I’ve been stumbling round the gutters of Soho since I was a lad. Not so many years later I’d be at G-A-Y waiting to pick up a discount wristband for Heaven, or meeting friends for drinks before clubbing at The End, and return later the same night to chew the fat with a miscellany of misfits, drag queens and partiers often until dawn – at Bar Italia, Balans, Bar Soho and beyond.
When I opened my restaurant, Bocca di Lupo, in 2008, there was nowhere else. Soho was, and remains, the heart of London to me. The brothels are, if not gone, reduced; the streets are cleaner; the restaurants are back; the sex shops seem less grotty. Some of these changes are in part for the good, others have reduced the texture and colour of Soho – its appeal to the conventional has increased, and some of the marginals have been displaced. Bocca can take some credit for this change – the good, and the bad – but I remain enamoured with these streets, where everyone has their place. Here are some of my favourite spots…
The world is full of outsiders to my industry who decided to dabble in restauration and ended up with burned fingers. John Devitt – an angel of a man – is an exception to the rule. He learned the trade in order to transition from City trader to restaurateur, partnered with chef Shuko, and their creation is heaven. Koya feels like Japan, it taught me to love udon (which once I hated) and is a rare place you can pop in for breakfast, and momentarily teleport to another continent.
This little patisserie is so old, it has charm that predates modern Soho. Maison Bertaux holds the title of oldest patisserie in London (though I’d argue that accolade might belong to Newens in Kew), and is the place to go for a cup of tea and a cream bun, slice of cake, éclair, tarte fine or profiterole. A breakfast for every day of the week…
Every area of London has its greasy spoon. Escalating rents and changing tastes have pushed most of them out of Soho – but Bar Bruno is the original and the best. It’s always a cup of tea and a bacon sarnie for me.
Available on Deliveroo.
At Balans, you can brunch at any time of day or. It is a stalwart of Old Compton Street – and as with many of the faces on the road, its visage has changed over time, once young and spritely, then in all honesty for a period a bit haggard. It’s since had a bit of a work done and come out fun, but refreshed.
This Kingly Street Korean is not the most authentic example of its cuisine in London – we were already well served and a plethora have opened in recent years – but JinJuu does its stuff in a la-di-dah way, pours rather tasty cocktails, and serves spicy snacky food that helps you drink more of them.
Dean Street Townhouse
Soho House has fought a crisis of identity: how can something whose core beliefs are being small and quirky and exclusive survive becoming a global brand? Well, if I knew the answer to that I’d be as rich as its owners: Nick Jones, Richard Caring and Ron Burkle. They know how to open address after address after address and keep each one feeling unique. Dean Street Townhouse was opened as a temporary thing while the original Soho House underwent a refurb – it has come out, as all Soho Houses do, feeling like it was always there, and was always the place to do brunch in Soho.
JKS restaurant group does things brilliantly. It can’t be credited with inventing Sri Lankan food, and London had a love affair with the dosa long before I was born, but the team did thrust Sri Lankan cuisine – and the eponymous hopper – into the forefront of London foodies’ blogs and palates with wonderful little restaurant, Hoppers. Cheap, delicious, rich, spicy, elegant and humble – with crispy lacey hoppers to mop it all up. If you haven’t eaten a bone marrow varuval, you haven’t lived (though, in terms of coronaries, you might live longer).
Allan Yau is an almost mythological creature in my industry – visionary, risk taking, commercially brilliant and also nuts. His restaurants have redefined eating in London on so many levels. Yauatcha is perhaps his most-loved creation (at least among the mere mortals who class themselves as his peers). It combines playfulness, epic teas, what I think is London’s finest patisserie (and utterly bonkers – it’s all classic French pastry technique in Chinese flavours), and haute dim sum. The prawn and bean curd (sometimes scallop and bean curd) cheung fun is my favourite bite in London, and the venison puff is legendary.
Pleasant Lady Jian Biang
Do you remember, in Little Shop of Horrors, how the plant store miraculously appeared on a back street and you never knew it wasn’t there before, or could remember how it came to be? So the Pleasant Lady crept onto Greek Street. For £6 you can grab a crispy, delicious Cantonese crêpe stuffed with crunchy wonton skins, egg, coriander, chilli and, if you want, cumin lamb. It’s ass-kicking, friendly fast food. Ideal for lunch on the hoof.
Bar Italia is about 70 years old – and looks it. It is just heaven, a temple to constancy, to Italy, to staying true to your roots: it remains family owned, family run, and family feeling. They might have served the first espresso in London, and are without doubt where I go and where I send tourists who want a proper coffee. There are other cafes, and other artisanal roasters with arguably finer beans (read on), but Bar Italia is the original and (according to its customers) remains the best.
Algerian Coffee Stores
There are not so many stores that make you almost cry with pleasure on entering. Maybe Berry Brothers & Rudd (wine) and James Smith (umbrellas), but Algerian Coffee Stores is tiny, dates from 1887, and has all the magic of Harry Potter. They have a brilliant selection of coffees – European and Moorish – teas (its where we get our tea from at Bocca di Lupo), chocolatey treats and coffee paraphernalia. For enchanted shops in London, this has to be in the top three.
