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The Winter Garden of Oxford Street

Feeling a little peckish as you wander along Oxford Street (when the shops re-open) ?Forgo the delights of the numerous fast food outlets, and even give a pub lunch a miss.

As you saunter east towards the junction of Tottenham Court Road, pass the tailors Hawes & Curtis and then take the next open door on your left.

Unfortunately you’ll be seventy odd years too late for lunch and will find yourself in the cavernous interior of Primarks flagship store.

However, had you re-traced your steps a hundred and twenty years ago the sights, sounds and smells that would have greeted you would have been very different.

You would have passed the tailors Knight Brothers on your left and then turned into the foyer of Frascati’s Restaurant.

Frascati’s, opened in 1892 was celebrated for its cosmopolitanism, luxury and excellent cuisine. It was a sumptuous and elegant venue that was highly regarded for its international dishes. It became one of the most successful restaurants in London, however it had quite a problematic early history.

1888 the site was occupied by the Star Brewery and in 1887 plans were submitted to redevelop the site into shops and offices, these were quickly superseded by plans for the New Oxford Street Music Hall, but after several planning revisions the development was dropped and reverted back to the original application.

The following year work started on demolition of the brewery and the front block at 26–32 Oxford Street was erected. This was apparently an austere looking brick built edifice which was constructed into shops which gave access to the second stage of building that was to sit behind it. Later in 1889 the architect J Holmes Lewis submitted plans for a grand café to fill the second stage space. Henry McDowell, an art dealer and entrepreneur was to occupy the building as the tennant. The building with its octagonal 40 ft diameter dome, was considered to be old fashioned, but most of the planned development was built with McDowell applying for and obtaining a music licence for the prospective Frascati Winter Garden. Early in 1890 McDowell applied to the London Council for a license to sell alcohol on the site. This was refused, as the original application had been approved on condition that the building was not to be a music hall or casino with a bar attached. Disappointed with the ruling McDowell withdrew from the project and the building was left empty for over a year.

The potential of the site was seen by Dutch entrepreneur A. W. Krasnapolsky, who had already created a fashionable café and winter garden in the heart of Amsterdam, one of the first to utilise electric lighting, and work commenced on fitting the interior. The Krasnapolsky Restaurant, now so called, was opened by the Dutch ambassador.

Frascati’s Restaurant, section, c.1905 (drawn by Helen Jones for the Survey of London).

Unfortunately, Krasnapolsky, an experienced business man seems to have got caught up in the project and wildly overspent on the interior, estimates run to around £100,000 (a staggering £12 million in today).

By the back end of 1891 the restaurant was in trouble and Krasnapolsky was having daily battles with creditors to keep it open. Eventually the business was sold in the summer of 1892 to the proprietors of the nearby Holborn Restaurant for £70,000, who reinstated the name of Frascati’s.

The new owner was renowned hotelier Frederick Gordon, who gave the running of the restaurant over to the Holborn’s manager Thomas Hamp.

The premises at the time of acquisition consisted of two large billiard rooms in the Oxford Street basement, a buffet and marble-lined grill room on the ground floor above, and the large domed winter garden at the rear of the property.

Frascati’s Restaurant, section, c.1905 (drawn by Helen Jones for the Survey of London).

Above the Oxford Street elevation was a second floor which housed an opulent Banqueting Hall and what was to become a series of masonic rooms. Every room and thoroughfare was opulent and highly decorated, but it was the Winter Garden which stole the show.

A noted restaurant critic of the time Col. Newnham-Davis wrote the following;

The pillars which support the balcony, and from that spring up again to the roof, are gilt, and have silver angels at their capitals. There are gilt rails to the balcony, which runs, as in a circus, round the great octagonal building; the alcoves that stretch back seem to be all gold and mirrors and electric light. What is not gold or shining glass is either light buff or delicate grey, and electric globes in profusion, palms, bronze statuettes and a great dome of green glass and gilding all go to make a gorgeous setting.

Frascati’s main source of income came from hosting private dinners for clubs, companies and associations. It was remembered for the opulence of its central space and for the pleasures of dining to the accompaniment of a string orchestra, which was quite unusual in 1890s London.

During the first part of the 20th century the restaurant went through a series of updates and modernisations. The picture below shows the building around 1920.

Some articles I’ve read about Frascati’s report that the restaurant was hit by a bomb during World War Two and never reopened. I’ve checked this on the Bomb Damage maps drawn up in 1945 and this disproves that assertion. In fact Frascati’s and most of the properties at the eastern end of Oxford Street suffered little or no damage.

The restaurant was refitted just after the war, however it appears that the grandeur that had attracted clientele for over fifty years was not what people wanted and slowly the business went into decline. It finally closed its doors in 1954.

The building was bought by developers and conversion started in 1957. The front of the building on Oxford Street was given a modern frontage and rebuilt with shops on the ground floor and a language school above.

The great glass dome survived, but was concealed from sight. The upper level became part of Lloyd’s Bank in 1983,

The whole premises, back and front, were finally demolished in 2013, so that no trace of Frascati’s now remains.

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