The Criterion in Piccadilly Circus, was a large collection of restaurants all housed in one building. It became an iconic rendezvous in London’s nightlife and a favoured haunt of London’s high society in the Jazz Age especially the splendid Italian roof garden that dazzled audiences from 1920-1924.
The Criterion Restaurant was opened to the public on 17th November 1873 by Messrs. Spiers and Pond, a firm of wine merchants and caterers, and throughout its existence went through considerable extension and modification and had several owners and managers.
Originally designed by Thomas Verity and constructed by Messrs. Felix Spiers and Christopher Pond, (who had been famous caterers in Melbourne in the days of the gold fever), it was a multi-level complex (some reports say five levels but descriptions only reveal four). On the ground floor was the Marble Hall or Long Bar and Grill Room, on the first and second floors were several dining rooms (East, West and Chinese Rooms), while the whole of the Piccadilly frontage on the second floor formed the Grand Hall and behind it a picture gallery or ballroom (called The Victoria Hall). In the basement there was to be another hall, for concerts and the exhibition of pictures that eventually became a theatre. The interior décor was opulent and dazzling with extensive ornamental tile-work, extensive use of marble and painted wall panels.
The East Room was decorated in white and gold with wall panels painted with Watteau åscenes and the carpets, furniture and curtains were all designed with a harmonious colour scheme of greys and pinks. There was an ante-room with old French furniture and an orchestra was perched in a gilded cage above the big entrance hall. The windows looked down on Piccadilly Circus and perhaps because of the décor, it was favourably viewed by a feminine clientele.
Immediately under the East Room on the ground floor was the Marble restaurant and the Grill Room. The Marble restaurant was in the old days called the Long Bar, but with changing times it was decided to redecorate with marble and Venetian glass. One major feature was the ‘glistering’ ceiling of gold mosaic, coved at the sides and patterned all over with lines and ornaments in blue and white tesserae. The wall decoration was lined with warm grey marble and formed into blind arcades with semi-elliptical arches resting on slender octagonal columns, their unmoulded capitals and the impost being encrusted with gold ground mosaic.
The American Bar originally formed part of the surroundings in the Grill Room and for a while had great success but with changing tastes it was transformed from a bar and incorporated into the Grill Room restaurant itself and like the Long Bar, the American Bar faded. The Grill Room, with its mosaic ceiling, flourished and differed from other grill-rooms by having plenty of sunlight and fresh air.
Just before the First World War, the idea of dancing in restaurants became popular along with the idea of cabaret and supper clubs. This was all linked to the tango craze that swept Europe and exhibition dancers were sought after for dinner and supper entertainment.
One of the first acts was Pete and Petita, from the London opera house, who danced the Tango and Maxixe during supper nightly from 11pm presumably in the ballroom starting in November 1913. By early 1914, proceedings were being called ‘Vaudeville Suppers’ and described as ‘a new feature of London restaurant life’. The featured dancers at this time were the American dancers Marguerite and Frank Gill who had performed at the Winter Garden in New York and the Café de Paris in Paris. They performed in the Marble Hall and their ‘animated dances’ were described as ‘graceful and lively.’ In the summer of 1914 there were Souper dansants featuring the dancing of Dorothy Monkman (from the Empire Theatre) and Billy Reynolds, but then perhaps due to the war these entertainments fizzled out.
In mid 1917 Spiers and Pond sold the Criterion to Chas E. Cottier and a syndicate of restauranteurs and the famous Luigi (from Ciro’s) was appointed General Manager. One of Luigi’s first improvements from late 1918 was setting aside one of the big rooms on the second floor (presumably the ballroom) where from 7-10 nightly there would be dancing. Only those dining in that room were allowed to dance and there was an inclusive fee and a set dinner.
Then in late 1920 one of the most glamorous openings took place with the ballroom being transformed into a spectacular roof garden and dancing resort – called The Italian Roof Garden. The entire room was completely re-decorated by the artist Marc Henri with the intent of re-creating picturesque Italy in Piccadilly. An authentic atmosphere of a villa on the Italian lakes was attempted with elaborate scenic and lighting effects. The walls were of red trellis that framed pergolas entwined with golden vine leaves and clusters of yellow and purple grapes where you could dine and drink. Each had a hanging lamp and bore the name of a noted Italian locality. The landscape was marked by tall cypresses that stood out dark against the white terraces and the scenic pergolas, along with playing fountains at each end of the room and snow-capped mountain tops. Above, the roof was made of a bright blue flimsy material to resemble an evening sky and stars twinkled.
