Six Old Soho Haunts to Rediscover
To paraphrase that oft-used Samuel Johnson quote, if you’re tired of Soho, you’re tired of life. We visit the buzzy London neighbourhood to discover six addresses with great backstories, all of which are still pulling in the punters today.
22 March, 2022
To find out more about Chateau Denmark, featured below, read A Hotel Story in the latest print issue, Volume 36: Discovery.
A hunting ground in the 16th century (and, some may say, on the average Friday night), Soho - whose name is thought to derive from a cry similar to "tally-ho" - was developed into a residential and commercial hub in 1679 by the builder Richard Frith. Adopted, initially, by the city's aristocrats, then an influx of Greek Christians and Huguenots escaping persecution, and then German, Italian and Hungarian radicals fleeing the failed revolutions of 1848, the area soon became known as a refuge for London's bohemian community. Today, home to strip clubs and advertising agencies, film distribution companies and nail spas, with "colourfully seedy" sitting comfortably alongside "cutting-edge", the neighbourhood's cafés, restaurants, pubs, clubs and hotels remain some of the most tempting in the capital (read: anywhere). We visit six classic Soho addresses that still have what it takes to attract today's savvy visitor.
Old meets new in Soho: six venues worth visiting
Immortalised in the 1995 Pulp song of the same name, Frith Street's Bar Italia has been serving up great coffee and a flavourful slice of Soho people-watching since 1949, when Caterina and Lou Polledri opened it as a social hub for London's Italian community. Today, run by the couple's grandchildren, and open 7am-3am, seven days a week, the café's interior is still characterised by red and white formica, black-and-white photographs, an ever-present steamy fug and the constant gurgle of the trusty Gaggia machine. Order a double espresso and some of the legendary cannoli and settle back to spot a celeb or two, with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics words foremost in mind: "This coffee shop is very small but what goes on in there is as big as the world." Stewart's slated stage musical about this iconic spot has yet to materialise, but we want front-row seats when it does.
22 Frith St, W1D 4RF
There's no need to fork out the £150 joining fee for Quo Vadis club membership to understand why thrill-seekers have for centuries been drawn to this Dean Street address, once a brothel, and home to Karl Marx from 1851-6: just book a table and arrive hungry. With Scotsman Jeremy Lee - one of London's most best-liked chefs - at the helm, diners can look forward to modern seasonal British fare cooked with flair. Whether you plump for the famed smoked eel sandwich or a more full-on affair like the braised shoulder of pork with beans, carrots and cabbage, not forgetting a side of the wild garlic and olive oil mash, we urge you to leave room for dessert: think steamed ginger and marmalade pudding served with custard and cream, or pistachio meringue with rhubarb and custard. Thus fuelled, you can sally forth to explore Soho after dark, where, in the words of the late, great artist and dandy Sebastian Horsley, "the air used to be clean and the sex used to be dirty. Now it is the other way around".
26-29 Dean St, W1D 3LL
The French House
Looking for an iconic Soho watering hole conducive to talking politics, whispering sweet nothings, catching up with friends you haven't seen since pre-pandemic days or simply staring into your glass of Breton cider, contemplating your next escape? With its no music, no machines, no TV and no mobile phones rule, The French House - open since 1891 - has you covered. An acclaimed restaurant upstairs - serving the likes of Carlington oysters, and skate with brown butter and capers - is open for lunch, 12-3pm, Tuesday to Saturday, and for dinner, 6-9pm, Tuesday to Friday, but we recommend swooping on a ground-floor table as soon as one becomes available and chewing the fat amid the lively clientele of leading creative lights and bon viveurs, just as such luminaries as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Dylan Thomas did back in their day.
49 Dean St, W1D 5BG
From its psychedelic snakeskin-patterned carpets to its state-of-the-art sound system, the brand-new Chateau Denmark hotel bottles the grungy, sexy essence of Soho's musical past and distils it into a glittering symphony designed to satisfy even the most demanding rolling stone of today. The devil, as they say, is in the detail, and there are no half measures in this rakishly cool, more-is-more Denmark Street indie new kid. Operated by Carrie Wicks' CAW Ventures, with interiors by Taylor Howes Design, accommodation is set across 16 buildings, comprising 55 "session rooms" and apartments, all of which take their inspiration from the rich rock 'n' roll history of the area. Post-gig, head to the first London outpost of restaurant Tattu, on the top floor, to devour a seductive menu of modern Chinese dishes amid Instagram-friendly, Joyce Wang Studio-designed surrounds, while savouring bird's-eye city views.
Denmark Street, London
N/AGo to website
Crazy Coqs Cabaret and Bar
The history of Brasserie Zédel's Crazy Coqs is as decadent as this intimate space's sultry vibe. Run by restaurateur super-duo Corbin & King, the property was once part of The Regent Palace Hotel, opened in 1915 - the largest hotel in Europe at the time, with 1,028 bedrooms. The "incredibly mannered" art deco Chez Cup Bar, under the entrance rotunda at the foot of the main staircase - the best to descend wearing something shimmery, we'd say, since the one seen in the opening credits to Dynasty - has been meticulously recreated from the original architectural drawings. Showcasing cabaret, jazz and comedy most evenings (performances at 7pm and 9.15pm), cocktails, spirits, wines, champagnes and snacks are all available to order to your table before and during the shows. Look out for London-based American comedian David Mills next time he's on the bill - a man as good at making an audience laugh as he is at making looking fabulous in a tuxedo appear easy.
20 Sherwood St, W1F 7ED
London, United Kingdom
Ronnie Scott's is a bona fide Soho local institution - so thank goodness notorious gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray failed when they tried to persuade its owner, the eponymous saxophonist, to up sticks and move to Knightsbridge. One of the most famous jazz clubs in the world, the 1959-opened venue has played host to such musical greats as Ella Fitzgerland, Miles Davis, Dizzie Gillespie, Yusef Lateef, Sarah Vaughn and Count Basie, while more recent acts include Lady Gaga, who eschewed her dressing room in favour of hanging out in the pit. One of the best things about the 220-seater club is how close the performers are to the audience, the stage being level with the red velvet banquettes and tables. While remaining true to its original get-down-and-jam ethos, the upstairs Ronnie's Bar attracts a younger demographic, with an eclectic programme of DJ sets and live music including Latin, jive, blues and flamenco. This is the place to come to experience jazz royalty: no flip-flops or shorts allowed (unless you're Lady Gaga, in which case, anything goes).
47 Frith Street W1D 4HT