Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Toulouse-Lautrec to dark magician Aleister Crowley, HG Wells, Aldous Huxley and DH Lawrence as well as future kings of England –– all of them came to Café Royal.
Richard Le Gallienne, Walter Sickert, George Moore, Henry Harland, Oscar Wilde, Will Rothenstein,
William Butler Yeats, Aubrey Beardsley, John Davidson and Charles Conder
Artists, writers, composers, performers and wits of all stripes were drawn to the café but also welcome were the demimondaine’s paid girls and their pimps as well as ravishing artist’s models (the term, demimonde came from an 1855 work by Dumas, it means half-world). It made for a rather exciting firmament. Anything could and did happen with such a volatile company.
In his book Cafe Royal: Ninety years of Bohemia, author Guy Deghy put it well when he said,
Café Royal, Orpen
The café opened February 11, 1865 – one hundred and fifty years ago.
It all began when a man took a runner on his debts in France and assumed the name Nichols when he arrived in London, changing it from Daniel Nicolas Thévenon. Born in 1833, he came to London with his wife in 1863 a bankrupt wine merchant with 7 gold coins between them. In 2 short years through industry and ruthless thrift, he was able to move into a restaurant at 15-19 Glasshouse Street in London that he called Café Restaurant Daniel Nicols. Only months later thanks to the newly fashionable French wine and champagne that Nicols knew well (singers were singing songs advertising French wines in music halls), business was booming. 68 Regent Street was also procured and the place was renamed Café Royal. When Nicols died 30 years later at his country estate in Surbiton, he was worth half a million pounds. Café Royal had done very well.
Café Royal, 1915, Adrian Allinson
Osbert Sitwell, recalled the Café Royal’s famous Domino Room’s pre-1914, describing its ‘smoky acres of painted goddesses and cupids and tarnished gilding, its golden caryatids and garlands, and its filtered submarine illumination – composed of tobacco smoke, of the flames from the chafing dishes and the fumes from food, of the London fog outside and the dim electric light within’. The Domino room was the destination room in the Café.
James McNeill Whistler by Boldini, 1897
The first wit to grace the tables of Café Royal was American James McNeill Whistler, “…who signed with the mark of the Butterfly his bills for poulet en casserole and sweet champagne. Forever in a state of excitement over new finds on the menu, he endeared himself to Lecoste [wine buyer for the café] for his praise of the croûte Mallard.” It was said "In a second you discover that he is not conversing—he is sketching in words, giving impressions in sound and sense to be interpreted by the hearer.” He must have been a sensational dinner companion.
Oscar Wilde was soon to take over the crown from Whistler, but at the beginning, Whistler and Wilde had been great friends who engaged in brilliant badinage. One famous exchange occurred at a Whistler dinner. Wilde heard Whistler making a witty remark and said, “I wish I’d said that.” to which Whistler responded “you will Oscar, you will!”
George Bernard Shaw said Wilde was the supreme conversationalist of the day and fellow patrons would hang on “Oscar’s latest.” Now-classic remarks would appear in press sometimes hours after they had flown from his lips.
Oscar Wilde, 1882 Photo taken in NYC
For today's audience, Oscar Wilde is probably the most well-known denizen of Café Royal. Deghy devoted many pages to Wilde and his crowd at the Café, noting he was ‘good for business’, both for the patrons he drew in and his voracious appetite. Arthur Ransome said of Wilde, “he overfed like a schoolboy at a tuckshop with an unexpected sovereign in his hand.” “Each meal for him was an exquisite ritual, and he who had once roughed it on five-shilling dinners would now pour long and lovingly over his choice of the suprème de volaille à la Patti or the caneton de Roven à la presse, the sole Beaumanoir or the turbotin paysanne. At each stage of the meal he would summon the chef for involved instruction, and after each dish would compliment the manager in transcendental terms.” His influence went far beyond his appreciative consumption of Café victuals.
“Apart from the multitude of philistines and would-be artists who came to the Café Royal only to sit and stare, he [Wilde] attracted like a magnet the vast majority of poets, writers and artists of his day. He was, as Frank Harris said, “a sort of standard bearer” around whom they grouped them selves as the personification of their age and more than one celebrity forsook such outposts of bohemianism as the Crown, Kettner’s, the Cheshire Cheese and Verrey’s for his table.”
Oscar Wilde and 'Bosie' (Lord Douglas)
Another doomed luminary of Café Royal was Aubrey Beardsley, the Art Nouveau artist.
It could be that the madly talented clerk at the Guardian Life and Fire Assurance Co. was started on his brief but bright career as an artist through associations made at the Café – soon after his arrival there, he was advised to ditch insurance and to go to art school. His association with the notorious Yellow Book may also have been born in the swirling vortex of talent at Café Royal.
I have been a fan of Beardsley since I first saw his work at 13 years old. I didn’t fully understand decadence or pornography or homosexuality at that age but I had that attraction teens have for doomed artists and poets (the giant phalluses of his Lysistrata illustrations and the wild perversity of his drawings for Wilde's Salome were shocking but excitingly so). Beardsley was certainly doomed – tuberculosis had dogged him most of his life and took him when he was but 25 – only a few years after a visit to Paris –– the posters of Toulouse Lautrec and Japanese woodcuts (especially shunga pieces) that he saw there would revolutionize his art.