Opening in mid October 1920 many leading lights of the stage attended including Ethel Levey, Violet Loraine, Ellis Jeffreys, Nelson Keys, Maurice & Leonora Hughes, Phyllis Dare, Lily Elsie and Peggy Marsh. It was a huge success and in an instant became the most fashionable society resort in London. It presented a wonderful illusion and was not a club, nor a cabaret but a restaurant with fixed charges and dancing provided for lunch, dinner or afternoon tea. But of course, it was in the evening, after 11pm that the place fully came to life. The room was thought to have ‘something novel in atmosphere’ and was ‘consummate in quality.’ Accordingly, the advertisement for the venue purred ‘here under a vivid starlit sky…the visitor having stepped out of Piccadilly Circus into a corner of Italy, dines beneath vine hung pergolas and afterward dances to music in keeping with the environment.’
Americans observed that London had finally imitated New York’s famous Roof Gardens, The wait had been a long one since it was considered virtually impossible to replicate the open roof gardens in New York due to the British weather and rain even in the summer, and so the Criterion and simply created the illusion of an roof garden open to the sky that had the advantage of usage throughout the year.
The music was initially provided by the American ensemble of the Art Hickman’s Orchestra from New York and each member allegedly played four instruments. During dinner Colondon, a famed Italian violinist who played for many years at the Russian Imperial Court, led his own orchestra.
In September 1922, the season opened at the Roof Garden with the All Star band (also called the Roof Garden Stars) and a special engagement of the dancer Edna Maud from the Colliseum and Alhambra.
This was followed by the exhibition dancing of Ludo Mass and Muriel Webster. By early 1923 it was announced that the attractions of music, dancing and dining were to be supplemented by a cabaret programme, but perhaps this did not materialise since there are no reports of a cabaret.
Instead various ‘themed’ nights were staged in 1923, For example, in February 1923 there was a Chinese Festival and huge yellow chrysanthemums were placed over every table along with Chinese lanterns and dainty mandarin balloons. Guests were given souvenirs of handsome hand painted fans and quaint Chinese beads and new dance music came from the Paramount Orchestra. At about the same time there was a Fashion Parade starting at midnight with mannequins displaying the latest gowns, dresses and cloaks from six leading west-end fashion firms. A short time afterward there a ‘souper dansant’ Hawaiian Hula night.
At the end of the 1923 London season, the Italian Roof Garden was reconstructed, although what this actually meant was unclear. Tea and dinner dances were inuagrated in the East Room – the spacious saloon overlooking Piccadilly. A special floor was laid and a ladies orchestra installed under the direction of Mlle Irma.
Sometime in 1923, Spiers and Pond sold the building and restuarants to Victor Rena and his wife, who were successful restaurtanters having been the proprietor’s of Gobelin’s and Florence’s.
The Italian Roof Garden continued through 1924 with a tea dansant from 4-6pm, a dinner dansant from 8pm and a souper dansant from 10pm. In February 1924, the music was provided by the Plaza Crichton Band and exhibition dancing came from Doreen Read and Frank Leveson.
Sadly things went a little pear shaped in July 1924 when the police visited the Italian Roof Garden and a court summons was issued for aiding and abetting the consumption of intoxicating liquour after hours and fines were imposed. The gardens were closed for a while for re-decoration and it was announced there would be a grand re-opening with special gala night in mid September. Meanwhile dancing took place in the ballroom adjoining the roof garden and tea and dinner dances were given daily.
When the roof garden re-opened in September 1924, the old Italian décor had been swept away but sadly all we are told is that there was now ‘astriking colour scheme’. Following the lead of many restaurants and ballrooms in London, the Criterion decided to stage a cabaret, which was called Carnvial-Time. It was a typical mini-show, a format that had already proved popular since 1920 at the Hotel Metropole, Queen’s Hall Roof, Murray’s Club, the Grafton Galleries, Piccadilly Hotel, Trocadero and New Princes Restaurant. The cabaret continued for several months but finally closed in February 1925. The Criterion Restaurant continued for many decades thereafter.
Various adverts from London theatre programmes
The Gourmet’s Guide to London by Nathaniel Newham-Davis
The restaurants of London by Eileen Hooton-Smith
London Restaurants by Diner-Out
‘Piccadilly, South Side’, Survey of London: volumes 29 and 30: St James Westminster, Part 1 (1960), pp. 251-270. URL: http://www.britishhistory.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=40571
The Referee 25/12/10
Larne Times 17/1/14
Pall Mall Gazette 19/1/14
The Globe 4/2/14
Pall Mall Gazette 28/7/14
Daily Mirror 2/6/17
The People 13/5/17
Liverpool Daily Post 19/10/18
The Glove 7/10/20
The Pall Mall Gazette 19/10/20
The Globe 19/10/20
The Times 20/10/20
Sunday Post 31/10/20
Toledo Blade / 24 Feb 1921
Pall Mall Gazette 25/9/22
Brighter London 1/12/22
Belfast Telegraph 13/1/23
Pall Mall Gazette 2/2/23
Liverpool Echo 7/2/23
Pall Mall Gazette 19/2/23
The Tatler 15/8/23
Westminster Gazette 25/7/24
The Referee 24 August 1924
Sporting Times 14/2/1925