The Soho district in London is legendary for its colourful, raunchy past – today it’s perhaps more gentrified but thankfully it hasn’t sacrificed its character entirely. The buzzing district harbours risqué sex shops, bars, vibrant nightlife and many culinary secrets. I’ve moved to London only two years ago, and the city is an endless process of discovery. To know London better, I join Eating London’s Twilight Soho Food Tour.
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In London, as in many cities of the world, the high streets are in the danger of becoming homogeneous with the same old restaurant and pub chains. The food tour is a great way of discovering independent eateries and watering holes tucked away in the bylanes. Our guide Joe knows the area well and with the other guests, the small group of six, we embark on our culinary journey – green travel at its best!
Over the next three hours, we eat our way around the world in one square mile that has been home to Karl Marx and Mozart, while the Sex Pistols and Rolling Stones have performed here.
Mexican Street Food All Glammed Up
We start off with the hip La Bodega Negra cafe where we sample two delicious tacos and a mini margarita. The owners imported authentic Mexican ingredients, a Mexican chef, a playful designer and experimented with the traditional dishes.
The restaurant is tucked away underground with a sex shop sign on top – which gives food porn a whole new meaning. As we walk, Joe points out to a hotel that was apparently “the theme park of brothels” (it even had a skeleton room!). The high class brothel closed in the early 1800s and was turned into a pickle factory <insert inevitable gherkin jokes here>.
In the late 1950s you would see hundreds of prostitutes and later, hundreds of strip clubs. Paul Raymond, the Brit equivalent of Hugh Hefner, at one time was Britain’s richest man as he made a fortune from pornography (the Revue Bar was in Soho). In the ’50s and ’60s, there were signs like ‘French lessons given’, now it says ‘Models Upstairs’ or ‘Female European therapists required – no experience needed’. Rather self-explanatory, oui?
The Gin Club
Another excess Soho embraced with gusto was gin with such enthusiasm that the artist William Hogarth made a bawdy, boozy etching called Gin Lane. We settle down at The Star which eventually proves to be my favourite pit stop of the tour. The Star specialised in gin in 2012 and launched The London Gin Club and you can sample over 200 premium gins from around the world here. While it was the Dutch who first distilled gin, the Brits have shown an effusive love for a good G&T. There is a fantastic pie to go with the gin tasting and all is wonderful with the world.
Spanish Jamon Central
Our next stop is Enrique Tomas – yes, you’ve seen them first in Barcelona – where we taste three lovely kinds of ham and cheese washed down with wine. You can buy quality ham here, sit down in the no-frills cafe at the back of the shop. You could buy the ‘Bentley of jamon’ here, if you have a spare £850 for the leg. For the best Spanish jamón ibérico, this is the place!
Tapas on Spikes
Pix Pintxos Bar is another lovely find. Pintxos (pronounced peen-chos, meaning ‘thorn’ or ‘spike’) are a kind of Basque-country bar snack, held together by a skewer and served in a shot glass, ramekin dish, or on crusty bread. The wine is poured in style from a height.
Typically, the Spanish will visit six-seven bars at night. There’s some serious pint-sized goodness here!As we steer the bylanes, at one point Joe points out to an incongruous nose on the wall. The London Noses or Seven Noses of Soho are an artistic installation as a reaction to the nosy CCTV cameras in London (it is said you can be seen on CCTV in Central London up to 30,000 times a day). Legend has it that if you can spot all seven noses, great wealth will come to you.
We find ourselves in China Town at Opium – designed as an Opium Den, it is reminiscent of what the original Chinatown in the docklands area was known for. With Chinese tea and dimsums, now we are beginning to feel rather full! The cocktail and dim sum parlour is dimly lit and open late, so you know where to go after a night out in Soho.
At some point, we pass the building where Karl Marx lived for five years. As our guide Joe says, “If he was alive, he’d see a theatre, a pub, a strip club and a private members’ club here!”
Dessert and Sin
Our last stop is for dessert at Said, the Roman chocolate shop where the hot chocolate is welcome on a cold London night. There are loads of chocolate moulds and heaps of chocolate on display. I could live here.
Capturing the Community: The Soho Mural
The tour fittingly ends at the Soho mural commissioned by the Soho community and dedicated to all the people who lived and worked in Soho. Joe points out John Snow (the doctor who helped solve the cholera problem during the 19th century epidemic). There’s Berwick Street, Britain’s oldest market, Ronnie Scott’s legendary jazz club, Karl Marx and Lady Theresa (London’s first it-girl known for throwing legendary parties) and her boyfriend, among others.
Exploring Soho on foot via a culinary journey has definitely made me feel just a little bit more at home in London now.