Is there any other food and bar scene in London with the density and diversity of Soho?
True, it's not the same Soho your dad fondly remembers hound-dogging about in his wilder youth. Everywhere in London is changing, and this neighbourhood with it — much of the scruffiness replaced by chain bars, and a lot of independents closing doors or moving east.
But it's still a place where utilitarian ramen caffs and Mexican street food stalls rub shoulders with high-end French bistros and late night blues bars.
Note: For the purposes of this article we're counting Soho as the area enclosed in the circle of Regent Street to the west, Oxford Street to the north, Shaftesbury Avenue to the south and Charing Cross Road in the east.
There are plenty of early morning coffee and croissant haunts, with Sacred Café and the Beak Street branch of Fernandez and Wells both open from 7.30am on weekdays (the Denmark Street F&W branch opens at 8am).
If you have the time for a sit-down breakfast, Soho's global sprawl is begging for you to take advantage. For international but not-too-challenging, Nordic Bakery (Golden Square branch) does a range of cinnamon rolls, strong coffee and Scandi sandwiches featuring a lot of salmon. Or for a more far-flung and hotter breakfast head to Dishoom (Carnaby Street branch) for their bacon and egg naans, and a slightly higher chance of getting in without a queue than in the evening.
But top of the list has to be Koya Bar, where they repay a morning visit with the English Breakfast noodles — thick udon noodles topped with a fried egg, bacon and shiitake mushrooms.
Thanks to the size and long history of the Italian community in Soho you're never far from great pizza, and the best are being done at Princi, an Italian bakery on Wardour Street. It's half canteen, serving pizza by the slice for the bar seats on one side of the counter, and half restaurant, with a full menu and table service on the other side. Pizza Pilgrims (with Dean Street and Kingly Street branches) are also well worth a visit.
Other options for lunch on the run are The Kati Roll Company, doing street food-style Indian paratha wraps from a low frills Poland Street shopfront, and Hummus Bros on Wardour Street dishing up, unsurprisingly, great hummus with a toppings list ranging from vegan to smoky, slow-cooked beef.
Soho is rich in great coffee, especially the sort that you drink on the run or in Italian bar-styles, standing at the counter.
Algerian Coffee Stores serve for takeaway or standing room only, but you can't argue with the potency of the coffee, or the prices — £1.20 for a cappuccino, £1 for a double espresso.
For places to spend longer than it takes to down your shot of caffeine, there's TAP Coffee (the Wardour Street branch), and Soho Grind, the Beak Street opening from the people behind Shoreditch Grind. Like its older brother, Soho Grind's open early morning till late (11.30pm on weekdays), is always packed with media types working or networking, and has a cocktail bar in the basement for days when you need to upgrade your flat white to their Hot Flat White Russian.
Pubs, gastropubs and bars
Pubs in Soho don't have to be great to be constantly crowded, and some are mostly coasting by on their locations. But the The Argyll Arms, John Snow (39, Broadwick Street, W1F 9QJ) and The French House are all earning their crowds of punters with decent beers and historic buildings — the sort with weird nooks and alcoves for you to lay claim to if you can fight off the competition for seats.
If beer selection's your main driver Brewdog Soho and the Lyric are doing some of the best in Soho, and both the brews and comedy programming justify a stop at Soho Theatre's bar, where the more you drink the greater a supporter of the arts you are. And if you want to concentrate your drinking efforts on aperitivi and wines, Bar Termini's at hand, serving small, perfect glasses of bottle-aged negroni and cheese and cured ham to soak it up.
Technically a pub, or modelled on one, Duck and Rice is all geometric, decorative lead windows from the outside and a mostly Chinese menu — with the odd flash of Indo-European in the snacks and desserts — on the inside. There's a swisher dining room and better views upstairs but to really explore owner Alan Yau's Chinese gastropub concept, it's the ground floor pub menu and rock playlist you need.
Soho's LGBTQ scene might have changed a lot in recent years, with beloved locals moving away from the neighbourhood in search of lower rents and more edge. But some of the most iconic are still going strong — Comptons of Soho and G-A-Y among them, both guaranteed to be heaving, pretty loud, and a bit rowdy in an expansive way. For a later opening, Shadow Lounge on Brewer Street does the whole dress-code-and-private-tables thing till 3am most nights of the week.
You're spoiled for steak choice in Soho, and some the best are Prix Fixe, with a French bistro feel, Flat Iron (branches on Beak Street and Denmark Street) for a more British take and Zelman Meats doing beef by the weight in a traditional steakhouse setting.
Easily rivaling steak for the range of options on hand are Soho's ramen restaurants. As a rule of thumb, head to Bone Daddies when you want loud rock music, to play with traditional ramen boundaries (the menu's been known to feature padron peppers, fried pork and anchovies in the mix), and don't mind the inevitable queue; head to Shoryu and Tonkotsu for traditional, meaty tonkotsu stocks and a less pounding soundtrack, and to Taro for just as good but much simpler, no-frills noodle soups.
And one of the big dividing lines between restaurants in Soho is the ones you can book and the ones you can't. If you're feeling patient enough, brave the queues for the Sri Lankan fermented rice pancakes at Hoppers, the platters of charcoal-seared chops at Blacklock or the steamed, stuffed buns at Bao.
Also in the non-bookable camp, the punters waiting outside tapas joint Barrafina will swear the croquetas are worth a queue, and the Thai barbecued meats and bittersweet, aubergine-heavy side dishes at Smoking Goat are phenomenal if you can keep your hunger under control long enough to get a table.
Fortunately, for days when your stamina's low or the weather’s grim there's amazing food you won't have to loiter outside for indefinitely. Bó Drake’s East Asian food, the izakaya-style menu at Shackfuyu and an Italian trattoria dinner at Mele e Pere are all to be had for the booking, and so are the minced pork and aubergine, and Vietnamese curry dishes at Cay Tre.
There are a few places on the fancier end of the spectrum that would make for good occasion-dining — the high-tradition French formality of L'escargot, the hushed velvet dining room of Dean Street Townhouse and the Grand Brasserie styling and basement cabaret of Brasserie Zedel all have a lot of swagger in their different ways.
But for loveliness rather than any real swagger, 10 Greek Street does un-ostentatiously great food, in an unostentatious space — floors are wooden, tables are tableclothless and the menu's simple and British-ish. And just about on the simpler side of special, Bocca di Lupo does warming Italian trattoria food, with bar seats curved around an open kitchen if you want to take the formality down a notch.
Proving that Soho's late-night spirit hasn't fled, two music venues are still going strong till the small hours — at Ain’t Nothin But the Blues Bar there's live blues, grassroots and jam sessions till 2am at weekends, and at Ronnie Scott's there’s everything from Balkan fusion jazz to trad jazz quartets until 3am every night.
For a perfect Soho crawl go to one — or both — of them, and when they shut transfer yourself to Bar Italia. It's open 22 hours a day, and equally good as a place to go with your date or a group of friends and put the world to rights over an espresso, negroni or wedge of parma ham-filled focaccia till they close at 5am.