Pubs, bars and restaurants opened in Soho this weekend, with new licensing laws allowing them to spill into the street. Andy Silvester spent Saturday afternoon – and evening – seeing what the new normal looks like
As the first drops of rain hit the drinkers sitting at tables in the middle of D’Arblay Street, the bouncer swings into action: not kicking people out, but delivering umbrellas to customers enjoying their first taste of the ‘new Soho’.
With Westminster Council pedestrianising a number of streets in the area over the summer, we appear set for an al fresco revolution in the heart of the capital’s entertainment district.
And while some photos of Soho’s streets in the early hours suggested some were not perhaps taking social distancing all that seriously, during the afternoon the atmosphere is relaxed, cheery and – above all – safe.
And if it works – which, on even a cloudy Saturday afternoon, it did – then we could see a transformation in the longer term, too.
That’s certainly what award-winning chef Victor Garvey hopes. As City A.M. enjoys a glass of delightfully supple Californian pinot noir at his acclaimed Dean Street restaurant Sola, Victor is enthusiastic about the future.
“In a perfect world, what I actually want from this is it to be managed well, safely, and people to go ‘oh wait, why didn’t we do this before?’
“If we can get a mandate, we can get momentum, we can get public opinion behind us, get people to say actually Soho is quite safe, even if it is pedestrianised, then it’s going to work out better for everybody,” he says.
Victor may not have been born in London – his cooking at Sola and his former restaurant Rambla pay homage, respectively, to his Californian and Catalan roots – but he’s certainly at home in Soho, living just down the street from his restaurant.
He’s had to make a few tweaks to Sola – trolley service is now off the menu, but other than that the space is broadly the same as that which opened to such rave reviews last year. Indeed, he’s not yet using the outside space that he and his fellow campaigners fought to win.
“I spearheaded this movement not because it was about me, but because you’ve got Duck Soup, you’ve got 40 Dean Street, if they weren’t able to put tables outside, they would absolutely suffer,” he says. “They might close.”
Victor has also enjoyed the development of a new network of Soho’s businesses: a whatsapp group of bar owners and restaurateurs has become a hub for sharing resources, guidance and offers of staff to help marshal crowds.
“The level of camaraderie that this has inspired in everybody is really amazing,” he says. “Long may that continue.”
Today Soho is buzzing, with a much more European feel than usual. Some spots are using facemasks for staff – like Cafe Boheme, with tables booked out and the wine list as delightful as ever – whilst others, like Sola, are taking other precautions.
The noise of streets packed with people catching up is certainly a tonic the centre of the capital needs, with tourism still uncertain and theatres still closed. But with champions like Victor – and with plenty of Londoners keen to do their bit for a place whose pavements hold so many memories – Soho’s summer should be spectacular.
Information on Sola can be found at solasoho.com