Inside Nottingham's Royal Hotel that was 'mega operation' with 600 staff and 4,000 diners a night

Geoff Riches (centre) pictured with staff members at The Royal Hotel in the 1980s.

When the Royal Hotel opened its doors in Nottingham 40 years ago, it was a revelation to the city with its four restaurants and a Penthouse bar, quickly becoming the hotspot for the who's who of the time. "It was a mega operation. There has been nothing like it since," reminisced Geoff Riches, who was part of the hotel's heyday when stars like Elton John and Freddie Mercury were among the guests.

The iconic establishment on Wollaton Street welcomed its first visitors on September 7, 1983. Geoff, now 61, leapt at the opportunity to work there when he was just 21. Reflecting on his first day, he shared: "I remember walking through the door the very first morning thinking 'Oh My God, this place is absolutely massive, it's fantastic'."

With a staff of about 600, the Royal boasted dining options such as the King's Carvery, Gino's Italian restaurant, a steakhouse, and a French eatery. The hotel also featured two bars, including the upscale Penthouse, complete with cocktails and live piano music, and a coffee shop that could accommodate 300 patrons. Additionally, it offered banqueting facilities for up to 500 people.

Geoff, a former employee at the Royal Hotel, chuckles when he hears about restaurants today boasting of serving 150 diners a night. "That's an hour's worth of covers in one restaurant at the Royal when I was there. We would do 3,000 to 4,000 every night," he recalls.

"You'd have 5,000 to 6,000 customers in the place. It was absolutely packed. All 201 luxury rooms were full, the reception, the arcade upstairs with all the palm trees was heaving. All the restaurants opened at 6pm, by 6.10pm they would be full."

"It seems like a different world. It was the most modern and progressive hotel with the largest food and beverage operation of any hotel in the country at the time. It was amazing - no one had ever seen anything like it."

He later managed the King's Carvery for 18 months. "I loved that. By 5.30pm there would be 200 people outside queuing. Each restaurant would be full and the managers would start a waiting list that could be four or five pages long with 300-400 people. People would wait two to three hours drinking in the bar until their names were called on each individual tannoy," says Geoff.

"It was a military operation. The ordering of food to supply the restaurants took six to seven hours. A normal catering operation maybe gets ten barrels twice a week delivered. We would have 40 barrels of each beer and lager delivered every morning.

"The kitchens we had were space age. We were the first mega kitchen in Nottingham to have combination ovens and all the modern equipment. The kitchen that produced all the sweets, cakes, pastries and bread was like a mini bakery.

"When I was duty manager on a Friday and Saturday night it would take me two-and-a-half hours to count all the money. Then you couldn't just go home because you were so wired, you had to go to one of the nightclubs. We all got in free at Liberty's, or Madison's or Easy Street."

The hotel was independently owned by Cav and Gordon Pickering, who also ran the Savoy Hotel on Mansfield Road. The brothers, who were one of the largest developers in the Midlands at the time, designed the Royal after a trip to Florida to check out the latest trends.

"All the restaurants and bars were leading from a very large course way lined with palm trees and other plants and looked like something from America.

"It was an exciting time to have this super advanced hotel, so heavy on food and beverage and interior design, and space and ambience, a sheer buzz," says Geoff, who arrived in Nottingham to study art and design at Trent Polytechnic and initially worked as a waiter at the Savoy Hotel.

The opening week was not without its hiccups. "It was cross between Fawlty Towers and D-Day. On the first night, someone had forgotten about having bains maries to make soup so I had to rush out in town and go to every little store to buy as many tins of Heinz tomato soup as I could find."

"The keys kept breaking in the bedrooms so we had to hatchet the locks off. One of the big double doors into the banqueting suite hadn't been bolted on and fell on top of a customer. The builders were still building the squash courts behind the steak bar and one of the drills went through the wall and missed a customer's nose by about two inches."

"We had a builder walk through one of the restaurants with a wheelbarrow full of plaster - he had to get his job done," Geoff remembers. Just months before, Nottingham's Royal Concert Hall had launched - and the hotel had a special walkway for VIP guests' arrival.

"You had all the famous stars at the Concert Hall and afterwards they would be escorted by their security across that tunnel into the arcade and I'd meet them."

"I escorted Elton John and his entourage across the tunnel. He caused a bit of a problem as his security kept pushing customers out of the way because the arcade was so packed and I had to tell them to stop doing that."

Freddie Mercury and Queen, Sean Connery, Princess Anne, Honor Blackman, the Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise, and a host of other stars visited. "Eric Morecambe walked into the carvery and got the carvery fork and stuck it into a whole joint of meat and started walking out the restaurant with it - we all had to stop him. It was great fun."

"The Carry On film stars were riotous. You had to really watch them as they would drink heavily. They were so funny and do pranks on people," says Geoff, who rose up the ranks to duty manager, although in his attire of black jacket, waistcoat and grey and black striped trousers, he says he looked more like a lawyer."

He worked there until 1987 but no other job came close after that. "The Royal in my career was absolutely fantastic but it did hurt me because after working there with it being so busy, I found any other catering operations boring and so quiet."

The hotel was late taken over by Queens Moat Houses and today is part of the Crowne Plaza chain but all the restaurants Geoff fondly remembers are long gone. He says: "I'm still in contact with people from the Royal, a lot of them are still in the catering trade. Every time we speak the one phrase that comes to mind is we can't believe how with got through it. We can't believe the life we had for those years."

"People have forgotten Nottingham had this super mega hotel far in advance of its days. When I mention to people in the trade now how busy the Royal was and how many staff we had and what a military operation it had to be to run on a daily basis they just look at me with disbelief. I find it hard to explain the sheer size of the operation and the turnover of meals and the amount of money the place took."