|Soho is and has been London's playground for adults for a couple of hundred years. Situated in the heart of the West End, a minutes walk from London's theatre district the area is synonymous with entertainment and leisure - in more ways than one. It was given its name from the old hunting call that was used when the land was a royal park. By the mid 1800's all respectable families had moved away from the area and the music halls, theatres restaurants and bars moved in. It was the centre of the 'beatnik' culture that swept fashionable Britain in the 50's and 60's. It is probably the music scene that gave rise to Sohos' place as the premiere London spot for entertainment. In the 40s and 50s Jazz clubs sprang up - the lyrics to the song Mack the Knife are set in Soho - as is the world famous Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club which opened in 1959, with the clubs and bars came gambling dens and beat coffee bars. Legendary clubs such as the Marquee and Flamingo have now come and gone, and although Soho retains much of its atmosphere there is a feeling that it is not quite as raunchy as it once was.
Perhaps the most influential club ever in the history of the English music industry, The Flamingo, now sadly the site of an O'Neills Pub, was at 33 Wardour Street. In the 50's and 60's literally anyone who was anyone - or was to become a 'someone' in the music industry played there. Until midnight it was a jazz club, then after came the all night sessions. The house bands were, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames and Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band. It was London's version of the Cavern or New Yorks Birdland. A truly stellar list of performers played at the club from Ella Fitzgerald, John Lee Hooker, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall's Blues Breakers featuring Eric Clapton, Ike and Tina Turner, Van Morrison, Yes. It was the place that musicians went to after they had finished their own gigs, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones - the Who all dropped in to catch the bands and often to jam. The club became the Wag Club in the 80's and 90's but never again reached the heights of the original Flamingo. The music policy of black influenced American RnB drew in American servicemen and a black crowd - initially in Georgie Fames words 'he was scared to go there' - eventually it became the favoured haunt of the mods - however that was entirely as a result of the music rather than any fashion connotation. Georgie Fame went on to have a number one hit with his version of 'Yeah Yeah' in 1965. The Flamingo Club was the pre curser or template for what Britain would become - an ethnic melting pot.
In fact, after the club became the Wag club in 1981 (following a spell as the Whisky a Go Go in the 70's) it once again hit the mood of what was really up and coming music wise, Afrika Bambaata played his first UK gig here - other acts included The Fine Young Cannibals, Bananarama and even the Beastie Boys. Regular dancers on the tiny dance floor included, Boy George, Jean Paul Gaultier and Neneh Cherry and a lot of fabulous looking nobodies hoping a little fame would rub off on them. Some hated the Wag Club, however it continued the previous policy of bucking the trends whilst serving up music that fitted the mood of the times perfectly, and although the door policy was savage - it did invite a black crowd as well as the then insufferably trendy 80's club kids.
It is clear, from the history of just one address in Wardour Street how much London and youth culture in particular has changed, there are a couple of live venues in central London with a similar 'club' vibe, but none of them have the influence of the Flamingo or the Wag Club.
The influence of immigrants to the area has been instrumental in shaping what Soho is today. Escaping intolerance, poverty and persecution in their own countries waves of French, German, Italian, Russian and Polish Jews, Swiss, Greeks and perhaps most famously Chinese have all left their indelible mark on the modern Soho. It is probably the area's tolerance that has led to it's status as London's main Gay village, and with many bars and clubs open until the small hours of the morning, the area has an open all hours feel attracting both rich and poor.
Most of Soho seems to live a double life. In the mornings at least up to midday it is peaceful with locals taking their morning coffee, buying their daily paper or bread. Restauranters preparing for the day ahead - like a lot of London, it is slow to wake up, but this time of the day is special. You are most likely to see Soho residents around at this time, as by evening the place is totally different. The streets are packed with drinkers, especially Old Compton Street which has become used to very little traffic allowing pedestrians to rule the roost. It is not traffic free, but what traffic there is has to travel at about half the average speed. Diners include pre theatre goers (up to 7.15) and after theatre diners a couple of hours later. In the summer - especially at weekends the area is packed full of visitors. On a Thursday through to Sunday, Soho is busy with people who are there simply to have a good time.
Gastronomically Soho is hard to beat. There are just so many great places to eat, from the inexpensive to the impressively over the top, it caters for the busy media executive or the tourist and pretty much everyone in between. Some of the best places to eat in Soho are the tiniest. Andrew Edmunds perennially popular restaurant in Lexington Street is one of these - serving modern European food in a romantic setting, you could miss this restaurant as you walk by. Your attention might be grabbed on the same street but on the opposite side by Mildreds - probably central London's most popular vegetarian restaurant, which has now been joined by other attractive neighbours Fernandez and Wells delicatessan and Aurora . Alan Yau's Wagamama, offers Japanese food in a shared dining hall - a feature of most of his restaurants. That's just Lexington Street.
