I read so many books about the interwar period that Lyons Corner Houses have become part of my day to day life, despite the fact that they ceased to exist in the 1960s. For those that don’t lead such a thrilling life as me, let me fill you in.
Lyons was a tea and food manufacturer that opened up a series of tea shops in the 1800s. They had their fingers in many pies (and sold many pies too undoubtedly) but most exciting of all were the Lyons Corner Houses that infiltrated London’s West End. Slightly more upmarket than their cafes and canteens, the first golden temple of tea and cake opened in 1907 and the last one shut its doors in 1977 – you can see a map of where they once stood on this excellent fan site.
Designed in the art deco style (*FurCoat bingo*) these Corner Houses sprawled over multi-storey buildings throughout the West End, housing food halls and bakeries as well as several restaurants and cafes. Some of them were 24 hours and pretty much all seemed to feature live orchestras to make your cheap and cheerful snack a bit more of the latter even though it was definitely the former. Staffed by the infamous Nippies, they seem entirely romantic to me – despite the fact they were probably an interwar equivalent of Starbucks in terms of their presence and pricing. I’m afraid to say that this takes none of the romance away from their gold deco interiors and cheap cake and sausage rolls to me.
The exhibition that’s just opened in Eastbourne looks at Lyons lithographs – art that was comissioned by the chain when wartime austerity meant that they couldn’t kit out the restaurants in quite the same grandeur as previously. Read more about it here – I hope I can squeeze in a visit.
I can’t pretend to know much about Lyons Corner Houses (thanks Wikipedia for your help on the above), but once I started reading all of this interwar fiction it became apparent that they were being dropped in to just about every book I picked up. I had meant to start a list but that never materialised and it wasn’t until I started reading Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky recently – where Lyons pop up liberally – that I thought about the idea again.
Too late now, and I don’t really ever re-read books, but here we go – it’s a start. If you come across any Lyons Corner House references in your books any time soon, holler at your girl!
“… I remembered that there is a Corner House close to Piccadilly and that Topaz had once told me it keeps open all night… I drank cup after cup of tea – the last one was so weak that I could the lump of sugar sitting at the bottom of it. Then the waitress came and asked if I wanted anything more. I didn’t feel like leaving so I studied the menu carefully and ordered a lamb cutlet – they take a nice long time to cook and only cost sevenpence each.
“… Then the lamb cutlet arrived surrounded by a sea of white plate and looking smaller than I believed any cutlet could. I ate it as slowly as possible, I even ate the sprig of parsley they threw in for sevenpence. Then the waitress put my bill down on the table and cleared away my plate in a very final way, so after a long drink of free water I felt I had better go.”
“They were seated opposite each other at a table for two on the basement floor of Lyons’ Coventry Street Corner House. The time was about half-past nine. The orchestra was playing, drowning Mr Eccles’ voice; and nearly every table in this vast, marble, subterannean Versailles for London’s hungry and teeming nondescripts, was engaged.
“Ella had at first been a little disappointed that he should have brought her to the Corner House; for she had been before of an evening, and after the terrific splash he had made at the theatre, and with Army people and one thing and another, she had somehow got it into her head that when he spoke of Dinner he had in mine somewhere a little more intimate, original and exciting – one of those little restaurants in Soho, say, which she had so often wondered about. But she at once reproved herself for greed in pleasure, and was in a way relieved to be on her own ground, where she knew how to behave and where she was suitably dressed.”
[Pics: After You’ve Gone; Chris Beetles Fine Photographs; Persephone; Persephone]
“… Louise, who could not afford to buy clothes for herself, had then walked about and looked in shop windows, until the truculence of the untiring wind had driven her into the universal haven of Lyons.
“It was that hour in mid-afternoon when those who are on the early lunch and tea break come forth among the exhausted shoppers to get themselves a bite of something to keep them going until five-thirty. When she had stood in line and paid for her cake and cup of tea, Louise could not at first see anywhere to put down her tin tray. Being a Londoner, she did not mind holding a tray among a crowd of people with similar trays laden with unlikely food for the hour of day, and women stacking dirty dishes and wiping off tables with damp cloths.”