A Queen’s Guide to London : Soho

Hi!

Loud, hedonistic and unapologetic, Soho is the raw beating heart of the capital. What began as London’s red light district has developed into one of the most diverse and revolutionary neighborhoods on the planet. More so than any other part of London, Soho has something for everyone, whether you fancy Michelin star cuisine, award-winning theatre or just want to experience some of the most famous sex shops in the world, there’ll be something for you!

Soho is often perceived as being a bit too touristy and therefore inauthentic, and that is certainly true for some parts of the area. However as any Soho local will tell you, you need only take the time to scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find that the area still retains the bohemian charm that made it famous in the first place.

The fact is that Soho remains a core part of London life because it has managed, against all the odds, to keep its best bits a secret. If you want to discover the true Soho then the list below is a great place to start, but you’ll just need to do some exploring of your own if you want to experience everything this incredible neighborhood has to offer.

It’s difficult for me to pick my best bits of Soho, and there are so many amazing places left off this list but nevertheless I have tried to give an overview of all that this fabulous neighborhood has to offer.

Best Eats: 

L’Escargot:

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Chef Oliver Lesnik is at the helm of the exquisite L’Escargot, a lavish homage to everything we love about bourgeois french cooking. Split over four floors, including a seductive loft bar and countless private rooms, this restaurant offers an experience unlike any other.

Everything about L’Escargot is luxurious and over the top, from the ornate chandeliers that line the ceiling and the artworks that adorn the walls to the menu itself. The celebration of excess is everywhere, very much in the spirit of Versailles and l’Ancien Régime. From the moment you step through the door to the moment you leave, fattened and a little tipsy, you can’t help but feel as though you haven’t got a care in the world.

While the décor and atmosphere might be incredible the food and drink is the real reason that L’Escargot has remained a staple of  the London culinary scene for almost a century. The menu is a sleek blend of classic french dishes and modern experimental cuisine with particular highlights including the Celeriac & Truffle Soup, Confit of Duck, Grand Marnier Soufflé and of course the snails!

L’Escargot was the first restaurant in the UK to start selling snails, and when the restaurant first started they farmed them in the basement! Safe to say this is no longer the case but the restaurant retains its name for a reason, if you are ever going to try snails then do it here…you won’t regret it.

L’Escargot caters for all budgets and their set menu is fabulous, but I think the only way to truly appreciate all that this incredible restaurant has to offer is to throw caution to the wind and ‘treat yo self’ in the spirit of Parks and Recreation. If L’Escargot is good enough for Coco Chanel, Elton John and Princess Diana then it’s definitely good enough for me!

Bao:

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What began as a market stall in Netil’s Market back in 2013 has become one of the hottest chains in the city. With branches in Soho, Fitzrovia and Hackney there are plenty of opportunities to experience Bao’s phenomenal food across the city. The small and carefully designed menu offers a glimpse of Taiwanese culture with a range of steamed buns and a selection of Xiao Chi, dishes inspired by traditional Taiwanese cuisine.

The Soho branch of Bao is an unassuming little place and it is easy to miss if you’re not careful. The laid back atmosphere, spartan décor and friendly staff give the whole place a confidence that comes from the unmistakably brilliant food that they serve. With everything made fresh each day and a menu that changes little but often each visit to Bao is bound to be different from the last.

Recommending specific dishes from Bao is almost impossible, literally everything on the menu is delicious and extremely affordable, but in the interest of this post it must be done! For anyone who is a fan of sweet potato fries (as I am) Bao goes a step further than most other places, the fries themselves are great but it’s the plum pickle ketchup that seals the deal. Honestly the sauce is so good I could bathe in it.

So with the sides sorted you are now left with the heart-wrenching decision of choosing between one of the 6 steamed buns or Xiao Chi. Now, normally I would say that a place named after steamed buns should make that decision for you, not this time. The Xiao Chi can give any of the buns a run for their money, and vice versa, so the struggle is real.

When forced to choose between the two halves of the menu I normally resort to the same thing…I’ll just have both. First up is Xiao Chi, and despite trying and loving almost every dish on offer I seem to unfailingly end up getting Guinea Fowl Chi Shiang Rice. This is akin to having an entire Taiwanese food stall in your mouth at once, it’s an intense mix of flavours to say the least, buts is oh so good.