Walk to Carnaby Street from Lexington and browse in the inspiring shopping area known as the Newburgh Quarter. Cobbled streets, no cars, individual boutiques selling clothes, jewellery, and art - it is a great place to browse - however you may need a sizable disposable income to really enjoy the shops. The Great Frog on Ganton St is worth a mention, this modern day rock n roll silversmith is still banging out skull rings and great individual silver jewellery to the rock and fashion glitterati such as Kate Moss and Alex Turner from Arctic Monkeys. It has been there since 1972.
Carnaby Street may not be as relevant to the fashion world as it was in 1966, however, it is still a centre for all things fashionable and is a notable traffic free shopping street in it's own right. Still a prestigious address for retailers it is home to literally around 100 world renowned retail names in the fashion world. If you include Kingly Street and Kingly Court there is probably nothing you will need to search for when it comes to clothes and shoes for both men and women. Bespoke, off the peg, with logos, with no logos, it's all here.
Berwick Street market is the only daily street market in Central London. Some of it's best characters are those selling the fruit and veg on the most impressive of the stalls here. You will find fresh fish and bread and some clothes (hats and underwear). Berwick St market was established in 1700 and was the location for the Oasis Album cover '(What's the story)morning glory'. In addition to the market it has a collection of delis, a fabric shop and some independent record shops.
Walk from Berwick St to Wardour St via Broadwick St and you will walk past 'Agent Provocateur' purveyors of opulent lingerie - male and female shoppers frequent this now famous store. In Wardour St there are a great many restaurants and bars interspersed with film post production companies and record stores. It was once the centre of the British film Industry and is still linked with music and film today, it is home to Chappells flagship music store and literally hundreds of companies involved in film and stage production. Notable restaurants include, Cote a new and very agreeable brasserie style restaurant, Busaba Eatai, and Conrans Floridita which stands in the spot that used to be occupied by the world famous Marquee club until 1988. Wardour Street stretches all the way from Oxford Street to Leicester Square and has been pretty much in the same position since around the 16th century.
Since the 50's Soho has been the place to buy vinyl records, and it still is. Black Market Records is in D'arblay Street, as is Uptown Records. both of these specialise in dance. Vinyl Junkies is in Berwick Street as is Sister Ray, Reckless Records, and Record and Tape Exchange are also here - both of which specialize in second hand vinyl.
Running west to east from Wardour Street is the gay community's national high street, Old Compton Street. Always vibrant and always easy going, this street also houses the Prince Edward theatre, Soho House Club , Balans, La Boheme, the Soho Brasserie, gay bars and clubs such as Comptons and G_A_Y and the original Patisserie Valerie. It has a fantastic off licence specializing in malts The Vintage House, another Gerry's specialising in unusual alcoholic drinks from around the world - beware however, they only take cash. As with Wardour Street, this street has an impressive history. Named after Henry Compton in the 17th century it became a recognized meeting place for exiles - particularly from France. In the 1960's it housed the 2 1's coffee bar at which a great many of the famous names of that era played. Old Compton Street is probably the most cosmopolitan street in London, a very easy place to feel comfortable whether you are gay or straight.
Crossing Old Compton Street are Dean Street, Frith Street and Greek Street. In Dean St is Quo Vadis - a restaurant established in 1926 and now part of the Hart Brothers expanding empire also has a members club upstairs to rival the Groucho, in the same Street. Signor Zilli is here as is renowned Pub The French House. Dean Street is home to the original Jazz at Pizza Express where Jamie Cullum was 'discovered'(no he wasn't hiding he was playing there). Karl Marx once lived in Dean Street.
Just like it's neighbour, Frith Street is packed full of Soho goodies, Barafina- an eating bar and sister to Fino is the Hart brothers runaway success. Allistair Little is here, the Bar Italia'area' including Little Italy and Café Italia, Bertorellis has a great terrace that looks out over the street, and if you are struggling with the pennies there is even a sNando. Of course the world famous Ronnie Scotts jazz club is here as well. It has 'benefitted' from a makeover in the last couple of years, however, some die hard Ronnies fans mumble that it is not the same in terms of atmosphere since the smoking ban came into force.
Greek Street follows a similar pattern housing some very well known names, The Gay Hussar, atmospheric Hungarian restaurant, L'escargot - perhaps a little less exciting than it once was is still a great French restaurant. Maison Bertaux is a challenger to Patisserie Valerie. Greek Street is also home to Kettners, once one of the flagship restaurants in the Pizza Express chain, it has recently had a major refurbishment, regrettably the old Kettners has been replaced by something resembling a Victorian conservatory. Perhaps it will improve when it has been lived in a little, it is a shame that this London landmark that once used to be a favourite of Oscar Wilde has lost a lot of it's appeal - it used to have one of the best champagne bars in London. Soho House and the Union members clubs are here and at least three pubs - so you won't go thirsty.
Brewer Street has an interesting mix of adult book stores and drinking establishments - some are pubs and others are private clubs. The evergreen Randall and Aubin restaurant is here as is Lina Stores the only real competition to Camisa in Old Compton Street when it comes to Italian delis. There is also a listed NCP car park that used to be a car showroom back when petrol was not a dirty word. In the same street is Madame Jo Jo's - a cabaret venue where you are likely to be well entertained.
