Founder of Café Royal in London.
Born as Daniel Nicolas Thévenon in Champlost in Burgundy in France and the son of Jean Baptiste Thévenon, he was apprenticed to a coachbuilder in Sens before moving in the early 1850s to Paris, where he continued to work as a coachbuilder. He married his shop-assistant first cousin Célestine Lacoste (1831-1916) in Paris in 1854 and they had a daughter, Emma Josephine Thévenon (1856-1912). At about this time he bought a wine shop in Bercy in Paris from a relative, M. Champroux, for £240 saved from their salaries, and soon followed this with two further shops. When Champroux went bankrupt in 1863 Thévenon, who had guaranteed some of his debts, faced bankruptcy himself for 250,000 francs. Faced with being arrested for this debt he and his wife fled France to escape their creditors and arrived in London in October 1863. In 1864 he was sentenced in his absence to ten years’ penal servitude; by 1871 he had repaid the debts, but the Supreme Court of France did not cancel his sentence until 1890.
Nicols arrived in Britain in 1863 with Célestine and just five pounds in cash saved by his wife but with a considerable professional knowledge of French culture and cuisine virtually unknown in London and which quickly appealed to British tastes. On arriving in London the couple lodged in Soho where there was a large French population and where Nicols worked as an odd job man while his wife found work as a seamstress.
He Anglicised his name to Daniel Nicols and the couple set up their first venture as the ‘Café Restaurant Nicols’ at 19 Glasshouse Street near Piccadilly Circus in February 1865, but as its fame spread and it became the place to see and be seen he expanded the premises by buying a shop in Regent Street, behind the café, and in 1867 renamed it the Café Royal. He was naturalised as a British subject in April 1865. His future son-in-law Georges Alexandre Pigache (1851-1898) supervised the kitchens and his nephew Eugène Lacoste carefully selected the wines. In fact, Lacoste bought so lavishly that Nicols was faced with bankruptcy for a second time but managed to pay off his creditors by selling one eighth of the wine stock.
After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1 many French political refugees settled in London and would gather at the Café Royal where they found a little piece of Parisian society, causing it to become a popular meeting place. The Café Royal flourished and was considered at one point to have the greatest wine cellar in the world. The ‘N’ displayed on all the glass, china, napkins, and menus throughout the café stood for ‘Nicols’.