Finally the Bao themselves. Once again everything on offer is delicious but it’s the Fried Chicken Bun every time for me. The blend of soft, fluffy rice bun with succulent, crispy fried chicken is enough to tempt even the hardiest vegetarians across the road in ‘Veggie Pret’.

Bao is a no fuss, delicious and affordable option nestled among a plethora of overpriced and underwhelming chains that dot the capital. So next time you pass one of these unassuming little places, why not pop in?

Shuang Shuang:

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Shuang Shuang was recommended to me by a Cantonese friend a little over 3 months ago and since then it has become one of my favourite spots in London. Billed as London’s first hot-pot restaurant (which is not technically true, but let’s ignore that), they specialise in traditional chinese hotpot cooking set within a modern, distinctly cosmopolitan setting.

The restaurant focuses on a central conveyor belt not dissimilar to the likes of Yo! Sushi. From here diners select from a choice of 4 broths followed by one of two dipping sauces which make up the base of your hot pot. At this point chaos ensues as you are confronted with colour coded ingredients of every shape, size and price to add to your hotpot. Whether you want egg noodles, fried tofu, oyster mushrooms, squid balls, pork belly and everything in between is on offer at Shuang Shuang.

As if the choice of ingredients wasn’t enough to cause mild anxiety, you then have to cook all of your food yourself using a traditional hot-pot toolkit. This is includes but is not limited to a tiny fishing net which despite many attempts I seem to be unable to use correctly without covering myself in broth.

The stress of choosing your ingredients and cooking your broth may seem like a negative, but it only adds to the charm of Shuang Shuang. The hectic nature of the restaurant gives the whole experience an authenticity that is rare in London. However, it is not the choice or the atmosphere that keeps me coming back to Shuang Shuang, its the food itself. Each ingredient is of the highest quality and the end result, whatever the makeup, is always delectable.

Best Drinks: 

The French House:

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I was introduced to The French 5 years ago by my dear friend Paris (little_lady_luthier on Instagram) and I haven’t looked back. What may at first seem like an inaccessible and closed off crowd are in fact some of the loveliest people in the capital. With prices that are lower than pretty much anywhere else in the city and alcohol that is of a higher quality than most other pubs it’s not surprise that we don’t want The French to change.

The French House is an institution, a piece of both British and world history in the truest sense. When it first opened in 1891 it traded under the name ‘York Minster’ but it quickly became known as ‘The French’ by its loyal patrons. After the fall of the French government during WWII Charles De Gaulle escaped to London, and it was to The French House that he rallied himself and formed the Free French Forces. It was sat in this pub that he wrote the revolutionary ‘À tous les Français’ speech and in 1984 the pub was officially renamed ‘The French House’.

Since opening, The French House has been a staple of the Soho art scene, hosting icons including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Malcolm Lowry and  John Mortimer. The pub prides itself on its queer, bohemian ambiance and the fact that it refuses to change to fit with the trends of the modern world.

The walls of the pub itself are covered to within an inch of their life with the work of French House patrons including legends such as Carla Borel, John Claridge and Peter Clark. Now the name dropping that has occurred may seem shallow and unnecessary, but there is a point to it. Soho has undergone a transformation since the end of the 20th Century, and one that has removed some the areas oldest and most iconic venues including Madame Jojos, Kettners, The Stockpot and The Intrepid Fox.

The French House is one of the few remaining spots where you can experience the real Soho in all its bohemian glory. With an incredible selection of french wines, the largest choice of Pernod outside of France and beers served only in half measures The French is unapologetically different. There is no background music, phones aren’t allowed to be used inside the pub and the bar staff will have absolutely no problem kicking you out if you try to challenge these traditions.

The best way to experience The French, and the only way to join the long list of loyal patrons is by going it alone. Don’t arrive for your first time with a big group of friends searching for a cheap way to get drunk, instead take your book and sit at the bar one afternoon. Within minutes you’ll be chatting to whoever is behind the bar as well as those sat around you.

The French House is a home away from home for me, a safe haven where on any given day I am guaranteed to know at least 5 people in there. Like so many iconic Soho landmarks it is under constant threat, but as the Save Soho movement continues to fight there is hope. When you are next in need of a break, when you just want to escape and read your book or flick through a copy of Vogue don’t go down to Starbucks or Costa, hop on a bus to Soho and give The French a go, you’ll never find anywhere else like it!

