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Popular Menu Front  
Courtesy Ian Rossiter 2012  
Courtesy Ian Rossiter 2012  

Popular Cafe


The Popular Cafés and the State Restaurant

Until 1903 the Lyons restaurant business was concentrated on their popular teashops. The Trocadero Restaurant had opened in 1896 but this was a very grand affair affordable by only the middle and upper classes. To fill the gap between the teashop and the Trocadero a new brand of restaurants emerged. The first of these opened in Manchester in October 1903 and was known as Victoria Mansions. Primarily a business restaurant its opening hours were restricted to between noon and 9 p.m.

In 1904 two new London restaurants opened: the Birkbeck Café, Holborn, (known as the businessman's café), and the Blenheim Café, New Bond Street. Unlike the teashops, all three restaurants were licensed. Although the Birkbeck remained open until 1923 and the Blenheim until 1921 these two London restaurants were not considered successful. However, the Victoria Mansions continued to flourish.

With the opening of the Popular Café in Piccadilly, London, on 10 October 1904, another - super-restaurant - was ushered in. It enjoyed instant success by offering a four-course luncheon for 1s. 6d. and with the benefit of musical accompaniment. It was here that Victor Sylvester, the famous bandleader and broadcaster, started his show-business career. The Popular Café had seating for 2,000 customers and it remained open until the start of the Second World War.

Like the teashops, gratuities were forbidden to be accepted by the waiters who were later supplemented by waitresses. The place was of palatial proportions, consisting of a very large ground floor restaurant, an enormous grand hall, a commodious banqueting hall, spacious lobby entrance, cloak rooms, service rooms etc. In the main floor café, the treatment of the wall was in hand-painted panels of small design with satin wood paneling and gilded enrichments, let in and supported by linked pilasters of marble. The ceiling had exhibits in the Pergolesi style picked out with delicate tints of greys, gold-browns, heliotrope, and green, with gilded mouldings running round. The ceiling light was in cloisonn glass in colours out-lined in gold wires to show up the design. A marble staircase led to the balcony, which had a Greek marble balustrade with gilded enrichments. The lighting arrangements consisted of four large 'electroliers' and forty smaller ones, suspended from the ceiling.

The lobby entrance had a Roman-style mosaic floor and coloured panels; and the entrance hall contained white statuary. Each floor had a separate kitchen service with pneumatic tube connections and electric lifts. The kitchens and offices were lined with white glazed tiles.

Afternoon musical teas were one of the special features of the Café. The main floor café and balcony was exclusively utilised for this purpose from 3 to 6 p.m., and shoppers from Piccadilly and Regent Street appreciated the arrangements. Silver tea services and daintiness in every detail were some of the key-notes of the afternoon teas, and the band played continuously during the afternoons. This was one of the largest cafés in Europe.

The success of the Popular Café in Piccadilly encouraged Lyons to open the State Restaurant, Liverpool, in January 1905 and they followed this with the Popular Café, Manchester, in January 1906. Although both cities had world-famous hotels, their restaurants did not quite meet the needs of the middle-class resident or shopping public. Although no records have survived describing these two provincial restaurants, they achieved the same instant success as the Piccadilly restaurant. The service was similar to that of the London establishments and they were supported by a miniature Cadby Hall in Liverpool complete with bakeries, kitchens and all the necessary equipment for the teashops and restaurants in the north of England. Music too formed part of the service and this was expanded to include vocal concerts in the early 1920s. Another popular restaurant which received little publicity within Lyons was the Arcade Café in Leeds. Opened in October 1903, it was originally more up-market than the teashops but a few years later it converted to a teashop and closed as such in July 1938. The Popular Café, Manchester, closed in July 1938 followed by the State Restaurant, Liverpool, in July 1949. The Piccadilly Popular Café closed in July 1939.

© Peter Bird 2004