Beardsley in his apartment
“If Aubrey Beardsley had been in the habit of going to fancy dress balls he could have gone as the Café Royal, so accurately did he reflect the spirit of the old Café that he loved. He was only really happy in three places -- the Pavilion at Brighton, the Casino at Dieppe, and the Domino Room at the Café Royal. This was no mere whim of his vivid mind. All three had this in common: they were unreal, dreamland places for people who lived unreal, dreamland lives. And Beardsley, who lived in a room with orange walls and black doors, needed more than anyone else to live that kind of life. He had been dying of consumption ever since he was a child, almost; and desperately clinging to life, a bizarre, exaggerated life that could only be found in such places as these.”`
The description of Beardsley was striking, “an emaciated apparition of a boy, curiously-colored hair plastered down over his death-mask of a face like a tortoiseshell skullcap, and bony white hands fluttering like butterflies under an X-ray….”
Beardsley illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome
“In the café, among the unholy splendours of the world of mirrors, under the ripe fullness of the garland-infested caryatids, and heavy gold-dust in the air, the weird shapes of Beardsley’s ‘Japanesque’ mood began to form themselves in this mind. There the Beardsley Woman was born. This was his space.”
Prince of Wales
The Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII) loved good food. “He ate sparingly but selectively; he never touched underdone meat or starch-laden food, but fairly lean lamb and poultry; liked cold dishes in aspic, eggs, and fruit, especially strawberries.” When he was not attended by his great chef, Nicolas Soyer (son of Alexis), he impressed his foreign host's gastronomic advisors "with his profound understanding of the intricacies of their art and with his judicious restraint." He was surrounded by gourmets –– men like Alfred de Rothchild ‘whose household boasted three French chefs as well as a private string orchestra to accompany the dinner’, surgeon Sir Henry Thompson “…contended that eight was the ideal number of guests for a dinner, and called his exquisite stag-parties “octaves”. The Marquis de Soveral, known as ‘The Blue Monkey’ was the Princes’ primary gastronomic arbiter. He encouraged the Prince’s visits to Café Royal as the century came to a close.
Many things changed as the 19th century turned to the 20th. The luster of the Café Royal began to dim.
One dish that remained a favorite from the beginning is Chicken Pie Café Royal. “It has been handed on from chef to chef by word of mouth for who knows how many years? A Café chef who had been there since 1914 said it was a tradition even then. In the 1950’s, Chef Ruette wrote down the recipe. I bet those royal princes would have loved it… no fuss but so delicious. Another fine addition to the What's in a Name series.
Chicken Pie Café Royal
White Surrey chicken, (about 4 lb.); 8 thick rashers of streaky bacon; a medium sized onion; 3 hard –boiled eggs; ½ lb white mushrooms (firm); a goodly sprig of fresh parsley; and 1 ½ lb pie pastry
Clean and singe the chicken, then remove legs and cut a joint of drumstick and thigh. Cut off wings as if carving a cooked bird, i.e. leaving some flesh around the wish-bone and along the breast-bone; then cut across this middle piece between the wish-bone and the lower breast. This will give you four pieces of white meat and four pieces of dark. Cut the hard-boiled eggs in dices; chip the onion and the parsley 9not too fine); wash and slice the mushrooms. Season and mix these ingredients well; then mix with the pieces of chicken to allow as much of this garnish as possible to adhere to them. Stretch out the rashers and roll each piece of garnished chicken in a rasher of bacon, including the maximum of garnish. Make a stock with the seasoned trimmings and the giblets; then leave to cool.
Place the legs on the bottom of the pie-dish, then the white pieces. Add any remainder of garnish on top; then fill up the dish with the stock and cover with pastry. Cook in moderate oven for sixty to seventy five minutes. Serve direct from the over – very hot.
Chicken Pie Café Royal
4 boneless chicken thighs, cut in half, extra fat removed
S+P to taste
4 slices lean bacon cut in half (I ended up using more to get mostly the lean part)
1 hard boiled egg, finely chopped
3 T chopped parsley, finely chopped
3 T finely chopped onion
1 c stock
1 T flour
pie pastry for top crust or double crust as you wish
Salt and pepper the chicken, wrap the bacon around it and sauté till the bacon is browned. Remove.
Preheat oven to 375º
Pour off most of the fat leaving about 1 T. Add the flour and then stir till cooked. Pour in the stock, stirring all the while until the sauce is slightly thickened. Roll the chicken in the combined parsley, onion and egg. Put the chicken and mushrooms in the pan and pour the stock over it**. Place the pastry over the pie and seal leaving vents cut in the pastry*.
Put on a foil covered baking sheet. Cook till browned, about 50 minutes.
* I just used the top crust but you can do top and bottom for a much richer dish. If you use 2 crusts you can seal it more effetively
**Mine leaked a lot. I might even leave a center hole and only put in half the stock at the beginning and more 10 minutes before it’s done.
Chicken Pie Cafe Royal