Frascati’s Restaurant, 26–32 Oxford Street
By Survey of London, on 26 June 2020
Our latest blog post is the third piece in a series of extracts from the Survey of London’s volume 53, on Oxford Street, published in April 2020. This piece includes four photographs of Frascati’s Restaurant by Bedford Lemere & Co., making use of a new facility on the Historic England Archive’s online catalogue. We are aware that these photographs might not appear for users of the Safari web browser and recommend using an alternative such as Google Chrome.
Once among the West End’s most famous restaurants, Frascati’s operated in spacious premises behind 26–32 Oxford Street between 1892 and 1954. Frascati’s had a chequered early history. It emerged from plans to redevelop the former Star Brewery to the west of the Oxford Music Hall. By 1887 the brewery had been acquired by a speculating mine owner, R. B. Lavery, on whose behalf a builder, J. Evans, applied to erect shops and offices at Nos 26–28. Briefly that scheme was superseded by a plan for a music-hall-type ‘theatre and opera house’, for which the theatrical manager and entrepreneur Andrew Melville was to act with Lavery as sponsor. Designs for this so-called New Oxford Street Theatre came from the Birmingham architects Essex & Nicol, with whom Melville had been working in the Midlands. Two versions were sent in to the Metropolitan Board of Works in quick succession during the summer of 1887. The first included a show front in Franco-Flemish style towards Oxford Street and a three-tiered, east-facing auditorium behind with a refreshment room and promenade serving each floor. The revised version, incorporating better exits and more up-to-date iron construction for the roof and cantilevered balconies, won approval. But Melville must have backed out, for nothing more is heard of the theatre.
In about 1888–9 the front block at 26–32 Oxford Street was erected in carcase. This severe, four-storey brick building was probably the work of the City-based architect J. Lewis Holmes, once more representing Lavery. It included generous entrances in the centre and east position, reserved for whatever would be built behind. In 1889 Holmes brought forward plans for a grand café to fill the back space, with Henry McDowell, an art dealer and entrepreneur of New Bond Street, as the prospective tenant. The project was spatially ambitious, involving an iron and glass structure behind the existing block of Oxford Street shops, centred upon an octagonal dome 40ft in diameter and overlooked by deep galleries, to which there was separate staircase access. Though the design was somewhat crude and old-fashioned, it seems to have been largely built, and a music licence was obtained for the prospective Frascati Winter Garden. But when McDowell asked in March 1890 to extend the licence to selling alcohol, the London County Council, by then the pertinent authority, declined, pointing out that the original licence had been granted on condition that the building was not to be a music hall or casino with a bar attached. The refusal led to McDowell’s withdrawal, leaving the structure untenanted.
A more exotic taker now came to the fore in the person of A. W. Krasnapolsky, a Dutch businessman of Ukrainian descent. Krasnapolsky had risen to fame by creating a fashionable café and winter garden in the heart of Amsterdam, enhanced by electric lighting. Drawn to London and the Frascati’s site, he commissioned elaborate alterations from the well-known Dutch architect Jan Springer. These were in the planning stage by the end of 1890, and in hand during the summer of 1891, when it was reported that Dutch carpenters were on site despite a lock-out in the London building trades. Representing Springer in London was his assistant Willem Kromhout, later an architect of greater distinction than Springer; a third designer of note, Alban Chambon, a Belgian who had previously contributed to various London theatre interiors, was also involved. Under the hands of these collaborators the structure was fitted out and enriched in a florid Renaissance taste. The Krasnapolsky Restaurant, now so called, was inaugurated by the Dutch ambassador, Count de Bylandt, at the end of November. It was advertised for its winter garden, billiard tables and lager beers; a painting of the young Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands by Hubert Vos held pride of place. Besides the winter garden behind, it took in most of the front block at 26–32 Oxford Street.
But Krasnapolsky had miscalculated. Too much money was spent (according to one source £100,000) and too little arrived from Holland. Within six months the restaurant was in trouble and the creditors were closing in. The business was sold in the summer of 1892 to the proprietors of the Holborn Restaurant for £70,000, who reinstated the name of Frascati’s. The enterprise now began to flourish at last.
The Holborn Restaurant stood formerly on the south side of High Holborn, about half a mile east of Frascati’s. Founded in 1874, it flourished under the management of Thomas Hamp as a large-scale establishment for the professional classes. In the mid 1880s the hotelier Frederick Gordon bought the Holborn and doubled it in size. Hamp remained in charge, and probably initiated the acquisition of Frascati’s. At any rate a company under his name was responsible for minor decorative alterations early in 1893. These were limited, the essential arrangements and décor having been created by the Krasnapolsky designers. The facilities at this stage 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 behind. To one side was an elliptical alcove, perhaps for the orchestra, and on the other a kitchen. Two ample curving stairs led up to balcony level, where the Alpha Saloon occupied half of the front. Above again were an opulent Banqueting Hall and the earliest of what was to be a series of masonic rooms. But the winter garden was the space everyone remembered. ‘There are gold and silver everywhere’, noted the restaurant critic Col. Newnham-Davis:
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.