Monmouth Coffee Company
I’m told I suckled in Neal’s Yard – and remember a bakery there that made cheesy bread, date flapjacks and berry frozen yoghurt. While I took my milk, my mum took her coffee at Monmouth Coffee Company. I still buy my coffee for home and my pub Plaquemine Lock there. While technically outside of Soho, in Seven Dials, it is likely London’s best coffee – and the forefather of the countless micro-roasters we have today. Grab a piccolo and croissant or one of Sally Clark’s truffles, and delight your palate while you wait for them to weigh out and grind a half kilo of some natural process coffee to take home.
Where in the world can you get a drink of distilled flint? Or a perfectly satisfying – and perfectly formed – Negroni in a glass apparently the size of a thimble? Well, in thimble-sized Bar Termini. It is my favourite of Tony Conigliaro’s bars and has been a cornerstone of Soho for…. I have no idea how long. It hasn’t been open for that long, compared to other Soho institutions, but like all the great places, one cannot imagine Soho without it. It is as much a fixture of Soho denizens’ lives as it is of Old Compton Street. Consummate service and finesse in the tiniest of packages – what’s not to love?
If Bar Termini slipped in unnoticed between the seams, Swift forcibly stitched itself into Soho’s fabric. I can remember Soho before Swift came: it was a Soho absolutely full of places to drink, with not a single one making cocktails of note (aside from the clubs). It is split between an upstairs bar (light, bright and airy, with something of the art-deco train carriage about it) – for a shorter menu and snacks – or the downstairs bar – which is rich and plush and opulent, with a longer list of drinks and a list of whiskies longer than the night.
The French House
Given the level of cooking happening (and indeed, it is really happening) on the first floor under the guiding spoon of Neil Borthwick, these days it seems almost a crime to pop into the ground floor for a pint. In fact, it is a crime to order by the pint – for reasons I still cannot fathom, the French House recently dropped its policy that beer should be served only in halves. So have two halves of Meteor, and not a pint. Francis Bacon, Dylan Thomas and Charles de Gaulle loved it when it opened a century ago, Margot and Fergus Henderson celebrated their love in the kitchen before reinventing the word ‘restaurant’ for us… and you will love it today.
The Duke of Wellington
What I hated, in a judge-y sort of way back when I still went out – and out out, and out out out – was the attitude that gay bars seemed filled with people judging each other, when I was judging them for it: I cannot stand hypocrisy in other people. Well, that attitude has diminished in recent years, and more and more gay venues – at least in London – have dropped it, and welcome people of all sizes and shapes and colours and ilks. The Welly never had any attitude, and is proudly devoid of it today – it has a friendly buzz, is the first to fill, and is a great place to have a pint or four and a good natter.
If you want to hear what my team are saying about me behind my back, pop to the Lyric. It is a good pub with a happy range of craft beers, friendly staff and kerbside drinking, right on the doorstep of Bocca and Gelupo. I don’t go there as often (I have a pub of my own in which to drink – for free – and anyway they need somewhere to vent about me), but it’s still my go-to place after a long day, or if someone needs to talk about work with me, outside of it.
When I walked along a very decrepit Archer Street to the ruin of a hole in a building that was destined to become Bocca di Lupo to meet the selling agent, I was made to wait a while. The agent arrived, apologetically, 45 minutes late. He had been unable to walk directly to Bocca-to-be because half of Soho was cordoned off, crawling with investigators in hazmat suits for a suspected terror incident. The culprit was found at Bar Shu: someone had let the chilli oil overheat, and numbing-spicy fumes were choking people in the streets. If that doesn’t make you want to go (and it should), then this might: it is the brainchild of its consultant chef Fuchsia Dunlop – who has done for Chinese cuisine in the 21st century, what Ken Hom did in the 20th. She is the shadow writer who transcribed regionality and authenticity in Chinese cuisine for us, just as I tried to do at Bocca di Lupo for Italy. In 2006 Jay Rayner wrote: “Sichuan cooking this good will breathe fire back into London's Chinatown.” He was prescient but uncharacteristically understated: Bar Shu not only reignited Soho, but is personally responsible for Sichuan becoming the trendiest Chinese cuisine across the UK. Book a table. Eat seabass drowned in chillies, and cold buckwheat noodles in their numbing oil, and man-and-wife offal slices, and the kung pao that defined and reinvigorated a dish that had once become a forgotten cobweb on Chinese menus. It is very good.
Victor Garvey is a brilliant and visionary chef. He took a little corner site in Soho and gave us Rambla, to critical, peer and public acclaim. It was so good an offer was made he could not refuse, and he was left with a site he could do what he liked with. So he did something nuts, and launched a Californian restaurant. But not any Californian restaurant – one cooking So-Cal cuisine to a height that evokes the French Laundry, my old haunt Boulevard and Bouchon. His wine list is exclusively Californian, but as Californian wines are uncompetitively dear in the UK he has put an uncompetitively low margin on them so you can afford to drink wines you can’t usually afford. The cooking is bright, playful, precise and elegant – sophisticated fun, just like the California it so effortlessly evokes.
