When Casanova arrived in London in 1763, Soho was his first port of call. It was a place riddled with opium dens and brothels and coffee houses and restaurants, the place you went for cheap rent, good food, great drugs and the best parties.
It’s been the go-to place for hedonists and sybarites ever since, and while today there are far fewer brothels (and, to the best of my knowledge, no opium dens), it’s always been regarded as the undisputed heavyweight of the London dining scene, whether you’re looking for a refined pre-theatre meal or debauched late-night excess.
But in the last few years that hegemony has been challenged. Today’s hip young things are as likely to hang out in Brixton or Peckham or Hackney, each of which boasts a selection of the finest restaurants in the country. In east London in particular, young progressives spend unfathomable sums on small plates and organic wine. It seems like every week another hypebeast restaurant opens in Clapton or London Fields or Dalston.
In Soho, meanwhile, rising rents are driving out smaller businesses and replacing them with slick, private equity-backed behemoths. There’s a prevailing wisdom that Soho is losing its edge, becoming dull and modern, that its best days are behind it. Even Stevie Parle, owner of Soho’s Pastaio, has reservations: “I worry that it’s is getting a little too straight, in every sense: too heterosexual, too conventional. The rents are so high now that it’s bound to lose its alt-scene in the next few years, with only the most people-pleasing operations able to survive.”
Despite these very real issues, however, Soho still has a spark, a certain je ne sais quoi, setting it apart from everywhere else. It’s the master of easy, old school hospitality, where wit and charm are prized over concept and edginess. Shoreditch has many things going for it, but a stool at the bar in a restaurant that doesn’t accept reservations isn’t for everyone.
Quo Vadis chef patron Jeremy Lee says Soho’s magic lies in its ability to reinvent itself for each new generation: “Old spots that have stood the test of time – the Wolseley, The Ivy, J Sheekey – mingle with the new. Maverick elegance sits side-by-side with the rough and tumble of the few remaining drinking dens.” He points to The French House, which has just reopened to critical acclaim; Berenjak, which is getting rave reviews; and Cafe Boheme.
And then there’s Rambla, Blanchette, Bocca di Lupo, Kiln, Bob Bob Ricard, Nopi, Darjeeling Express, Le Bab, Kricket, Barrafina, 10 Greek Street, Bao, Social Eating House, Ember Yard, Hoppers, Dum Biryani House, Yauatcha, Blacklock, Coya. That’s a wild list of restaurants for a city, let alone one relatively small district.
“I love Soho,” says Rik Campbell, co-owner of Indian restaurant Kricket. “It’s the centre of the world because London is the capital of the world and Soho is the centre of London. There are so many great restaurants in such a small area and it’s always busy. I live in Hackney and I’m often asked when Kricket is going to open east. Unfortunately it’s becoming increasingly competitive, with many restaurants there overpriced, trying to make up for the lack of lunch trade. We’ve already seen closures this year.
“Soho is all hustle and bustle, still a bit gritty and debauched but at the same time very elegant. It’s also accessible for those coming from out of London, be it the suburbs or internationally. Soho is still number one on both a restaurateur’s and consumer’s hit list.”
Part of Soho’s enduring appeal lies in its storied, chequered history. There are restaurants here that have been around longer than some London boroughs. August Kettner, Napoleon III’s private chef, opened Kettner’s Townhouse in 1867, back when Soho was still a Huguenot stronghold and Queen Victoria was the reigning monarch. King Edward VII would go on to court his mistress there; Sir Winston Churchill was a regular fixture at the bar, as was Oscar Wilde.
The French House, home of London’s finest boozy lunch, is over 100-years-old. Contrary to its present name, it was set up by German immigrant Christian Schmitt as York Minster in 1891, when it provided refuge to hordes of writers, actors, poets, and musicians, Sylvia Plath among them. L’Escargot launched in 1927, with a list of diners that included Coco Chanel, Ralph Richardson, and Elton John. These names alone tell you everything you need to know about Soho.
In the 1960s Carnaby Street became the centre of the world for music and fashion. David Bowie got his big break at The Jack of Clubs on Brewer Street; the Rolling Stones played their first gig at the Flamingo Club; my uncle played his first gig at Ronnie Scott’s. He wore a brand new pair of shoes, but, owing to the pain of fresh leather, removed them while sitting at the piano, only for a young Mick Jagger to make off with them (at least that’s the way he tells it).
During those years Soho famously attracted the Kray twins, who extended their empire out of the East End and bought The Hideaway and The Arts Theatre Club. Deals were done and punches were thrown, and apparently the cocktails were very good.
“It’s always been my favourite neighbourhood in London,” says Ben Chapman, of award-winning Kiln fame. “It has a swagger that’s more permanent than fashionable. I like the anonymity of Soho come nightfall. I see the same people every morning working in the guitar shops and coffee bars, the same guy scrubbing the pavement every Tuesday. Then when evening comes, you can disappear into a bar and you won’t see anyone you recognise the whole night.”
Victor Garvey, owner of Rambla, agrees: “A lot of the people who write off Soho have only been there on a Saturday night when it can get pretty gaudy. Come at 9am, or mid-afternoon, and you see a village; the mailman doing his rounds, bars putting out the empties, the homeless guy on Dean Street serenading people at pavement tables. Soho’s really alive. For the visitor it can feel like another planet, this mash-up of quaint village and pulsing metropolis; for me, it’s just home.”
There will always be trendy new areas, little pockets of this great city that are flavour of the month before passing the baton to somewhere new. But Soho abides. It will survive the rising rents, the housing developments, the increased competition, and emerge something new and sparkly. There will be imitators, but there’s only one Soho.