Hotel Cecil, London
The Hotel Cecil was one of the largest and grandest hotels in the world when it opened in 1886 situated between the Embankment and the Strand and not far from the Savoy Hotel. It was one of the most popular places to visit in London with excellent cuisine, perfect ambiance, luxurious surroundings and one of the best dancing salons in the West end.
The building was originally a red brick and stone block of chambers and flats built next to the Adelphi Terrace overlooking the Embankment Gardens. It was one of the schemes of the well known financier, MP and fraudster Jabez Balfour whose Liberator Building Society failed in 1892 causing a scandal by leaving thousands of investors penniless. The building project was abandoned and a company was subsequently formed, with some distinguished gentlemen as directors, to buy the building and they turned it into one of the most comfortable hotels in London. It was named the Hotel Cecil after Sir Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury and treasurer to James 1 who had had a house on part of the site.
Built in a very spacious and lavish style with over 800 rooms, at first it had an enormous entrance courtyard, known affectionately as the beach and regarded as the most American spot in London. Here, on the paving were cane chairs and rocking chairs and piles of luggage and it became a favoured meeting and socialising spot.
M. Bertini, a clever, quick eyed and bearded Italian was the manager and M. Coste one of the greatest chefs of the late Victorian era was in charge of the kitchens. The Cecil restaurant was a large, lofty and spacious with a very imposing colonnades or pillar of rich blue. At one end the vast windows formed part of hanging terrace which seems almost at one with the trees and the gardens of the embankment overlooking the Victoria Gardens and the river and big windows on the West side giving a glorious view of Westminster. For the summer, there was also a veranda part of the restaurant with a sheltered striped sun awning.
But at first the décor in the restaurant was too sombre and things were not right. The panelling was of walnut wood with a large square of deep crimson velvet embroidered with the Cecil coat of arms and great mantelpieces of purple grey Sicilian marble. The restaurant had no ante–room, and people had to wait in the busy hall of the hotel that proved to be an inconvenience. It was deemed to be slightly old fashioned and not palatable for the ladies. It was not long therefore, before the management decided to build on the large entrance courtyard creating a separate entrance for the restaurant and a vast Palm Court or winter garden as a noble reception room all charmingly decorated and upholstered in powdered blue and gold. The Palm Court was the location for dancing that was held nightly because of it was airy and expansive and romantically lit. Even with chairs and sofas around the sides of the room, the floor space was considerable. By the 1920s it had an excellent jazz band at one end and a charming fountain at the other and became a hugely favoured spot in London.
At the same time the restaurant was redecorated from floor to ceiling to make it far more palatable in tones of pink and white and gold. The wall panels were of Rose du Barri silk, the pillars gleaming white, while the friezes were of the lightest blue. A dark rose carpet gave an added accent. In its centre was placed a handsome table of many tiers for fruit and sweet things. After the renovation the restaurant was often referred to as the Rose du Barri room.
Below the main restaurant was the Grill Room or (the main restaurant) was the Indian room decorated in oriental fashion with blue and yellow tiles. The Grill is actually beneath the restaurant but it is by no means below ground, for the slope from the Strand to the Embankment is so acute that there is a difference of one story from back to front. The grill also has a fine view of the river. Here a grill dinner and a table d’hote dinner was served and when the room overflowed another equally spacious room was opened up. The table d’hote for lunch was 5s and dinner 7s and sixpence. There was also a string orchestra but no dancing and sometimes a thé dansant was staged.
At first M. Paillard, the great Parisian restauranteur was brought over to be the manager for a while and the services of ‘Smiler’, a curry cook of great renown, was utilised. A Roumanian band from Paris was also imported and given a perch on a rostrum and M. Califano known as ‘Sunny Jim’ was appointed as Maitre d’hotel.
By the mid 1920s the table d’hote luncheon is 7s and sixpence and dinner was 10s and sixpence and the cuisine was on a broad cosmopolitan line that one expected from a large first class hotel with a large overseas and foreign clientele. By the 1920s the head chef was M. Campeau who was highly regarded for his great originality, variety and attractiveness of his food and he was particularly renowned for his vegetarian banquets.
One particular luncheon comprised a grape-fruit in place of hors d’oeuvre. Iced consommé, poached eggs in aspic, sliced breast of chicken and foie gras in jelly. Then a dessert of fresh strawberries and a sliced fresh peach sprinkled with a liquer flavoured syrup resting on strawberry ice and partly covered with a golden nest of spun sugar.
For dinner there would a wonderful sole invented by M. Campeau, called Sole de la Francise after his daughter. The sole is stewed in a liquid consisting of two-thirds fish stock and one third dry Chablis, with salt, pepper, bay leaf, parsely, butter and white mushrooms, a little cream. Decorated with skinned and stoned grapes.
The Hotel Cecil had the biggest banqueting accommodation in London and 600 people could dine in the Grand Hall; 350 could dine and 500 could dance in the Victoria Hall; 200 could dine and 350 could dance in the Prince’s Hall.
Sadly Shell Mex purchased the hotel in 1930, the river façade was remodelled into a more sober stone thirteen-storey building with a central clock tower, which would not be out of place on an art-deco mantelpiece.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
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The Gourmet’s Guide to London by Nathaniel Newnham-Davis (1914)
Jabez: The Rise and Fall of a Victorian Scoundrel by David McKie