In 1863, a French wine merchant called Daniel Nicholas Thévenon and his wife Celestine arrived in England with just £5 between them, escaping the clutches of creditors back home. So began a story that grew out of bankruptcy and culminated in the creation of a supreme reputation for novel atmosphere and pleasure in the centre of London’s West End.
Daniel Nicholas Thévenon anglicised his name to Daniel Nicols. Within a couple of years he had conceived and established the place on London’s Regent Street he called the Café Royal.
Regent Street was conceived by John Nash in the early 1800s as a unified design, unusual for London, and completed in 1825. Originally called New Street, the Georgian thoroughfare was dedicated to the Prince Regent, who later became George IV. So when the Café Royal opened at its southern end in 1865, the now famous sweeping, colonnaded Nash terrace was still relatively novel.
Daniel and Celestine had a son, also called Daniel Nicols, and it was he who took the family business to new heights. By the end of the century the Café Royal was renowned as a truly remarkable and original establishment with what was considered at one point to have the greatest wine cellar in the world.
It was a centre for fashionable London, frequented by writers and artists such as Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. The conversations, inspirations and discussions at the Café were profound. Arthur Conan Doyle, H G Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, W B Yeats, Walter Sickert and James McNeill Whistler were all patrons.
After substantial rebuilding in the 1920s, the Café’s appeal widened as did its clientele. In the 1930s and 40s, Augustus John, D H Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill, Noël Coward, Jacob Epstein and Graham Greene would be seen dining there.
Royalty also took to the place, and the Prince of Wales, later to abdicate as Edward VIII in order to marry Mrs Simpson, and The Duke of York, later to become George VI, often took lunch at the Café, as latterly did Diana, Princess of Wales.
Some of the early rules of boxing were first written down in the building, and from 1951 the Café Royal became the home of the National Sporting Club, which held black-tie dinners there before bouts.
The magnetic appeal of the Café continued to the later stages of the 20th century. Through the now venerable doors came beauties and stars such as Brigitte Bardot and Elizabeth Taylor, music and sports celebrities such as Mick Jagger and Muhammed Ali – all the movers of new Sixties avant garde.
After the Café Royal’s acquisition by The Set, it was closed in 2008 and its many famous unique curios and artefacts were put up for auction. For over three years it was cocooned while the radical restoration and redevelopment took place. The new Café Royal hotel opened in December 2012 and continues to emerge in stages during 2013.