Cardiff and “world-famous gastronomic landmark” aren’t two phrases you’d expect to go hand in hand.
But, back in the 1940’s and 50’s, Cardiff Bay was home to one of the finest restaurants in the country, The Big Windsor Hotel, under the ownership of French chef Abel “Papa” Magneron.
The restaurant was popular with some of the biggest celebrities of its era and people travelled from across the world to eat Magneron’s cooking.
The legend of Abel Magneron can still be seen to this day on a commemorative plaque on the wall outside the former location of The Big Windsor Hotel in Cardiff Bay. Until a few years ago the building was a branch of the Juboraj Indian restaurant and it’s since been redeveloped into luxury flats.
The plaque reads: “In the difficult days following the war 1939-1945, Abel Magneron, 1890-1954, here achieved a gastronomic standard which contributed to the further glory of the Entente Cordiale.”
There aren’t many chefs who can say their cooking has contributed to world peace are there?
Looking back through the archives of the South Wales Echo from the 1980s, tales of Magneron’s legendary status were often featured in the late Dan O’Neill’s Talking Cardiff column.
Magneron, a former chef to Prime Minister David Lloyd George, leased The Big Windsor Hotel from the Mount Stuart Dry Docks after World War Two. He ran the restaurant with his wife Madeleine and daughter Marcelle and they specialised in French cooking.
According to Dan O’Neill they had numerous VIP customers.
“During its post-war peak days [The Big Windsor Hotel] was known around the world as one of the great gourmet centres, enticing showbiz stars like [Richard] Burton and [Stanley] Baker to meals prepared by Abel Magneron, “Papa” Magneron, the chef who outdid his home country with his French cuisine,” said O’Neill.
O’Neill also praised the quality of Magneron’s cooking.
“Abel was a French chef – which is like saying Picasso was a bit of a painter. He was an artist, and his magic made a dockland public-house world famous,” he said.
The writer and sports commentator G V Wynne-Jones was also a regular customer at the Big Windsor. He told the South Wales Echo: “All the regulars called Monsieur Magneron Papa Magneron. He was such a cheery chap and a tremendous character.”
According to one story from Magneron’s daughter, a customer travelled all the way from Baghdad to experience the cooking at The Big Windsor Hotel.
“I remember one occasion when a gentleman came in and said he had heard about our food from someone famous. I asked him if he had booked and he said he had not but he had come rather a long way. I was used to people saying that so I did not pay much attention, but then he told me he had come from Baghdad!” she said.
“I could not turn him away after that so I set up a small card table for him in the corner and he had a meal on the house. I thought he deserved it having come so far.”
Sadly, Abel Magneron was killed in a car crash in France in 1954 and the plaque was placed on the front of the Windsor in his memory.
It was paid for by the Welsh aviation pioneer Kenneth Davies who founded Cambrian Airways, an airline which was based at Cardiff’s Municipal Airport in Tremorfa. You can read the story behind Cambrian Airways here.
Madame Magneron continued to run the restaurant until she retired and the new owners kept up the traditional French cooking until the building closed due to a fire in 1967.
An assistant chef at the Big Windsor was jailed for life at Glamorgan Assize Court in Swansea for maliciously setting fire to the building.
Do you know any more legends of chef Abel Magneron and his time at the Big Windsor Hotel?
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