A key pleasure for Londoners in the interwar period was going out for tea or a meal. ‘French-style’ restaurants had appeared in London in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Whilst these original restaurants remained popular, the interwar period saw a democratisation of the dining-out experience. A wider range of outlets catered to people of different backgrounds and with different amounts of disposable income. As more and more Londoners, including women, increased their earnings and got more leisure time, they were able to experience (temporary) luxury in one of the many restaurants, cafes, and teashops in the capital. The player that left one of the biggest marks on the hospitality industry in London between the wars was J. Lyons and Co.
Like other restaurants, Lyons started its business in the late nineteenth century: with a teashop in Piccadilly in 1894, and the opening of the Trocadero Restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue two years later.[i] The teashop turned into a chain of shops in 1909. Three of these teashops were Corner Houses, big, multi-storey hospitality spaces which offered affordable snacks and drinks to a mass audience. The Corner Houses on Coventry Street in Soho and the Strand were opened in 1909 and 1915 respectively, but the third Corner House, on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, opened in 1928.[ii] This attests to the continuing success and popularity of the Corner Houses throughout the interwar period.
Corner Houses worked on economies of scale: they had hundreds of seats each, employed hundreds of staff, and aimed to get as many covers a day as possible. You can get a sense of the bustle of a Lyons Corner House in Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929). Near the start of the film, the heroine, Alice, and her boyfriend Frank, visit a Corner House after work. As soon as they walk into the building there is a crush of people around them; they struggle to get into the lift. Once they enter the spacious dining room, all the tables are taken. They are hurried along with every step, and only stay at the restaurant for a short while before leaving again. It is no coincidence that Alice has picked this location to meet her lover, ‘The Artist’ – the crowded room provides a perfect cover for a secret rendez-vous, and the Corner House is a democratic space that anyone can enter without difficulty. In real life, the Corner Houses also functioned as meeting spaces for marginalised groups, most notably for queer men.[iii]
Lyons operated a very different policy at the Trocadero restaurant. In some respects the Corner Houses and the Trocadero were very similar; both served hot meals, both catered to huge numbers of customers every day, and both sought to transport their diners to exotic locales through their interior decoration and design choices.[iv] But whereas the Corner Houses were explicitly marketed to a mass audience, the Trocadero restaurant had strict rules about who could enter the space and where they were allowed to go.
An internal “Memo to Superintendents and Reception Clerks” stipulated a number of rules on the handling of “Strange Ladies” – female customers not known to the staff. These rules were clearly intended to prevent prostitutes from entering the space and soliciting; the Trocadero was on the site of what used to be the ‘Argyll Subscription Rooms’, an entertainment venue notorious for the number of prostitutes that frequented it. In its efforts to distance itself from the site’s previous occupiers, the management of the Trocadero were asked to treat all “Strange Ladies” as potential disruptors:
For Luncheons. Strange Ladies to be placed at small tables round the Restaurant, the object being that in case of misbehaviour we can screen the table off.
For Dinners. Strange Ladies either in couples or alone are to be put at the small tables round the Blue Saloon Wall (When Saloon is closed round the Restaurant) the object being that in case of misbehaviour we can screen the table off.
For Suppers. Strange ladies are to be given the small tables in the Restaurant round the Wall, the object being that in case of misbehaviour we can screen the table off.
Grill Rooms. Strange Ladies either alone or in couples are to be placed at small tables round the small room, or (in the event of this being closed or full) at small tables in the Larger Room, the object being that in case of misbehaviour we can screen the table off.[v]
Clearly, the Trocadero restaurant was not intending to be an open and public space for female customers, who were rather expected to visit a Corner House instead. The gendered differences between the Trocadero and Corner Houses also extended to the waiting staff: all waiters at the Trocadero were male, whereas the Corner Houses had exclusively female waitresses, who came to be known as ‘Nippies’.
It was conventional in London that waiting staff in restaurants were male and waiting staff in teashops were female.[vi] Male waiting staff were perceived as similar to the butler or footman in a grand house; by attending a restaurant the (male) customer could experience something akin to what a gentleman in a country estate would experience. In the teashops, on the other hand, the female staff were appreciated for their speed, efficiency, and decorative function.
The Nippy grew into a cultural phenomenon in and of itself, to the point that she became a fictional character that both represented the Lyons brand and a host of positive feminine values. Internal guidance to female waiting staff placed a lot of emphasis on physical presentation: Nippies were required to have their hair “neat and tidy”; “teeth well cared for”; “cap correctly worn” and “no conspicuous use of make-up”.[vii] Lyons deliberately crafted this aspirational persona for its female staff and encouraged them to take pride in their femininity.[viii] In advertising for the brand, Nippy became the ‘Symbol of Public Service’.
J. Lyons & Co. had a huge influence on the interwar London dining-out scene; there are countless references to its restaurants and Corner Shops in memoirs and fictional representations of this period. As this piece has shown, Lyons catered to two very different audiences through its restaurants and tea shops respectively. It is in the interwar period that these venues first reached their mass appeal, and the Nippy became established as a cultural reference point. For women, the choice was between conforming to a symbol of feminine perfection or risking being labelled as a prostitute. The venues lasted well beyond this period: the last Corner House closed in 1977 and the Trocadero remained active as an entertainment venue until 2011.
[i] Judith Walkowitz, Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), p. 197
[ii] Ibid., p. 198
[iii] Matt Houlbrook, ‘The Man with the Powder Puff’ in Interwar London’ The Historical Journal, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Mar., 2007), 145-171 (149)
[iv] Walkowitz, Nights Out, pp. 198-199
[v] London Metropolitan Archives: ACC 3527/186 – Rules and regulations for Trocadero Restaurant staff (indexed)
[vi] Rosalind Eyben, ‘The Moustache Makes Him More of a Man’: Waiters’ Masculinity Struggles, 1890–1910’, History Workshop Journal 87 (2009), 188-210 (197)
[vii] London Metropolitan Archives: ACC/3527/201/A ‘The Perfect Nippy’
[viii] Walkowitz, Nights Out, p. 205