For over 50 years Paul Raymond was the biggest Landlord in Soho. His Raymond Revue Bar opened in 1958 and had a huge neon sign proclaiming "world centre of erotic entertainment". It may have been just that for a while, however it became known as the Boulevard Theatre in the 80's and finally the Soho Revue Bar before closing in Jan 2009. Along with the Windmill Theatre, which famously never closed for it's long bawdy life - these two venues did much to mark out Soho as the 'saucy' entertainment spot.
Soho has three Squares, the first, Soho Square must be one of the most overused pieces of grass anywhere. In fact, in the summer it is often difficult to see any grass as the entire square is often occupied with people - effectively taking a little time out from their day. All around the square are The FA, 20th Century Fox, MPL(Paul McCartney's company). The square was constructed in 1670 and was once the most fashionable place to live it London. The somewhat bedraggled statue of Charles II is perhaps entitled to look a little shabby as it was carved in 1680. The odd looking mock tudor style hut in the middle of Soho Square was built in the 1920's, it has been waiting for renovation for some time - it actually covers up an electricity sub station.
The second square could not be more different - it is Golden Square. Again constructed in 1670 and probably to a template designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the square quickly became the political and ambassadorial district in the 17 and 1800's. It is generally quiet and as it is not on anyone's way to anywhere will probably remain that way. If Soho Square is packed it is well worth the walk to discover this calm oasis in the centre of town.
The third square is of course the centre of the West End's entertainment district - Leicester Square. The square was named after the 2nd Earl of Leicester who bought it and erected a house at the northern end in 1635. Between 1670 and the 1800's the square was a fashionable address for the aristocracy. After years of being fought over in one of Englands most famous land law cases the square is now owned by Westminster City council who seem at odds to know exactly what to do with it. Unless you are a tourist or you are going to one of the many cinemas around the square, there is little point in visiting.
Shaftesbury Avenue - north of Leicester Square is the theatre district of London with theatres running the length and breadth of the street, it was built in around 1880 and was also part of a slum clearance measure to push poor workers out of the city centre.
Chinatown is between Leicester Square and Shaftesbury Avenue, however - in the early 1900's Chinatown was in Limehouse in the East End of town. At that time the Chinese population lived there providing wares for the Chinese sailors that arrived at the docks. It was a lively area until almost destroyed by bombs in the Second World War. There is still a small Chinese community in Limehouse. The modern day Chinatown in Soho did not appear until the 70's and was probably the result of a greater number of Chinese arriving from Hong Kong leading to more restaurants in the area. Chinatown now has supermarkets, wholesalers and many other Chinese stores. It is not a residential part of Soho and is based around Gerard Street and Lisle Street, always worth a visit at Chinese New Year.
Charing Cross Road to the east of the area is famous for it's connection with music. There are guitar and musical instrument stores everywhere in this area, Denmark Street (formally known as Tin pan Alley) probably has more guitars per square foot than anywhere else in the country. Denmark Street was once the centre for music publishing in the UK. Foyles, the world famous book store is also in this part of Charing Cross Road as is the controversial Centre Point building.
Soho is so densely packed with restaurants, cafes, clubs, bars music venues, shops of all descriptions it would be possible to write a novel length guide. There is a lot to say about Soho - but not much about Soho's residential property as there is very little of it. The area whose boundaries are, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Charing Cross Road and Leicester Square, has been cleaned up considerably over the last 30 years. What property there is is most likely to be a studio or a flat although there are some new loft style developments. Whilst it is certainly not the most peaceful place to live, there is no doubt that it is in a class of one when it comes to perpetual entertainment. With so many up market venues, it has managed to kick the sleazier image that it had gained.
Soho is probably the most culturally diverse area within Central London, if you crave entertainment on your doorstep it has more than enough to satisfy even the most demanding party animal.
SOHO QUICK LINKS
Fernandez and Wells
The Gay Hussar
Randall and Aubin
There are 48 pubs in Soho -
all listed here
||BARS and MEMBERS CLUBS
Madame Jo Jo's
The Great Frog
Kingly Street/Kingly Court
The Vintage House
Record and Tape Exchange
The Soho Hotel
Soho Parish School(Primary)
Prince Edward Theatre
Soho Theatre Dean St
New Ambassadors Theatre
Prince of Wales Theatre
The Football Association
20th Century Fox
St Patricks Soho Square
St Annes Soho
Our Lady of the Assumption(Golden Square) RC
Oxford Circus Tube
Tottenham Court Road Tube
Leicester Square Tube
Piccadilly Circus Tube
Soho Private Medical Practice - 29-30 Frith St
Soho Centre For Health & Care(NHS) - 1 Frith St
London Fertility Care Centre - Soho Sq
Great Chapel Street Medical Centre - 13 Great Chapel St