(This covers east of Wardour Street and south of Brewer Street.)
Once synonymous with the sex industry (both gay and straight) and London’s nightlife, Soho has been smartening up over the years. This has seen the area clean up its act, but in the process concerns have been raised that it’s losing it’s character. As more families and up market restaurants have moved in, the landlords and Council have been raising rents and making licences harder to obtain, forcing out seedier businesses. Unfortunately it’s seen gay bars and drag clubs like Madame Jojo’s close and put many others, like The Yard, under strain and threat of closure. This has led to the shrinking of a still popular and much needed outlet and safe space relied on by LGBTQ+ people of all ages and backgrounds.
Despite this, no matter the time of day or night, Soho is still a bustling area of colours, smells, sights, sounds and people of all walks of life, with many new and old quirks to it. It’s an area really worth just wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere. Be sure to look up too, the buildings are beautiful. Some date from the development of the area in the 1690s while others come all the way up to the modern day, passing through Victorian buildings and marble clad 1950s coffee bars. The ornate mouldings and masonry, the paint on which is faded, old and peeling, give rise to the romantic notion of an area of London that’s been left untouched, just adding to its appeal.
So what landmarks and sights should you look out for as you wander the area?
Cutting up from Piccadilly into Soho via Sherwood Street you pass through a modern development housing the French Brasserie Zedel (well worth a visit for a meal). In the same development is Whole Foods; you may think it’s expensive and for rich hipsters, but go in and have a look, the selection and quality is superb, from the fruit and veg, to the fish, meat and wines, while the prices are no worse than Waitrose.
Brewer Street & Great Windmill Street
Passing under the bridge between the buildings either side of Sherwood Street you come onto Brewer Street. Just across the road to the right is Kiln, which was named Restaurant of the Year 2018 at the National Restaurant Awards. Further down the street is the Lina delicatessen next to Randall & Aubin, a superb seafood restaurant with an unrivalled atmosphere and the original Victorian frontage. On R&A’s other side you’ll find the Soho’s Book Shop, a reminder of the area’s more seedy history. Across the way is gay store, Prowler, and Rupert Street which hosts the Street Food Union every Tuesday to Friday from 11am-3pm and a vegan food market every Saturday.
As you walk down Brewer Street, keep an eye out for the art deco tower of the NCP car park on the corner of Lexington and Brewer. Across the road is Great Windmill Street, home to The Windmill Theatre of World War II and film fame. Just across the way from the theatre is Ham Yard, with the Ham Yard Hotel and it’s superb bar. You’ll also find down Great Windmill Street the engineering and architectural genius that is the playground of the Soho Parish Primary School, built over three levels and tucked between two buildings. Next to the school is Blacklock, for those after a meat feast.
Wardour, Old Compton, Dean, Frith, & Greek Streets
These five streets form the major arteries of the eastern half of Soho, but be sure to wander down the little side alleys and interconnecting streets; they tend to be quiet and hidden gems. A perfect example is the, not so hidden, Meard Street with its cobbled street, ornate old school iron street lamps and beautiful dinky town houses, not to mention the Soho branch of Honest Burger.
The area plays host to many of the original now popular for profit private members clubs, each an icon in their own right – L’Escargot, The Groucho, Quo Vadis, and the original Soho House. Such clubs have proved popular and the area has been able to support so many, despite it’s relatively small size, thanks to the television and film studios and related businesses that moved in during the 80s and were then followed by other creative industries.
Buttressed up against these clubs are restaurants, gay clubs and pubs like the Admiral Duncan, which was famously bombed years ago, the classic Bar Italia, one of the earliest and last surviving espresso bars from the 1950s, and the famous jazz club Ronnie Scott’s. You’ll find The Gay Hussar on Greek Street, but don’t be fooled by the name. It’s an old school Hungarian restaurant that has a long list of historic and current famous diners. But it’s due to close this summer so hurry if you want to try it. Another historic institution is The French House. A grade two listed building, the pub – formally the York Minister – was a favourite drinking den of the Free French Forces and General de Gaulle during WWII. To this day it sells more Ricard than anywhere else in the UK.
Old Compton Street houses great off licenses with the prices of the bottles written on day-glow stars attached to them. Some of these off licenses are really great for whisky and even house private bars and speakeasies. There is also a sex shop neon window but, don’t be fooled, this is a fake front, not hiding a speakeasy, but a whole Mexican restaurant – La Bodega Negra.
Soho Square and the surrounding Streets
Soho Square is always worth a visit; it’s a great place to sit out with friends in the sun. At the centre is the famous Tudoresq gardeners hut built in 1926 to hide a modern electricity sub station. You’ll also find in the square a weathered statue of Charles II who commissioned the original development of the area much as he did other parts of London, including Jermyn Street.
Just off the square is Carlisle Street and The Toucan, an Irish Pub with original full-on Guinness branding and a grotty charm to it. A bit further down on the corner with Dean Street you’ll find the Pizza Express Jazz Club. First opened in 1969, the pizza restaurant has been playing host to live jazz ever since, including such names as Norah Jones, Amy Winehouse, and Jamie Cullum.
Just down the road is Rippons newsagent with its ornate, wonky wood Georgian shop front, and the Soho Theatre with its mix of comedy, cabaret and theatre.