The Trocadero was opened in the winter of 1896 by J. Lyons & Company Ltd. This company had been set up by tobacco salesmen Alfred Salmon (1868-1928) and Montague Gluckstein (the latter 1854-1922), as a mobile caterer providing meals at exhibitions and private functions in the 1890's, from a base at Olympia. Isidor Salmon was the first Cuisine-Chef.
They felt it inappropriate to use their names, as tobacconists, and approached Joseph Lyons, (died 1917) who was either a friend through marriage or more likely a cousin (it's not clear from the present company or other sources) to run the new company. His earlier employment was as an artist who was exhibited regularly, before becoming a caterer. He agreed and indeed became an employee and part owner of the new company - and ultimately Director, knighted in 1911.
London in the 1890's, unlike many European capitals, had no great restaurant. Hotels such as the Savoy, where Auguste Escoffier was Directeur de Cuisine, provided Cordon Bleu catering, though this was restricted by cost to the gentry and upper classes. Such restaurants as did exist were noted for poor standards, and were unsuitable for many classes of diners, including female parties.
The site of the Trocadero was in the newly built Shaftesbury Avenue, created by Lord Shaftesbury from a slum area. As far back as 1531, the 1.8 acre site had been owned by both Eton College and the Mercer's Company, a medieval guild. In 1611 a tailor called Robert Baker bought the land for £50.00. It passed through his family and had a fairly inauspicious history but one part became used as as a Real Tennis Court. These enclosed courts were easily adapted for theatrical performances and during the 1820's the courts were used variously for circus, theatre and exhibitions.
In the early 1850's, Robert Bignell, who was a wine merchant who became an impressario, opened the Argyll Rooms (named after famous rooms in Argyll Street which burned down in 1832) for music and dancing on the corner of Windmill Street and Shaftesbury Avenue. The novel venue, a sort of cross between a night club and a casino, paid him well. However its dubious reputation led to it being closed in 1878.
He reopened in 1882, as a music hall called the Trocadero Palace. The bar occupied one side of the auditorium. Edward VII was an occassional visitor as stars such as Marie Lloyd, Den Leno (both of who later ate at the Trocadero and appear in The Trocadero Banquet Book) and Charles Chaplin's father appeared. It was here that Charles Coburn sang 'Two Lovely Black Eyes'. Bignell died in 1888 and the rooms were then leased to a succession of theatrical agents, until 1894. Meanwhile the construction of Shaftesbury Avenue as part of the slum clearance campaign in 1885-86 had placed the Trocadero at the angle formed by the new street with Windmill Street.
In 1895, Bignell's daughter granted a 99 year lease of the Trocadero to J.Lyons and Company Ltd. Some months elapsed before building work began, and then it was necessary to spend four times the original budget - reportedly an addition of more than £100,000 to create the epicurean palace. This was a serious matter for the young company of J. Lyons, and at a meeting of the shareholders, held in the grill-room, the necessity of further capital was explained - it was an unusual meeting as at that time the room itself was unfinished and consisted simply of brick walls and little else! Reports at the time say there was uproar, and the directors had a task raising the additional capital which they eventually did after much debate. However the finished building was worth it!