Soho, London’s raffish, disreputable playground, has got its buzz back. Esquire's food editor Tom Parker Bowles offers a hungry man's endorsement to the most happening streets in Britain. Dig in.
It’s just after noon on a Friday in Dean Street. There are few places I’d rather be. Lunch, and the whole afternoon, stretches out languorously before me, and I have no intention of moving far. Soho is wide-awake now, the only remnants of last night’s excess a few shards of broken glass. I stride up towards Oxford Street, crossing Old Compton, a tune on my lips and a spring in my step. Do I stop for a Bloody at The Groucho, or soldier on upstream for Campari and blood orange at Quo Vadis? This is the all-important sharpener, that preprandial cocktail made all the sweeter by the anticipation of fun to come.
Then there’s the issue of lunch, a serious topic at any time. But on Fridays, it’s of near religious import. Fat udon noodles at Koya, the best I’ve tasted outside Japan? Tempting, but it’s more of a weekday haunt, when searing ginger tea replaces grog, and afternoons are filled with the detritus of one’s working life. How about Bar Shu for a plateful of fire-exploded kidneys and the fragrant chicken, hidden under a pile of dried chillies and numbing Sichuan pepper? Not today. Bar Shu’s best visited in large groups, to give the menu the concentration it deserves.
So it’s down to Jeremy Lee’s blissfully British cooking at Quo Vadis, where hare and bloater play starring roles, and smoked eel is crammed into one of the finest toasted sandwiches in existence. Or maybe a taste of Polpetto, perched above The French House, producing a Venetian bacalao so silken, elegant and alabaster white that it always seems a shame to shove it down one’s throat. And now I’m thinking “Russell Norman gaff”, what about Spuntino and their sliders and truffled egg toast? Sublime, but you can’t book. I’ll drop in later. Hix, then, for real British food, and a pile of gleaming oysters. Or Bocca di Lupo or Ducksoup? Or proper barbecue at Pitt Cue Co? Christ, all these decisions are making me thirsty. A Bloody at Groucho, then a Campari at Quo Vadis. And I’ll take it from there.
Because Soho is kicking again. I worked here for a few years at the fag end of the Nineties and, Groucho and Soho House aside, the place seemed moribund, a gastronomic desert populated by soulless All Bar Ones. The days of Freud and Bacon boozing and brawling in The Colony were ancient history. Even sex shops and shows became endangered species. It seemed as if Soho was deemed unfit for the shiny 21st century, the powers that be determined to scrub off the grime, clean up the filth and rip out its heart.
Back then, the action was east, with the likes of St John and Moro leading the charge. So it seems somehow fitting that the St John Hotel has now opened on the edge of Soho, and Fergus Henderson has returned to within a brioche’s throw of his original kitchen, The French House. Restaurateurs such as Sam and Eddie Hart, Mark Hix, Nick Jones and Russell Norman are the new kings of Soho. Real food, stuff you want to eat, without pomp and pretence. Soho is once again at the centre of London’s culinary world, a place for serious eaters to indulge their every whim. I’m constantly happy to be there. But on Friday afternoons, just after noon, it seems like the very finest place on Earth.
Words by Tom Parker-Bowles
Photography by Chris Floyd
Read the full article - featuring the finest places to eat and drink in Soho - in the June issue of Esquire, out now.