktail bar, where women were welcome. During the two World Wars it was a rendezvous for British and Allied officers, some of whom must have said hopefully: 'Meet you in the Long Bar ...'

In 1896 and for several years afterwards, a nine-course meal at the Trocadero cost half a guinea, but lunch was 3 shillings and less expensive dinners could be obtained for 5 shillings and 7s. 6d. Apart from the table d'hôte, diners could choose from an à la carte menu containing a couple of dozen hors d'oeuvres, at least a dozen soups and numerous entrées, roasts, entremets, pastries, savouries and desserts. Another feature of the Trocadero was the telephone dinner whereby customers could place their order by telephone, for a given time, perhaps specifying the price they were prepared to spend. Alternatively they could give a general idea of the meal they required leaving the details to be decided by the maître d'hôtel. For example, customers could order a dinner for 12s. 6d. per head, specifying partridges and a Japanese salad and leaving the rest to be chosen by the maître d'hôtel. Trocadero prices remained unchanged for many years, since management were reluctant to increase them, even though the rise in the cost of raw materials would have justified higher prices.

The concert tea had its beginnings at the Trocadero. During the First World War the banqueting rooms were under-utilised, and in 1916 tea was served for the first time in the Empire Hall along with a full concert programme. It was not long before fashionable London realised that with its music, its delightful teas, and the pleasant atmosphere the Empire Hall held attractions that were too good to miss. Indeed the Trocadero's concert teas became so popular they were soon copied by many other hotels and restaurants across London.

In the mid-1920s cabaret was introduced and continued every night until the start of the Second World War. Marjorie Robertson, later known as Dame Anna Neagle, started her career as a dancer at the Trocadero in 1926 when she joined one of Charles Blake Cochran's late-night cabarets, called Supper Time, in the Grill Room.

The 1920 wine list had no fewer than 560 varieties and none had spurious labels. So much wine was consumed at the Trocadero, and the other Lyons restaurants and hotels that developed, that it became necessary to employ a full-time buyer who regularly travelled to France to secure huge quantities of the best vintages. During the years 1895 - 1916, Lyons purchased, among others, the entire output of Château Belair St Emilion. As to price, in 1921 an excellent Château Lafite of 1906 vintage cost 14s. 6d. The Château Mouton Rothschild 1905 was marginally cheaper at 14 shillings.

The Trocadero restaurant set new standards in catering. It became a popular topic of conversation for London's Victorian and Edwardian glitterati and attracted the most discerning customers from home and abroad. From the very first year the Trocadero made a profit of £200 per week, increasing to £800 by the turn of the century - nearly twice as much as all the teashops put together and a third of Lyons' profits but by the 1930s its revenues declined. Uniquely placed, at what many believed to be the hub of the British Empire, it was used from 1896 to 1962 as the venue for the shareholders' Annual General Meetings, during which they were frequently reminded by the Chairman to use its facilities for their own business or private entertaining needs. The Trocadero closed on 13 February 1965.

Postscript November 2007

Property developer Asif Aziz was refused, for the second time, a plan for a 503-bedroom hotel on the Trocadero site. Despite months of redesign and securing approval from planning officers for the £100m overhaul of the site on Shaftesbury Avenue, the project was derided by councillors. During a planning meeting on 1 November 2007, councillors described the new glass façade, lit with different colours, as hideous. Those opposing the plan included English Heritage, Shaftesbury plc and the Westminster Society. This was the second rejection of Aziz's plan which was refused in 2006.

© Peter Bird 2002

Courtesy Mike Conway of the Glen Nevis Restaurant, Scotland, where the picture hangs.



Christmas day, 1927

Courtesy Peter Bird