Copita:

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If gin is your calling card then there is only one place you need to know about in Soho, and that’s Copita. As well as offering an incredible tapas menu, excellent wine list and a wide choice of other drinks they offer a truly unique gin experience with a much lower price tag than other places.

With a distinctly Mediterranean feel Copita excels at providing a warm, welcoming and hectic atmosphere complete with incredible food and drink. Whether standing around the bar or sat on a bar stool at one of the high tables the whole place is centered on being sociable.

Obviously the food on offer is great and I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t tempted by the food every time I went here for a G&T. Having said that it is the G&T that keeps me going back for more. With a choice of no less than 17 types of gin as well as wide choice of flavoured and classic tonics there is something for any gin fan. Partner this with the size of their drinks and its a winning combination. A particular favourite of mine is the Monkey 47 Gin with classic tonic served in a large wine glass over ice, share this between a couple of friends and you’re sure to have a good night.

On top of the gin Copita also has a wide selection of classic Spanish liqueurs and spirits including Orujo and Pacharan, both of which are the perfect way to finish off a night at Copita. So whether you’re looking for excellent tapas with a side of gin or incredible gin with a side of tapas, you won’t regret a visit to Copita!

Maison Bertaux:

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Situated next to the equally iconic Coach & Horses pub this unassuming little patisserie is one of the most effortlessly charming places in London. Whether you fancy trying one of their 20 varieties of tea or are more in the mood for what are in my humble opinion some of the best cakes in London, Maison Bertaux is perfect for you.

Maison Bertaux opened its doors in 1871, making it the oldest patisserie in London. Since its opening the menu has changed time and time again, offering more cakes and more teas year on year. However, what hasn’t changed is the idea behind this little slice of Parisienne elegance, a love of all things sweet. While the world may go through seasonal obsessions with the latest desert creations it is to places like Maison Bertaux that true desert fans will always return. As good as a roast dinner inspired cupcake from the newest pop-up might be, it pales in comparison to classic chocolate eclair from Maison Bertaux.

With low prices, lovely staff and plenty of seating there is always space for newcomers to experience everything this little patisserie has to offer. If you are feeling particularly lavish you might even decide to place an order for a one of a kind wedding or birthday cake from here!

Maison Bertaux really does speak for itself, so next time you’re in Soho and have a craving for something sweet and a little bit decadent then why not swing by?

Best To Dos:

Riflemaker Gallery:

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Art is integral to Soho, it always has been, and while there are countless outstanding galleries spread throughout the area it is the Riflemaker that stands out from the crowd for me. As one of many contemporary art spaces in the West End the Riflemaker is up against stiff competition, but it’s white wood walls, bare floor and eclectic mix of artworks make it unforgettable.

While many contemporary art spaces opt for the ultra modern, minimalist décor that has become the norm across the globe, the Riflemaker somehow manages to balance the old and the new so effortlessly. The building itself reflects the grubb and grime that give Soho its very distinct charm. The little details that separate each wood panel from the next make the room feel both busy and bare all at once, whilst somehow managing not to detract from the artworks.

With a regularly changing exhibition schedule and a relatively small exhibition space the Riflemaker presents a unique experience with each visit. The latest installment at the Riflemaker opens February 1st with the incredible ‘Drawing with my Eyes’ from Graham Fink. This exhibition will explore the revolutionary technology of eye-tracking, allowing Fink to create artwork live without the use of anything other than his eye movements.

Riflemaker is just one of many incredible art galleries in Soho, whether you consider yourself an art fan or not there is guaranteed to be something weird and wonderful to catch your eye. If you’re at a loss as to where you should begin then why not sign up to one of the many walking art tours on offer across Soho?

I hope that this list has at the very least given you food for thought when it comes to one of London’s most famous and controversial neighborhoods. Whether you’ve never been to Soho or have simply never fallen in love with it I implore you to try some of the places above.

You don’t have to a modern-day bohemian or a member of the LGBT community to enjoy Soho, but you do need to respect this areas importance to both of these communities. If you are like me and already have a special place in your heart for Soho but I’ve missed off your favourite spots then please leave a comment below and I’ll be sure to explore them next time around!

Next time in ‘A Queen’s Guide to London’ I’ll be exploring the eastern neighborhood of Stoke Newington, an area home to some of best pubs and most exquisite fast food on the planet!

See you soon,

J.

 

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