34. Trendy, Cool, and Sooo London: Soho

Soho London Pictures from 1973 John Hutchinson
Soho is one of my favourite areas of London. Its history stretches back hundreds of years, however, it is the period during the second half of the twentieth century when it really became the London’s cultural hub that catches my imagination. Back then it was a hot bed for aspiring artists, writers, musicians and fashion designers seeking success and inspiration. People looking to push against the conventions of their times - and explore new ideas in art, music, theatre - mixed together in and around the streets of Soho.

Signs of all the different generations of avant guard which have passed through the streets can be seen everywhere as this commemorative plaque illustrates on Old Compton street. The 2i's Coffee Bar gave birth to skiffle and rock’n’roll here in the UK in the 1950s. Downstairs in the basement, kids could listen to live music by Tommy Steele, The Vipers skiffle group, Cliff Richard, Mickie Most, Terry Dene, Adam Faith, Joe Brown, Johnny Kidd, and a couple of guys who went on to form The Shadows – Hank Marvin and Jet Harris. The 2i's opened in 1956 and was in business until 1970, by which time a new wave of pop music had well and truly taken over the world... the “Liverpool Sound.” Although the cast of musicians underwent several changes from the 50s through the 60s, 70s and 80s, the stage upon which it was taking place remained the same – Soho.

Soho has changed with every decade and although today it may seem to have lost much of seedy avant garde atmosphere, brought about by regeneration of the area and rising land value, there remains a buzz and excitement about the place. This is fuelled by a perpetual cycle of new bars, restaurants and clubs for those hungry to experience a part of London steeped in modern popular history.

A few places I can recommend from my own experience:

Da Polpo on Beak Street is a great little venetian style bar in an 18th century building once home to the painter Canaletto. The restaurante on the ground floor is extremely tasty but my favourite is the fantastically atmospheric brilliantly tinny, rough and ready capari bar in the basement. Sipping something strong down here, one can try to imagine the seedy post war years of Soho when louche artistic types gathered at clubs like the Caves de France on Dean Street.

Pit Cue on Newburgh Street is a brilliant little BBQ place that has recently opened. Another Restaurant/Bar combination split over two floors this time the bar is on the ground floor where you can eat bowls of homemade pork scratchings and slug bourbon-heavy cocktails. Downstairs the diminutive dining room serves messy, nine-napkin food hot off the grill. Not for the faint hearted, there are no booking due to it’s size, and there is usually a ‘cue’ out the door.

Another great place to eat is Tapas Brindisa on Broadwick Street, serving some of the best Spanish tapas in London. The restaurant in Soho is one of three now opened by the Spanish delicatessen of the same name based in Borough Market. It is easy to see why they have been so successful with consistently delicious tapas, and great atmosphere.

If you are interested in more of the history of Soho then I can whole hearted recommend you take a look at anything written by Barry Miles, who has become a leading biographer of the area. His first hand accounts and anecdotes make for gripping reading, and never fail to inspire a quick trip into town to wander the history drenched streets of Soho.

Author: James Goldberg


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