The death of Soho has been greatly exaggerated. As indoor carousing makes a welcome return, there’s still louche mischief to be had, says Leonie Cooper. You just have to know where to look — and that’s normally under your feet
Don’t listen to the jaded grumps who insist that Soho’s heyday was in the raucous 1990s, the coffee-sipping, finger-clicking beatnik 1950s or the 1960s, when you couldn’t strut two feet down Carnaby Street without slamming into a Rolling Stone. If you know the right places to look, you’ll find its glory days are still in full flow now that lockdowns are lifting — and the best place to try is usually down a flight of rickety stairs.
Thanks to the scorched earth policy of Crossrail, which began its razing of Soho landmarks with the much-loved gig venue Astoria in 2009, at first sight contemporary Soho might seem sanitised. The sex shops and strip clubs the area was once notorious for have been slashed to a mere dribble and bland residential new builds are popping up instead. But even though the pandemic has clearly been horrific for hospitality — the sector accounted for one third of UK job losses at the end of 2020 — it seems that you can’t keep a good scene down.
In my experience, all the best nights out in Soho happen underground. Swanky rooftop bars might be fine for the likes of Brooklyn, but they’re simply not naughty enough for London. And there are too many distractions — too much of the humdrum outside world is on view. The same goes for street-level establishments. To see a man in a pair of ill-fitting jeans shuffling by a window would ruin the mirage. Instead, below ground is where louche and seedy Soho still lurks, a hidden world where nobody knows what time it is, but they’re all pretty sure that it’s your round next.
One of the last bastions of ‘Old Soho’, this legendary bar is outrageously fun and delightfully fuss-free.
From 2 June you’ll be able to sample the ‘house party vibe’ at this tequila-tastic addition to El Pastor Mexican restaurant.
A former illegal drinking
den, things are now a little more above board at this one-time haunt of the Krays.
Founded in 1955 by actor Gerald Campion — best known for his portrayal of irritating schoolboy Billy Bunter — if you can blag your way in, this old-school members’ club is heaven.
Channelling 1960s Hong Kong, this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it basement spot offers up speakeasy elegance.