Soho has a reputation for being a centre of music, style and media
populated by some of the nation’s most creative and capable people.
However, I was surprised to find that, considering the majority of its
residents conduct both business and pleasure in social environments,
the question of where to go for a decent drink has never had an easy
answer. If you’re wandering into Soho for the first time you might well
be expecting an endless parade of uber-cool hang outs. There are loads
of bars to choose from so don’t panic, there’s always somewhere to go;
it’s just that I’d rather have a cup of tea in a hospital waiting room
than go to The Slug and Lettuce. China White is full of unstable bling
obsessed coke vacuums and all I want is a decent drink complimented by
some choice tunes. There are a lot of genuinely self-effacing, hard
working, good people in Soho and these are the best crowd to drink
with; having said that, accounts are having their Christmas party at
the Pitcher and Piano and dilemma No. 1 is where to go instead.
Right, it’s 6 on a Friday night and I’m standing by Somerfield on the
corner of Peter Street and Berwick Street (see streetmap.co.uk) – it’s
that time of week when everyone converges in the West End, ready to
change gear for a night on the town. Walking past the fruit and veg of
Berwick Street Market you’ll start to smell fish, follow this scent to
The Endurance and note the fishmonger’s stall. The Endurance is a good
place to start and end a weekend as it offers good service and a
selectively eclectic duke box for that Friday feeling; as well as an
excellent Sunday lunch to set things straight for Monday. To its
eternal credit I once walked in on a Sunday after a heavily committed
weekend, knowing that today was my birthday and I was struggling to
maintain even the lowest level of chat. I explained my situation and
asked the girl behind the bar for a solution; I got the best Bloody
Mary ever (Horseradish with a dash of red and white wine, I was
assured, made the difference) and I finished the last leg of the
weekend in fine fettle. This means that, in my eyes, The Endurance can
do no wrong – admittedly it gets very busy of a summer evening but it’s
one of those pubs that gets on with being good without shouting about
it, a rare quality for central London. And they’ve trapped Gentle Ben,
stuffed him and mounted him in a cage (no joke) –it’s testament to the
quality of the pub that you’re not left staring at the walls, it took
me at least 4 visits to spot him.
Once outside again you’re faced with
an important choice that will dictate the course of your evening. Turn
right and you’ll be presented with the side of Soho represented by the
gay bars and clubs of Old Compton Street as well as the afore mentioned
Slug and Lettuce, I choose to turn left and stroll down Broadwick
Street in search of the next delicious libation. The search ends with a
choice of The Shaston Arms or The White Horse, both near the corner of
Newburg Street and Ganton Street. The White Horse is a retreat favoured
by the local clothing and media companies, it’s well set out and has a
resolutely engaging atmosphere, comfortingly devoid of posturing. The
Shaston offers a warmer intimate environment and a good selection of
bitters. Both are worthy of praise for giving you more than you might
expect at first glance, particularly during the summer when people
spill from both pubs and onto the cobbled street in such quantities the
crowds meet and a veritable block party kicks off aided by the Deal
Real Records sound system and lilting reggae tones from the Bond and
Savage clothes shops. The summer is when these pubs are in their
element, but they won’t let you down come rain or shine.
Old school drinks prices and pub grub in an old school pub in the middle of winter with a log fire? (You know it makes sense) Where: The Red Lion on Kingly Street (between Regent St and Carnaby St)Details: Stupidly strong subsidised beer from Sam Smith, that guy keeps it ultra real.
Theme-free real Guinness drinking?Where: The Toucan on Carlisle Street (off Soho Sq.)Details: small but perfectly formed, you get a free clover with every pint and
you can duck into the leafy square, which is just over the road.
dilemma No. 2 rears it’s ugly head when you realise that pints in a
boozer wont cut the mustard. Soho must be teaming with groovy bars
right? Wrong. It’s got more than it’s fair share of private groovy bars
with closed doors, but not much by way of the door ajar DJ bar. To
uncover the best locations for such vibrations head to the Carnaby
end of Soho, while the once swinging street itself no longer has much
rhythm, it’s environs still keep in step. Two Floors (Kingly Street) is
a sparsely decorated but favourable gaff with a considered choice of
beer (Cruzcampo, Modello Especial, Brooklyn all £3) and a mean
Caipirinha (cocktails all £6). They have the occasional DJ downstairs
and the crowd is arty without the farty. If you go out the back door of
Two Floors you’ll see the slickly lit entrance to the Kingly Club on
your right. I went to the opening of this place and was surprised to
discover that it’s a tarted up cellar, never-the-less the interior is
smooth and you feel very comfortable nestled below the white stone
arches – so long as there are no more than 40 people in there. Prices
are high and justified by a self appointed ‘exclusive’ atmosphere, feel
free to draw your own conclusions. Kingly Street also offers the
contrasting Bar Red and Ain’t Nothin’ But (The Blues Bar); Bar Red
pours a good cocktail but the sweet liquor is marred by gaudy
decoration, over styled lighting and disinterested bar staff. Ain’t
Nothin’ But is the flip side of the coin providing an entertaining real
atmosphere with a dedication to live music (6 nights a week) and a
semi-permanent happy hour (4 pint jug XXXX/Adnam’s Ale £8 -House Wine
£9). They stay open after hours so there’s a tax on Thursday, £3 after
10pm, with Fridays and Saturdays being a fiver after 8.30pm, this place
is quite gritty for Soho but still oozes class and charm over the
styled pretensions of Bar Red. Kingly Street has the best concentration
and selection but there are some others worthy of note:
Trendy yet relatively real urban chic?
Where: The Alphabet Bar on Beak Street.
Details: Table and sofa seating, Japanese beer and well prepared cocktails amidst contemporary art.
Relaxed easy-going food and a bottle of beer?
Where: Bar Chocolate on D’Arblay Street.
Details: low-key on the outside and low-key on the inside, but top notch none-the-less.
Pub/Bar dilemma still not answered?
Where: The Couch (top end of Dean Street.)
Details: A straight 50/50 mix of pub and bar with good beer, service and a weekend DJ, a good dilemma solver –suits all tastes.
Perhaps it’s the fact that there are over 150 places to buy a drink
within the smallness of Soho that drinking dilemmas are all the more
prominent. If it’s your first time here and you’re thinking that you’ll
just turn up and soak in Soho’s sensations, I’m afraid the odds are
stacked against you. But whether you know your Broadwick Street from
your Berwick Street or not, the above establishments are all worthy of
your attention and provide the best corals for the creative creatures
that inhabit this media zoo.