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 Much of the former scruffiness has been replaced by chain bars, and a lot of independents are closing doors or moving east.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.
Breakfast bites in Soho
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 lots of salmon. Or for a more far-flung and hotter breakfast head to Dishoom (Carnaby Street branch) for the bacon and egg naans, and a slightly higher chance of getting in without a queue than in the evening. Closer to home, Bill's breakfast menu has all the poached eggs and avo smash you could hope for.
But top of the list has to be Koya Bar on Frith Street, where they repay a morning visit with the sublime English Breakfast noodles — thick udon noodles topped with a fried egg, bacon and shiitake mushrooms.
Lunchtime inspiration in Soho
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 both Dean Street and Kingly Street branches) are also worthy pizza-profferers.
Freshness is key at Nopi on Warwick Street — the brain child of celebrated chef Yotam Ottolenghi. Bright, beautiful and bold platters laden with vegetables are made for sharing at the restaurant's communal table. Upstairs you'll find a more typical restaurant style outfit with individual tables, although you'll likely need to book in advance.
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 (it's the only venue outside of New York, so Soho is extra lucky). Le Bab and Darjeeling Express provide a delicious lunchtime quandary just a stone's throw from one another on the top level of Kingly Court — the former is a must for grilled flatbreads, shawarmas and tempting mezzes, while the woman-only team at Darjeeling Express turn out fragrant home-cooked dishes from recipes born on the streets of Calcutta.
Korean street food packs a flavour punch at JinJuu, where the set lunch menus prevent hungry diners from going power-mad and ordering all the bulgogi, Korean fried chicken and kimchi fried rice on the menu. For street food served on an actual street, try Berwick Street Market where Freebird Burritos and Jerusalem Falafel are among the regular stalls. It's open Mondays through to Saturdays until 6pm, making it a must for your lunchtime stop-off.
Coffee shops in Soho
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 serves 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. It's also an Aladdin's Cave of brew-based paraphernalia so make sure to swing by next time you're in need of a stovetop coffee maker or aeropress for your home collection.
For places to spend longer than it takes to down your shot of caffeine, there's Department of Coffee and Social Affairs on Wardour Street (formerly TAP Coffee, there are two further branches are just a short walk away on Rathbone Place and Tottenham Court Road), and Soho Grind which is the Beak Street opening from the people behind Shoreditch Grind. Like its older brother, Soho Grind is open early morning until late (11pm 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 a Hot Flat White Russian.
Pubs, gastropubs and bars in Soho
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 and The French House are all earning their crowds of punters with decent beers and historic buildings. Enjoy all the weird nooks and alcoves if you can fight off the competition for seats.
If beer selection's your main driver then Brewdog Soho and The Lyric are doing some of the best in Soho. Both the brews and the 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 is at hand serving small, perfect glasses of bottle-aged Negroni plus cheese and cured ham to soak it all up with.
Technically a pub, or modelled on one, Duck and Rice is all geometric windows from the outside and a mostly Chinese menu — with the odd flash of Indo-European (particularly when it comes to snacks and desserts)— on the inside. There's a swisher dining room with better views upstairs but to really explore owner Alan Yau's Chinese gastropub concept, it's the ground floor pub menu 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. She Bar is London's only exclusively lesbian joint which means at busy times they do employ a woman (or non-binary) only policy, but if you want to party with a mixed group then the two-level Ku Bar on Frith Street has the same owners and welcomes any and all genders until late in the evening.
Restaurant recommendations in Soho
You're spoiled for steak choice in Soho, and some of 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 rivalling 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 are willing to endure the inevitable queue. Make Shoryu and Tonkotsu your stop-offs for traditional, meaty tonkotsu stocks and a less pounding soundtrack, and Taro for just as good but much simpler, no-frills noodle soups.
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 (Bao do offer some reserved tables, but many are held back for walk-ins).
Strongly in the non-bookable camp is the ever-popular Barrafina. The punters waiting outside this tapas joint will swear the croquetas are worth the queue.
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. The izakaya-style menu at Shack-Fuyu and an Italian trattoria dinner at Mele e Pere are all bookable — as are the rainbow dim sum at brilliant newcomer BaoziInn, or the minced pork and aubergine and Vietnamese curry dishes at Cay Tre.
Something special in Soho
There are a few places on the fancier end of the spectrum that make for great 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. Just nudging the simpler side of special, Bocca di Lupo does warming Italian trattoria food. Pull up a pew at one of the bar seats curved around an open kitchen if you want to take the formality down a notch.
Tucked away on Upper James Street, the decor at Bob Bob Ricard is memorably glamorous and the 'Press for Champagne' buttons at every table are a frivolous touch, while slurping of a different kind is on offer at the Kingly Court branch of Wright Brothers. Swing by for incredibly fresh seafood and oysters for £1 a pop between 3-6pm.
Late night in Soho
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 (closing only between 5am-7am), and equally good as a place to go with your date or a group of friends. Put the world to rights over a late-night espresso, Negroni or wedge of parma ham-filled focaccia. Nothing feels finer after a night out in Soho town.