Remembering the golden years of Norwich’s Cafe Royal

Norwich's Cafe Royal restaurant in London Street, once THE place to go for fine dining.

Norwich's Cafe Royal restaurant in London Street, once THE place to go for fine dining. - Credit: Archant

It was a taste and a flavour of the exotic which changed the eating habits of the people of the city and county... well, those with a few bob in their pockets.

Dining in splendour at the Cafe Royal.

Dining in splendour at the Cafe Royal. - Credit: Archant

This was the Cafe Royal in London Street, Norwich, which was opened by Cristofero Fasola in 1887, who arrived from running restaurants in Bournemouth and Brighton, introducing menus set out in French with waiters from Italy... and he welcomed his customers with a smile and a bow.

He turned former insurance offices in London Street, next to the then-offices of the Eastern Daily Press and Eastern Evening News, into the most glamorous eating house in the city.

Cristofero was also a fine yachtsman and soon the sailing fraternity were beating a path to his door. The place was packed.

In fact he made enough money to retire to Switzerland and so it came to be that a man would arrive in his place who would become the most famous restaurateur in the city. Even those who never set foot in the place had heard of Carlo Angelo Rayna.

Born in Milan, he left school aged ten and did various jobs in Europe before arriving in this country where he met Cristofero. He jumped at the chance of coming to Norwich and taking over the Cafe Royal in 1895 with his wife.

Whiffler of the Evening News wrote many years ago: 'A son of Italy, he naturally took a pride in carrying on the business in the style of his predecessor. He had all the winning manners of the polished Continental, coupled with a most friendly disposition. His keen sense of humour also appealed to his customers.

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'Carlo, as he was often familiarly addressed, was frequently invited by his patrons to join them at coffee and cigars for the pleasure of his company,' we wrote.

Norwich had never seen the like before. This was OUR Cafe Royal and it became famous not only in Norfolk but across the region.

He made a point of personally greeting his patrons and it was said he moved among his company with dignity and graciousness while at the same time was always ready to savour a joke with a customer.

At the time of the Norfolk and Norwich Triennial Musical Festival many eminent conductors and artist were to be seen at the tables and in 1900, a complimentary dinner was provided for George Gilbert, who was running his circus at the Agricultural Hall.

One of the special dishes was 'Bombe a la Circus: anchoise sur toast a' la George Gilbert, extra devilled.'

Most of the staff at the Cafe Royal stayed. Carlo looked after them well.

There was Luigi, a curly-haired little man who was a born waiter, balancing dishes like a conjuror and adding up complicated bills in his head in seconds.

Then there was Cesare Carreta, volcanic and unpredictable with a magnificent moustache, and Romeo Paggani, described as bent and grumpy but capable of sudden explosions of sardonic wit.

Ernest, the kitchen 'boy' and Wilfred the pantryman – they were all great characters in old Norwich.

Carlo was one of the first owner/drivers of a motor car in the city. When he retired in 1932 his son Stanley, who had been to Norwich Grammar School and trained in Italy and London, took over but times were changing.

He introduced a snack luncheon bar but it was the end of the road for the Cafe Royal. War was looming and the cafe closed in 1938. It was taken over by brewers Steward & Patteson but the glory days were over. In recent times the building has been the offices of the Nationwide Building Society.

Stanley told a farewell gathering: 'I was born and bred in this house. I hardly dare think what would be the feelings of my father had he found himself in a similar position to me tonight.'

Following the sale Stanley served as a captain the Royal Army Catering Corps during the war and then he ran the Innisfallen and Clarendon hotels on Unthank Road, Norwich.

His hobby was electrical engineering and he was one of the first people in Norwich to own a television set, in the days when only the London transmitting station was opened. He died in 1956.