Thursday, October 11, 2012

Dorothy Restaurant

431 - 451 Oxford Street (2011)
Dorothy Restaurant 

Location: 448 Oxford Street, London, England, United Kingdom

Opened: June 21, 1889

Closed: Summer 1895

In Karl Baedeker's London and its Environs: Handbook for Travelers (1894), we see the following item listed on page 13 under "Restaurants":

Dorothy Restaurant (for ladies only), 448 Oxford Street.

Just enough to whet your appetite, and nothing more.

London of To-day: An Illustrated Handbook (1890) advises us of the following:

Try the Dorothy Restaurant in Oxford Street (near Orchard Street) if you are among the number of those who "detest to have men about the place." Dorothy Restaurants admit no men.

Whoa. What is this place?

Fortunately, Franny Moyle tells us a lot more about the Dorothy Restaurant  in Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde.

Isabel Cooper-Oakley
If you had walked down Oxford Street at lunchtime on Friday 21 June 1889, proceeding from Oxford Circus to Marble Arch under the almost continual canopy of coloured awnings that once graced that thoroughfare, about half-way down you would have found a cluster of folk blocking the pavement, vying to press their noses up against the windows of no. 448. This group, drawn from hoi polloi working in central London, were enjoying the spectacle of a great crowd of celebrated women milling about inside, many of whom were smoking. This activity, normally the preserve of men, was causing particular consternation. Constance Wilde, in her signature Gainsborough hat and wearing a full-skirted velvet highwayman's coat, was in their midst. She, like a whole host of other notable ladies, was attending the opening of a new Dorothy's Restaurant. 
Constance Wilde (1858-1898)

Dorothy's was the initiative of one Mrs. Cooper-Oakley, another of London's leading feminists, who also ran a milliner's business in Wigmore Street called Madame Isabel's. It was an innovation, a restaurant for women only. Although dining for upper- and middle-class women was already available at the various women's clubs, and although some conventional restaurants provided ladies' dining room discreetly in upper storeys or side-rooms, Dorothy's was a bold modern proposition. Its door was right on the street, and it was open to all classes of women, from shop assistants to duchesses. Offering cheap wholesome fare for all, Dorothy's liberated the former from having to eat a bun in a shop and offered the latter a new kind of experience. You just bought an eightpenny dining ticket on entrance, took a seat at one of the tables and waited for your 'plate of meat, two vegetables and bread' to arrive. For an extra couple of pence you could also get pudding, and for a further penny tea, coffee or chocolate.


Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891)
Dorothy's was a perfect example of how, in late Victorian London, Aestheticism, liberalism and feminist sympathies could collide. The first branch of the restaurant to open, in Mortimer Street, had cream-coloured walls with 'aesthetic crimson dados' and had been made 'gay with Japanese fans and umbrellas'. The Oxford Street branch, which opened just months later, was a far more dramatic proposition, its windows hung with rich Indian curtains, its ante-room painted a deep red that offset luxurious couches, small tables and carefully selected ornaments, and its larger luncheon room featuring rows of simple tables set with glazed white cotton tablecloths surmounted by vases of fresh flowers.

The Dorothy Restaurant was also closely connected with Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophist movement. See here, here and here for more on that.

Just to see that men mocking women-only space is nothing new, see this piece in Punch (1890) that ridicules the patrons of Dorothy Restaurant. 


Ad from London Women Penny Paper,
September 14, 1889


According to a published liquidator's report, the Dorothy Restaurant closed in the summer of 1895.

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