Sylvia Hui, London
Special to Extra Times
They say those who tire of London, have tired of life itself: There is always such constant change and so much to see and do in the city that no two visits can be the same.
Nowhere is that buzz of energy and hunger for newness more concentrated than in Soho, the loud and brash party land of London and the pulsing heart of the capital’s dining, drinking and entertainment scenes.
Take a stroll through the area’s maze of narrow streets and alleyways any day and you will find Soho accommodates people from all walks of life with ease. Tourists and families with teenagers flock here for West End musicals, rubbing shoulders with sharp-suited advertising executives smoothing out deals over a pint. Weekend nights inevitably see messy scenes of beer bottle-strewn pavements and drunk revellers stumbling from one bar to another; but a respectable clientele turn up too for gigs at genteel clubs like Ronnie Scott’s, a jazz institution.
By day, the area’s buzzy coffee shops – try Nordic Bakery for fresh cinnamon buns and people-watching – fuel Soho’s army of fashionable young workers (one in five creative jobs in London are reportedly based here). Its two green spaces, Soho Square and Golden Square, provide some much-needed refuge and can be surprisingly pretty in the summer, when tulips and roses are in bloom. Foodies, celebrities and the cool kids make pilgrimages to visit the latest hype restaurant, but plenty of ordinary Londoners who can’t be fussed with waiting lists also drop in daily for a quick sandwich or a casual bite before a night on the town.
Because when it comes to food there is no other place in central London where diners are so spoilt for choice, whether their budget’s for cheap and cheerful takeaways in Chinatown (just next door to Soho) or exclusive Michelin-starred fare. But even in places where the bill can be eye-wateringly expensive, eating out in Soho is never stuffy. This isn’t the place to bring friends who insist fine dining has to be starched table clothes and three-course dinners. At the most popular restaurants like Polpo, Bocca di Lupo, and Social Eating House, diners are squeezed close together in noisy rooms, and the food arrives in tapas-style small plates – still a hugely popular trend in London restaurants. And speaking of foodie trends, Soho has played a key role in shaping many of them, including the fad for no-reservation restaurants that force customers to queue for their dinner. Love them or hate them, trendy foods like Spanish tapas, Vietnamese pho, ramen bars, and glamorized burgers all came and went in Soho. Are the meals overpriced? Yes. Does it get a bit tedious? Sure, especially if you are over 35. But at least you can’t ever call it boring.
Soho may be one of the trendiest and most frenetic places in London, but that reputation belies a rich history that stretches back centuries. Before the immigrants, brothels and music halls moved in, Soho was, in the late 17th century, one of London’s most desirable neighbourhoods. A long list of famous names in history have passed through: Mozart was said to have played in Dean Street in the 1760s; Karl Marx lived on the same street for several years, in a house now turned into a restaurant; and Charles Dickens frequented the area as a young actor before he turned his talents to writing. In the 1960s, Carnaby Street at the western end of Soho was the heart of Swinging London with its bars and Mod boutiques. These days it still pulls in the crowds, though the shops are now chains mainly targeted at 20-somethings.
Soho is nowhere near as sleazy as its reputation suggests, or as bohemian as it used to be. Thankfully, though, its spirit of inclusiveness and fun-loving eccentricity is still very much alive. Visit with an open mind, grab a coffee and a window seat, and watch the world go by. Or if nocturnal thrills are more your thing, arrive after dark. Come late: Like all good parties, those in Soho never start early.