David Thompson got a new vision of Thai cooking going with Nahm. While Thai food by Thai people remains vibrant (go to Thai 101 in Hammersmith for a meal you’d have to trawl Thailand itself to equal), Thai food cooked by Brits, and celebrating British produce alongside imported Thai fruit, herbs and spices, has become a new genealogy. David has moved to the other side of the globe and Nahm is gone, but its children – Som Saa, Farang, Smoking Goat and, in Soho, Kiln – live on. At Bocca di Lupo I don’t always cook with Italian ingredients, but as I imagine an Italian would if they lived where I do and had access to these, rather than those, ingredients. Slanted door did the same for Vietnamese in San Francisco. At Kiln you can eat Isan sausage and glass noodles made from local Tamworth pigs, or grilled Cornish red mullet with red curry. Not only can you, but you must
FOR LATE-NIGHT DRINKS
Soho has its fair share of spirits and whisky shops. Gerry’s is the one we pop to from Bocca when our bar’s run dry, but Milroy’s is London’s finest, oldest and most soulful whisky shop. It straddles store and bar – 300 bottles are available to drink by the glass in-house. If you know your Scotch and global whiskies, this is the place for you – or if you want to be guided, this is the place to learn. Behind a secret entrance hidden in a bookcase is The Vault, a whisky cocktail bar sequestered beneath the shop.
The Blue Posts
On Rupert Street (just the wrong side of Shaftesbury Avenue to count as Soho but, it’s a secret worth venturing the wrong side of the tracks for) is The Blue Post. It’s owned by the lovely Layo Paskin, who used to run The End and now is the brains behind a few brilliant spots, including the Palomar (delicious), the Barbary (delicious) and The Blue Posts. It’s a bit of a fantasy of a pub – small, with an ace dining room in the basement, a cocktail bar (the Mulwray) above, and a ground floor devoted to civilised publicanism. As the evening progresses the music (which is predictably brilliant) gets livelier, and the choice of cocktail bar or pub in the same building is impossible to pass up. It’s very hard to leave before closing…
House of St Barnabas
The House of St Barnabas is many things: a charity (it is not-for-profit, and works to get the homeless back into work); a landmark building (Rococo interiors – all swish, some faded, some restored); a beautiful private chapel; a garden with the tranquillity of a churchyard that’s been marginally invaded by artists and partiers); and a members club (artsy and music-y, with occasional sets by top DJs, great food and cocktails). It is particularly fun when clement enough to sit outside, or when the music has particular appeal to you.
Now I am doing a great disservice to Jeremy Lee, who is one of our nation’s greatest, loveliest and louchest chefs, by mentioning Quo Vadis among clubs instead of places to eat. He has the lightest of touches with British meat, fish and produce – and his naughty little kickshaws and emblematic smoked eel sandwiches deserve essays to be written on them. His cuisine references Old British, and is relevant today – what Fergus Henderson does with the culinary equivalent of brutalism, Jeremy does with Rococo and comfort. The best way to find him to thank him for the meal? Have a negroni at the bar in the club – it’s what he’s probably doing after dinner service too.
My gran was a friend of the Marx brothers (I think she knew everyone). The Groucho (opened in 1985) was named after one of its namesake’s lines: “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.” It opened its doors to the bohemian and to women: it tore up the members’ club book, and in doing so wrote a new one. It remains the Soho club, and has a vital collection of art on the walls (and artists in the membership) – having kick-started Soho clubs, it decided to run with the ball. Despite the exclusivity (you can only enter with a member and only gain membership after proposal by two others), it is friendly, open and distinctly not judge-y – obnoxious is one thing dear Groucho is not.
AND FOR VERY LATE DRINKS…
I have never eaten at El Camion on Brewer Street, which is probably my loss. But the thing about working in a kitchen until 1am, then stumbling out filled with adrenaline, is you come out thirsty. At El Camion I met my first Tommy’s margarita (the perfect or skinny margarita – just tequila, lime and agave syrup on the rocks, no triple sec) – and my life was changed. It is now the only margarita I drink, and is my go-to cocktail at home.
Probably the first venue I ever went to in Soho was to Ronnie Scott’s. This was pre-refurb, when the food was unconscionable, the velvet cigarette stained and tattered, and the atmosphere as thick and delicious as syllabub. Then they decided to refurb, and we all decided that was the end of Ronnie’s – until they opened the door and it came back better. Better food, better drinks, better service, and upholstery that didn’t remain attached to the seat of your trousers. Along with the Jazz Café it remains one of a very few, serious venues for certain types of music – with an intimacy and history that is unparalleled. Downstairs (where the proper concerts are played) they take the music so seriously you can’t talk – which to me, is a pity, as I’m uncouth. No such troubles upstairs, where there is a late, late bar – and one of Soho’s finest holes in which to create a hangover, and an irreverent but always brilliant line-up to drink to.
Bocca Di Lupo, 12 Archer Street, Soho, W1D 7BB
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