What was once a royal hunting ground for Tudor monarch Henry VIII is now one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in central London. Sandwiched between the shopping meccas of Covent Garden and Carnaby Street and only a short walk from the heart of tourist London, it’s a convenient place to relax with a coffee or a cocktail, or to stop for something more substantial before or after taking in a West End show in nearby Theatreland. The evening is when things really get going in Soho, with bars, comedy and cabaret venues and intimate basement clubs staying open late. Proud to be known as the beating heart of gay London, the area is welcoming to all. Here are our favorite joints, new and old.
There are no cell phones allowed at this wood-paneled Gallic pub, once a chosen base for Charles de Gaulle during World War II. Order a ‘half’ (a half-pint of beer, the only measure of the beverage that’s served here) or one of 30 wines and champagnes available by the glass and settle back to enjoy the convivial atmosphere. Food is served Monday through Friday — a concise lunch menu offers classics such as Caesar salad or an eight-ounce sirloin steak, while an even briefer bar snack menu (charcuterie, southern fried chicken with sweet chili dip) wards off hunger pangs in the evenings.
Another new arrival is Koya Bar, sister establishment to Koya, a shrine to Japanese noodles that’s been exciting Soho palates for the last couple of years. Seating just 25, this petite place that opened in fall 2013 specializes in udon noodles in broth, either atsu-atsu (hot noodles with hot broth) or hiya-atsu (cold noodles with hot broth), as well as offering filling donburi rice dishes and small plates — the homemade pickles (otsukemono) are a must. Reservations are not accepted, but because Koya Bar was created to provide a speedy alternative to its big sister, you won’t need to wait long for a table. Unusually for Japanese restaurants in London, it’s open for all-day dining, with breakfast available starting at 8:30 a.m. — and don’t forget to try the English Breakfast udon (fried egg, bacon and shiitake), too.
A more recent French-inspired addition to the area is Bar Américain. What looks like a small café from the street turns out to be a multivenue operation containing not just a glamorous Art Deco cocktail bar and lounge, but also the cavernous Brasserie Zédel and the intimate cabaret venue, The Crazy Coqs. Bow-tied barmen shake up both classic cocktails (Old Fashioned, Sazerac, Manhattan) and more unusual treats, such as the Bel Ami, made with Calvados, apricot brandy, Chartreuse, peach bitters, egg, lemon and sugar. With its airplane print wallpaper, gleaming chrome and high ceilings, this bar will make you feel like a highflying adventurer in the early days of aviation.
These days, there’s practically a great coffee shop on every corner in central London, but long before all that there was just Bar Italia. This family-run business opened in 1949 and has been a Soho institution ever since. Nab one of the handful of tables squeezed onto the tiny patch of sidewalk outside or sip a perfect espresso at the bar. The Gaggia coffee machine has been in place here for more than 50 years, and you don’t want to miss the Polledri family brew with only their own special blend — you can also buy the brew in bean form to try to recreate the magic for yourself. The bar is only closed between 5 and 7 a.m. and it’s almost always busy, but the real chaos ensues when major Italian soccer matches are being shown on the television.
For something a little different, head to this speakeasy-style bar and eatery concealed behind a mysterious jade door in Chinatown, which is part of the city’s Soho area. Changing with the seasons, the cocktail menu currently features a range of delicious warming beverages like Feather of the Phoenix, a long drink that spices up tequila with smoked chilies and ginger beer. Dim sum is served until a late closing every night of the week (between midnight and 2 a.m.) and even later on the weekends (3 a.m.), and non-drinkers can try a range of specialist teas (which also make much appreciated appearances in several of the cocktails — try the Chai-Nese Clogs). There are nine themed rooms to explore, including a kitchen-like space called the Bartenders Table where three-hour, hands-on cocktail master classes take place.
Photos Courtesy of French House and Brasserie Zedel