Monday, 26 December 2011

My Soho

Although I rarely go out in town these days, I still have a lot of affection for Soho. When I first came to London it was the place I spent most of my free time in and loved best.

Walking around Soho today I realised how very different it is from when I first came here. Some of the old favourites have survived and prospered - the Algerian Coffee shop and the original Patisserie Valerie in Old Compton Street, Maison Bertaux in Greek Street and the enduring French House in Dean Street. Some places have survived by adapting themselves. Maison Bertaux has expanded into adjoining premises but - sadly - the French House let its first floor restaurant go some time ago - it's now an Italian restaurant managed (and owned?) separately from the pub.

Algerian Coffee Stores - Old Compton Street, Soho by Yekkes

Other places have completely disappeared. Who else remembers the Old Compton Cafe in the street of the same name - a step up from a greasy spoon, but much loved by late night revellers, now replaced with a small branch of Balans? Does one street really  need two branches of Balans?

On the other hand, there is at least one example of what was once a small independent cafe taking over the world in the shape of Cafe Nero. The branch on the junction of Frith and Old Compton Streets was the first one in the west end as far as I remember and has now spread right across the city and beyond. I remember eating pretty bland slices of pizza there late at night, after having had too much to drink, then throwing down a cup of the strongest coffee you could get in London at that time.

A couple of the long time food outlets of Old Compton Street have survived - Camisa, the wonderful Italian deli at the Wardour Street end still sells onion bread, cut meat, italian rice (for risotto!) and a variety of other delicacies, and Cafe Espana the slightly run down but oh so popular Spanish cafe nearby is still with us. However, devotees of Cafe Espana may need to worry - there is a for sale sign on the front of the building advertising both the lease and the business. Another one bites the dust?

As well as eating, Old Compton Street and surrounding area has always been a spot for pretty serious drinking. My favourite has always been the French House in Dean Street. Originally called the York Minster, it took its name from the preponderance of French customers during the second world war - several of whom were linked to the then French Government in exile. It has to be one of the cosiest (yes and very small too) bars in the west end. It still attracts a theatrical crowd, in all senses of the word, who gaze up at and are gazed down on, by the many pictures of celebrity drinkers who have graced "the French" in the past.

Maison Bertaux - Greek Street, Soho by Yekkes


In rowdier days I was very fond of the old style Comptons pub, which was then ground floor only with a central, horse-shoe bar, a varied clientele and for a few years at least a terrifying and permanently inebriated Scottish landlady who took no s--t from anyone but became coy and giggly if given complements or told she'd had her name in the paper. She was typical of a number of characters who have mostly disappeared from Soho these days. Whatever happened to the spectacularly grumpy and often rude old plastic bead wearing queens who worked in Maison Bertaux, terrifying staff and customers and the actress lady who ruled the same shop with a rod of iron? Not to mention the landlord of the Coach and Horses...

Coach and Horses - Dean Street, Soho by Yekkes

I also liked to drink at the still extant Ed's Diner, on Moor Street. Ed's is primarily a burger bar - also a fairly large chain now - but used to, and probably still does sell American beers to diners late into the night. My favourite was Rolling Rock which the staff swore was Elvis Presley's favourite beer, accompanied by a strange concoction known as "wet fries" - chips in a kind of stodgy gravy. Best of all were the individual juke boxes in front of every stool at the deco-ish bar, where for 5p you could select favourite songs from the 50's and 60's, like It Might As Well Rain Until September, by Carol King, Sally Go Round the Roses by the Jaynettes and other goodies.

Ed's Easy Diner - Moor Street, Soho by Yekkes

Ronnie Scotts is still with us in Frith Street.  The best jazz club in the world has been running for more than half a century having opened in 1959 and still attracts sell out crowds for the biggest names in jazz. If I go anywhere in Soho these days, this is the place I go. It costs a fortune but its worth every penny to have seen Ramsey Lewis, Lonnie Liston Smith, Avishai Cohen, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Stacey Kent and others over the last few years. The club had a major makeover a couple of years ago and the no-smoking legislation means its very different from the first time I visited in 1982 when Ronnie Scott was still alive, hosted the evening and told bad jokes, but its still a great musical experience.

Ronnie Scott's - Frith Street, Soho by Yekkes

To prove I don't entirely live in the past, there are some really good new or newer places too. Its great to see places like Princi in Wardour Street and Yauatcha in Broadwick Street take forward the area's tradition for fantastic patisserie, albeit a bit specialist and super-expensive in the case of the latter. Food still looms large amongst the other newcomers - I love Humous Brothers in Wardour Street, (well I would) and Busaba Eatthai across the road is also a favourite, although its some time since I went.

Its interesting that the area can still support a fair number of pretty good newsagents selling a range of specialist publications. Specialist in the usual sense that is, with great coverage of the arts, overseas newspapers, fashion, music and other media, rather than "specialist"in the old Soho sense! There are two really good newsagents in Old Compton Street and a couple more in Wardour Street - I even managed to pick up a copy of a new Azeri magazine "Baku" recently without the shop keeper even batting an eyelid when I asked for it.

I wonder how much longer these hardy independent souls will be able to hang on as leases end and rents rocket? Many of the chains already have a presence in Soho - Starbucks, Pret a Manger, Paul and others - all fine with me, but what a pity it would (will?) be if and when we eventually lose all of the shops and cafes that have given the area its character for so many years.

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