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Chain restaurants have nearly eviscerated Soho, London's erstwhile creative core. Here's how to enjoy the best of what's left.
I grew up in a parochial city in northern England, where the capital – a mere 200 miles away – was viewed as an exotic, dirty and often dangerous metropolis, always referred to contemptuously as “that London.” At the heart of this (undeserved) reputation was Soho, a district that became a byword for British societal ills and — for bored northerners dreaming of excitement and escape — London’s biggest attraction.
To any teen addicted to the explosive literature and music of Britain’s post-war years, Soho’s lure is obvious. A teeming village of narrow lanes and crooked alleyways at London’s core, in its heyday it was a global hub of sleaze, gossip and scandal — a place where inky-fingered writers downed pints with corrupt cops and backstreet pornographers; where furtive lawmakers, drug-addled pop stars and cigar-chomping film moguls shook hands over secret deals that would shape the country's cultural and political future.
Though it remains London’s creative heart, corporate cash has wrought untold damage on Soho's seedy charm, by way of generic coffee houses and chain restaurants. While some of its streets now host a thriving and friendly gay scene, most of the dive bars and drinking dens that put this square mile on the map have been lost.
But among the bland eateries catering to gullible tourists and office drones, a few pockets of old Soho cling on, as dark havens of intrigue, eccentricity and sometimes hilarious incivility.
For me, these authentic bastions of vanishing London charm are places to treasure, serendipitous (and sometimes bizarre) corners of the city that remain steadfast in the face of globalized uniformity.
If you’re game to experience Soho the way it was, here are some great destinations:
The French House
There's never anywhere to sit. You can only buy beer in half-pint glasses. The clientele can be rude and the staff can be ruder — especially if you dare use your cell phone. But if I were forced to pick a favorite, this would be it.
The French House, named in recognition of its reputed role as the unofficial headquarters of Charles de Gaulle's Free French Forces during World War II, was later adopted by thirsty bohemian writers Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas, whose presence can still felt across the boisterous bar room.
There's a French restaurant upstairs (the reviews are good, but food isn’t the main reason to visit) and a plentiful supply of Ricard behind the bar. I once spent an enjoyable Christmas Eve here talking to random strangers. There was Rodney, a foppish art dealer just back from New York, and Keith, a Scottish ex-special forces soldier who would've been intimidating if he hadn't been wearing high heels. When I popped in the following Christmas Eve, I saw Rodney and Keith again. Like fairy lights and Santa, they only appeared once a year.
The Coach and Horses
Back in its glory days, legendary barman Norman Balon — by his own claim, the rudest barman in Soho — reveled in refusing to serve many of the writers and journalists among his regulars. But the Coach and Horses still clings to its reputation as a literary hotbed and the official watering hole of Private Eye — a satirical magazine that regularly skewers the British elite. Little has changed in the past half century and, except on nights when "Magic Betty" starts belting the tired piano in the corner, the place thrums with heady conversation. It's a pub for encountering people from all walks of life, often somewhat worse for the wear. I once saw a smartly-suited investment-banker type, red-faced with drink, heavily plonk himself in the lap of an unsuspecting young lady. Justice was adroitly served an hour later when he fell asleep and some feral teenage girls ran off with his wallet.
The Gay Hussar
Despite the proximity of numerous gay bars, this Soho stalwart is named not for the sexuality of its clientele but for the elite Hungarian soldiers who lend their national dishes to the somewhat heavy menu (pork stuffed with pork, that kind of thing).
Forget the food, this place is all about the atmosphere: book-lined shelves, wood paneling, and the aroma of impending stew. There's the obligatory literary association. T.S. Eliot was a regular. But the restaurant played a more contemporary role in plotting by Margaret Thatcher's Labour opponents in the 1980s, providing a tangible air of intrigue. Political caricatures overlook the sotto voce discussions on the plush banquettes beneath.
Not actually a bar, but a steamy oasis of spluttering espresso geysers, tricolour flags and Formica countertops that has stood largely unchanged since it began administering caffeine to the dazed denizens of Soho in 1949. It seems incredible that the winning formula of Italian coffee and people-watching in London’s most colorful district hasn’t spawned dozens of imitators, but even the onslaught of corporate coffee joints has failed to steal Bar Italia’s glory.
Though its owners put this down to their secret coffee blend, the truth is no real mystery. When it opened, the 24-hour Bar Italia was once the only place in Soho to go after the pubs shut, so proved an instant hit. Even when drinking laws were relaxed decades later, Bar Italia then became not the only place, but the only place to go as the hipsters dug its retro charm, giant Rocky Marciano photo and post-alcohol buzz – if not its expensive and mediocre Italian food.
Immortalized in song by Britpop band Pulp, who sang: “There’s only one place we can go/It’s round the corner in Soho/Where other broken people go,” Bar Italia continues to mop up the late night scene and, such is its cache,even non-coffee drinkers like myself are willing to pay humiliating prices for watery tea, just for the pleasure of sitting outside Bar Italia in the miserable, freezing British weather and soaking it all in. It’s worth it.
Mozart and Casanova once lived in Soho, as did Karl Marx, but touring the blue plaques that mark their former homes rather misses the district's point and, if you have time to kill (before the bars open), check out Berwick Street. This narrow causeway of shops and market stalls, immortalized on the cover of "(What's the Story) Morning Glory," the second album by English rockers Oasis, is a living snapshot of Soho's contemporary history.
Enter at the southern end, near where a furtive clutch of tacky sex emporiums still lurk. Head through the bustling market (the $3 “fishfinger” bagels are a tried-and-tested hangover cure), and emerge at possibly the finest congregation of record stores the U.K. has to offer. There are speciality music stores so hip they never appear to have any records to sell. There are also bargain second hand and discount stores. And then there's Sister Ray: a formidable emporium of counter-culture that tops the lot.
Nearest tube: Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square