Walking the Streets of Soho, London:
My first job in Marketing was based in Soho, working for a company that owned many of the restaurants in that part of town (and, for that matter, in London). At the time Kennedy Brookes owned an Italian group called Mario and Franco’s, Wheelers fish restaurants and oyster bars, Les Amis du Vin, Bertorelli and numerous other individual restaurants, a clutch of hotels and a catering and events management group. Of course I thought I knew Soho like the back of my hand. Later, working for an advertising agency just off the Strand I discovered new haunts, thanks to the drinking habits of the creative department who frequented some of the secret all night dens over shops and restaurants. When I started writing London Unattached my friend and occasional contributor The-Hedonist dragged me round Soho in the rain.
It’s changed a lot – nothing like the Soho you remember from when you worked there.
He told me.
And of course it has. To me China Town seems sanitised, there are a host of kitsch shops and bars all trying hard to pretend they’ve been there for years, the seedier areas of Soho with strip joints and massage parlours seems tamer. Or perhaps I’m just older?
When Michelle from London from Scratch contacted me and asked if I’d like to join a walking tour of Soho, focussing on food, I was delighted. Another perspective on an area I love and one which I KNOW has some great new food offerings to complement the traditional Italian delis and Chinese supermarkets.
I arrived early at our meeting point in Soho Square and enjoyed myself trying to take arty photos. When Michelle and the others arrived she explained the schedule. This is quite a personal walking tour with no more than eight participants. At least on the occasion I took part some of the venues were changed to accommodate taste preferences so you will probably find yourself spending a little more time in China Town than we did.
I went just before a couple of trips overseas. And, my notes are truly appalling. So, I’m left with memories and photos. Of course food is quite evocative, at least for me. And Michelle was an impassioned and knowledgeable guide, with a background as a professional chef and supper club host giving her an informed insight into this part of London. That was clear when she shared with us her own list of the five movers and shakers she believes have shaped the Soho of today.
Well actually six, because first on the list was Sam and Eddie Hart, the two brothers who opened Spanish restaurants Fino and Barrafina before taking over Quo Vadis in 2008 refurbishing it and reopening with Jeremy Lee as head chef. We stood outside, Michelle lamenting that the bakery wasn’t open.
Instead we went into Princi, and ogled the pastries and pizza there. I have to admit, I’ve never quite taken to Princi – and I have been before. That ultra-polished yet informal atmosphere doesn’t quite gel for me and the wall of water reminds me of a very posh hotel washroom. But, that in no way diminishes my admiration for founder Alan Yau, second on Michelle’s list of Soho movers and shakers who was also responsible for Hakkasan and Yauatcha.
We started eating in more seriousness at Yalla Yalla. Somewhere I’ve intended to pop into on numerous occasions, but never quite reached. The food on the menu is ‘Beirut Street Food’ – what I’d describe as Lebanese Meze, the interior hip, distressed and a little chaotic and the atmosphere informal and relaxed. We snacked on baba ganoush, on tiny spicy Lebanese sausages called sanjac and on braised chicken livers.
While it’s not an Ottolenghi restaurant, it seems to me to pay a nod and a wink to the great chef and restaurateur who Michelle picked as her third mover and shaker in Soho.
While Russell Norman, number four on Michelle’s list, may hail from the US, his offering in the UK is largely Italian and I guess influenced by places like Lima, where we explored the shelves of Italian goodies and ended up eating olive bread and bresaola in the street.
Then across to the recently opened Polenteria, which I reviewed a few months ago. Is it authentic? Not really. Is it good? Of course – both as somewhere that provides an easy to eat menu of dishes and as one of the places to keep in your notebook for those times when you are really hungry and need to eat at a reasonable price.
Cay Tre is somewhere I hadn’t visited before, although I’ve walked past a million times. There’s a wealth of Asian restaurants in Soho and Vietnamese food is right on trend. A simple, clean and modern interior made this a welcoming place to stop for briefly. We only had the opportunity to taste one dish and I’ve now got every intention of visiting again and trying a few more of the spicy options on the menu.
The fifth contender on Michelle’s list was Jason Atherton. I’ve had the privilege both to meet him and to eat at Pollen Street Social. But, it’s not really in Soho. Of course his empire is growing rapidly and both Social Eating House and the Berners Tavern are. This particular walking trip didn’t take us into either – by now we’d moved on to what you might term the ‘dessert course’ – starting at Paul.A Young’s chocolate shop.
and then moving on to Gelato Gelupo for (in my case) the richest chocolate gelato ever.
We ended the morning at Imli – a friendly and reasonably priced contemporary Indian street food restaurant. Sitting at the bar sipping my hot rum karma and eating a rather wicked chocolate pataka I reflected on the excellent morning.
I love exploring MY city and seeing it through someone else’s eyes. I love being introduced to new places. I can’t help but think this would be an excellent way to discover Soho for any visitor to London and eat pretty well along the way. The London from Scratch Soho walking tours cost £59 per person, which includes visits to around 10 food destinations and all food and drink. Tours are held on two or three mornings a week, usually including Saturdays and start at around 11am.
For more information check out the London from Scratch website