Like the Holborn, Frascati’s earned its way by hosting private dinners for clubs, companies and associations. If its fare was not of the highest class, it was remembered for the élan of its central space and for the pleasures of dining there to the accompaniment of a string orchestra, not yet usual in 1890s London. An early aficionado remarked,
Frascati’s really does supply a perfectly innocent and a rational plan of recreation to a class of persons … who never enter ordinary so called Music Halls. It provides an orchestra solely, without songs or any scenic attractions, and hence is the one place of entertainment in this immense city of its kind … There are many who like myself dine at clubs or elsewhere, and like to saunter in afterwards to smoke a cigar and hear some pleasant music.
Winter Garden at the Krasnapolsky Restaurant in 1892 (Historic England Archive). If the photograph is not visible, please switch to another browser such as Google Chrome.
The various minor changes made to Frascati’s during the mid 1890s were probably designed by T. E. Collcutt. Fashionable just then in the West End on the strength of his Imperial Institute, his extensions to the Savoy Hotel and his opera house at Cambridge Circus, Collcutt was a neighbour to the Hamp family in Bloomsbury Square, and in 1894 was commissioned to aggrandize the Holborn Restaurant with the King’s Hall. He also designed an iron and glass canopy for the Frascati’s entrance at 32 Oxford Street, but it was refused permission by the LCC. In 1895 Frederick Gordon gave up his controlling interest in the two establishments, which were reorganized as a public company, Holborn and Frascati Ltd. Hamp stayed on at the Holborn, but a new manager, J. W. Morrell, took over at Frascati’s. Morrell had ideas of his own, so the canopy finally erected in 1896 may not have been Collcutt’s.
Banqueting Room at the Krasnapolsky Restaurant in 1892 (Historic England Archive)
Instead, Morrell chose to employ C. H. Worley to undertake a series of additions at Frascati’s from 1899 onwards. In particular the restaurant was enlarged with extra rooms and services along the south side of Hanway Street, where Worley supplied a run of two and three-storey fronts in his idiosyncratic style. At ground level the winter garden restaurant was extended on both sides, with the York and Connaught Rooms at first-floor level and new masonic temples a further floor higher. Worley lived only to see the western masonic room built, for he died in 1906, to be succeeded by Reginald Blomfield, who next year designed a small elliptical domed room on the eastern end of the Hanway Street front, and altered the Oxford Street basement. The builders Godson & Sons undertook most of these jobs. The total capacity of Frascati’s at this stage was about 1,500.
Winter Garden at Krasnapolsky’s Restaurant in 1892 (Historic England Archive)
After the First World War the Collcutt firm returned to Frascati’s. Stanley Hamp, one of Thomas Hamp’s sons, had been articled to Collcutt in the late 1890s and became his partner in 1906. After Collcutt’s retirement Hamp updated Frascati’s in an effort at Empire style. The York Room came first (1920–1). Recasting the interiors facing Oxford Street followed in 1927, when Hamp created a spacious new foyer and pepped up the dour brick frontage with gilt metalwork, electric lighting and a glass valance over the entrance. Godson & Sons were once again the builders for this work, with decorative panels by Eleanor Abbey and plaster relief panels by Percy Bentham. Collcutt & Hamp added a small extra building to expand the service accommodation of Frascati’s on the north side of Hanway Street, at No. 18, in 1925.
Frascati’s Restaurant in 1920 (Historic England Archive)
Though the restaurant was re-equipped after the Second World War, once again under Collcutt & Hamp, it closed in 1954. The Land Securities Investment Trust bought the premises and hired Fitzroy Robinson & Hubert H. Bull, architects, to adapt them to a mixture of commercial uses. The conversion took place mainly in 1957. The front building at 26–32 Oxford Street was reclad with a modern front and divided between shops on the ground floor and a language school above. The great domed space behind survived in carcase, concealed from sight. Floored over and shorn of all ornament, its upper level became an open-space banking hall for Lloyd’s Bank in 1983, numbered as 32 Oxford Street. The whole premises, back and front, were finally demolished in 2013, so that no trace of Frascati’s now remains.
- Lt.-Col. Newnham-Davis, Dinners and Diners, Where and How to Dine in London, 1899, pp. 220–1
- R. W. Lewin, 2 October 1893, in LMA, LCC/MIN/10811.