The Classy Ciro’s Restaurant Chain
Among European high society Ciro’s became an institution and perhaps the first classy restaurant chain in Europe with main branches in Monte Carlo, Paris, London and Biarritz. Each venue was regarded as far more than a restaurant but the very centre of fashionable life.
The original owner who gave his name to the place was an Italian born Egyptian who started off his working life as headwaiter in a restaurant in Monte Carlo. He decided to save enough money to buy his own establishment but finding the right location was essential.
The fashionable section in Monte Carlo was confined to a narrow radius of a hundred yards around the square fronting the famed casino. Hotels and restaurants established outside this charmed circle never succeeded in attracting wealthy custom. For example, the huge Capitol restaurant and dance-cafe, a beautiful resort, had been a constant failure because it was just outside the circle.
Ciro waited until a small building became vacant within the circle on the famous Galerie Charles III. He opened his legendary first restaurant in 1897 and placed tables on the terrace in front where people could eat lunch in the sunshine and watch strollers on the promenade. One of his regular customers had been the legendary Gordon Bennett, who switched allegiance to Ciro’s along with other society people. Multi-millionaire James Gordon Bennett (1841-1918) was publisher of the New York Herald, indulged in an extravagant lifestyle, ran his business from his villa in Beaulieu or his yacht and helped to publicise the splendours of the Cote d’Azur. He scandalized society with his eccentric behaviour, which was thought to have inspired the phrase ‘Gordon Bennett’ as an expression of incredulity.
Allegedly, Gordon sat in a particular place each lunchtime eating his favourite chop until one day a policeman ordered Ciro to remove the tables and chairs because he was causing an obstruction. An action no doubt precipitated by his previous employer next door. Gordon flew into a rage but to no avail. The only solution to stop the complaint said Ciro was to buy the restaurant next door, but he could not afford it. Gordon thus marched Ciro next door and bought the restaurant, gave it to Ciro and demanded his chop outside.
Subsequently Ciro was a great success but he then sold out in early 1911 to an English Syndicate headed by Lord Poulett and Clement Hobson with M.Rizzi as general manager. They decided to expand the brand and planned to opened branches in Paris, London and New York, although the latter never materialised although a restaurant-night club called Ciro’s did open, it had nothing to do with its European counterparts.
Ciro’s restaurant in Paris was opened shortly afterward on the ground floor of the Hotel Daunou, taking over an existing restaurant that simply had not worked. Ciro’s was an instant success. Rue Daunou and became the smartest place in Paris attracting a mix of society and the stage, and an American, British and French clientele. Even before the First World War, the Rue Daunou was regarded as the most American of streets in Paris and so was perfectly placed to take advantage of the increasing flood of American visitors before and after the war.
There was a signature white and gold front, a carpeted lobby and two main dining rooms of which the smaller room, also called the bar room because it had a bar at one end, had only 35 tables but was more sought after than the slightly larger room. You see fashionable society liked to be as crowded as possible. Since dancing in public became fashionable Ciro’s had to create a dancing space that was so small it is a wonder anyone could dance properly. It also entered into a vigorous war against its main rival the famed Café de Paris and regularly engaged leading dancing duos to perform in cabaret such as the American act Hale and Paterson who were secured in mid 1913.
In February 1914, in the newly opened Ruhl Hotel at Nice, Clement Hobson outlined his plans for Ciro’s. He declared that the licensing laws prevented London from possessing a restaurant on the lines of Ciro’s Monte Carlo or Paris. The only way forward was to form a club, which, under club law, could remain open until 2am.
Despite the First World War, Hobson opened Ciro’s London branch in Orange Street at the back of the National Gallery in May 1915 as a private club. The original building had been the Westminster public baths but had been converted into a handsome venue of beautiful proportions with a sliding roof that could be opened in the summer. There was a main large square room with a gallery flanked by imposing pillars to the ceiling with a delicate décor of lettuce green and old gold in Louis XVI style. On the ground floor there was a thicket of tables chairs and a platoon of waiters and a more decent dance floor than the Parisian establishment. There was also an American bar and grillroom decorated with chintz curtains and framed caricatures of the famous by French artist Sem. The bar was presided over by ‘Harry’ a Scotsman who had been a figure in Nice and Enghien and later became famous in Paris running Harry’s Bar.
The dance music was supplied by the unfortunately named seven-piece Ciro’s Club Coon Orchestra headed by Jamaica-born pianist and bandleader Dan Kildare and were initially paid £100 a week. Kildare was a pioneer of syncopated dance music, had worked with the famous James Reese Europe, and had been part of Joan Sawyer’s Persian Garden Orchestra in New York before being booked for Ciro’s London.
Ciro’s was the first of the dance clubs to compete with the smart restaurants in cooking, knowledgeable service and a brilliant, elegant setting. The chef came from the Ambassadeurs in Paris, the silver was supplied by the famous house of Cristofle, the china from Havilland and the stoves from Cubin cost £2,000.
One of the first true cabaret shows in London was staged at Ciro’s on 3rd March 1917. Produced by the young American producer Jack Haskell, it was an elaborate mini-revue starring the French born artist Odette Myrtil who scored a triple hit as a violinist, dancer and singer. However, it did not last long and Ciro’s was closed due to strong opposition from the press and the fact that Ciro’s had lost is license from serving alcohol out of hours. Neville Chamberlain director of National Service at a meeting of theatrical, variety and cinema representatives warned them against costly and elaborate productions in times of war where thrift was a necessity. Ciro’s was turned into a hospital for the rest of the war.
The original syndicate that owned the chain changed hands at the end of the war and the company was re-organised with Clement Hobson as principal owner. In late 1919, Ciro’s London re-opened and swiftly re-established itself as a leading society rendezvous. Kildare struggled to work there as pianist and leader of a now rather jazzy-sounding band. Alcoholism and drug addiction undermined his mental health, and his marriage dissolved. Finally on June 21, 1920, Kildare walked into his wife’s pub, shot her and her sister dead, put the gun to his own head and pulled the trigger. Thereafter, various other orchestras played including Sherbo’s Men and the Red Devils.
Ciro’s London had stiff opposition because the dance craze forced dozens of other venues to create dance floors and procure leading exponents of ballroom dancing as entertainment. Ciro’s paved the way and in September 1921, for example, Dina Harris and Ted Taylor danced nightly and in February 1922 Carl Hyson and Peggy Harris opened. Then in the Spring of 1922 Ciro’s announced that they had secured Olga Samya and Donald Sawyer on a contract for a year. They had been dancing to capacity audiences in Monte Carlo and thereafter appeared in Ciro’s Paris, Ciro’s London and Ciro’s Deauville.
Ciro’s opened another branch in Biarritz in the mid 1920s and continued to be a focal point for dancing duos to perform in cabaret on their circuit of five prestigious European venues. It is not known how long the chain remained trading but it looks as if it retained its fashionable status well into the 1930s and perhaps endured until the Second World War.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
New York Times, The Bystander, Variety and Dancing Times.
The Paris That’s Not in the Guide Books / Basil Woon (1926)
Nights in London / Horace Wydham (1926)
Wonderful London Vol 1 by Arthur St. John Adcock
“Dan Kildare.” Popular Artist Biographies. All Media Guide, 2006. Answers.com 20 Mar. 2007. http://www.answers.com/topic/dan-kildare
Ciro’s restaurant, London is now part of the National Portrait Galleries Archive in Orange Street.