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What's the best pub in Soho? Depends who you are. Here's a list of our favourite 10, based on at least two decades of intensive research.
What we've included: The list sticks to places that most people would consider as 'pubs'. We've not included the many fine bars, clubs and places of entertainment for which the area is historically (and, just about, presently) known.
Coach & Horses
Does the sight of a worn, carpeted pub make you belch in horror?
If that's your attitude, then stay out of the Coach & Horses, Soho's most famous pub. To step inside is to leave 21st century London behind. We're back in the grubby 60s, with cloudy windows, ripped lampshades and signs for SKOL LAGER and IND COOPE above the bar. A place where a 'knees-up round the old joanna' is still very much part of the deal.
You might be forgiven for thinking this was any old locals' pub. Yet the Coach & Horses has many surprises up its sleeve. The ale range, for starters, is bang on trend, with a fine selection of craft and draught not normally associated with a carpeted pub. This was one of the first pubs to have an all-vegan/vegetarian menu and, until recently, hosted a 'secret' tea room up the stairs behind the bar. There's something for everyone here.
Whole essays could be written about the pub's history. If you're not familiar with the names Norman Balon and Jeffrey Bernard, simply Google... or else come and look at the cartoons that fill the pub's walls. Management of the Coach & Horses was recently assumed by owners Fuller's, and fears remain that this Soho original might turn all bland and shite as a result. At the time of writing, the only visible change is that the toilets are a bit cleaner. And long may that carpet remain.
Like this? There's nowhere quite like the Coach and Horses. Perhaps the closest is the Blue Posts on Berwick Street — another rough-around-the-edges haunt of Soho locals. It's probably not shut, despite appearances.
Coach & Horses, 29 Greek Street, W1D 5DH
The French House
Soho's other great pub-as-institution is The French House. It hasn't worn that name as long as you might think. Originally known as the York Minster, the pub changed to its present name after said cathedral almost burnt down in 1984. One wonders if it will rebrand yet again, following the disaster at Notre Dame.
The clientele here skews toward the autumn of life. Cloth caps and tweed jackets are not unheard of. It's a chatty, opinionated kind of place, always full, and cacophonous with voices. "My husband's got a big beer gut," announces one afternoon drinker to the entire room. Her periodic repartee with the bar staff marks her as a regular.
The pub is most famous for its contrarian attitude to capacities; beer is served only in half pints, except on 1 April when proper measures are briefly dispensed. Patrons are also barred from using a phone, laptop or any other communications device save those which nature provided — an interdict that's an absolute bastard if you're trying to get original photography for a review. This half-arsed angled shot of a man in a mirror is about all we could achieve with smartphone concealed beneath an elbow.
The beer range is limited (wine, champagne or Ricard are the done thing), the rules are out of kilter with the online age, but the French House is clearly still adored by all those who drink there. Upstairs you'll find a restaurant that has the critics raving... but we're only interested in la bière.
Like this? Then stay here. There is no drinking experience in Soho to compare with the French House.
The French House, 49 Dean Street, W1D 5BG
The Dog & Duck
"Look, Anaglypta," pointed my drinking companion as we entered this tiny treasure box. "I'm afraid I've never heard of her," is the reply I formulated a few days later while wondering how I could get the word Anaglypta into this review. Truth is, the pub is festooned with fancy decorative flourishes from the 19th century, for which I've yet to learn the name. What do you call one of these tile columns, for example?
This Versailles broom cupboard of a pub is owned by Nicholson's. The chain has done much to improve its beer range of late, and here we find more pumps than tables. At least downstairs. A first floor dining room, named after famous patron George Orwell, offers a bit more room.
It's all very lovely, but beware the toilets. The Dog & Duck shares its initials with Dungeons & Dragons, and clambering down the treacherous staircase to the gents on a Friday night is like negotiating a Level 7 dungeon replete with orcs.
Like this? You could do a lot worse than the Glasshouse Stores on Brewer Street which, as the name suggests, has similar full-length mirrors in a unique interior.
The Dog & Duck, 18 Bateman Street, W1D 3AJ
The Old Coffee House
Entering the Old Coffee House is like diving into a swimming pool filled with chestnut-brown water. Only without the water. And...but... well, this is a non-starter of a comparison. Let's just say, this pub has a uniquely russet look, both inside and out.
The Grade II-listed Old Coffee House does serve coffee, but most of the custom comes from the fine Brodie's ales that dominate the bar. Taxidermied foxes, antelope...and clowns... look on jealously as we savour a pale ale. Every inch of every wall carries some kind of ye olde knick-knack or etching; even a signed copy of a Robbie Williams album.
The clientele is a right old mix. IT customer support specialists to the left of me, music industry admins to the right, and over there a family group discussing the relative merits of chicken shop chains. A pub for everybody.
Like this? Try the Shaston Arms on Ganton Street, which also has a unique interior (with booths), and its own unusual range of beers (from Badger).
The Old Coffee House, 49 Beak Street, W1F 9SF
One to avoid if you don't like Guinness; one to embrace if you do. Other drinks are dispensed within the Toucan's suitably black-and-white walls, but the Irish stout is very much king. Guinness paraphernalia coats the pub from top-to-basement, though the kitsch bar stools shaped like pints seem to have gone in what counts as a refurb in these parts.
The two rooms are small and pokey, which gives the place a lively feel at all times of day. In the basement, there's a little snug space beneath the stairwell that would have to feature in a list of top 10 tables for a secret assignation. The Toucan is a rare survival that hasn't changed a jot since the last century (other than now taking contactless).
Like this? Try Bradley's Spanish Bar, just across Oxford Street in Hanway Street. It's not technically Soho, but it has the same dingy/cosy up-down layout and specialises in drinks from another EU country.
The Toucan, 19 Carlisle Street, W1D 3BY
Some would argue that the Argyll Arms isn't proper Soho. It's right next to Oxford Street tube, for pity's sake. Some would argue that it's not even that good a pub. Its location next to Europe's busiest shopping street gives it a transient clientele. Few locals here. Well tish and pish to those contrarians. The Argyll has a unique interior that would once have been called 'charming', but is now 'Instagrammable'. You'll find more etched glass and wooden panels than in the backstage area of Antiques Roadshow. The walls and columns, meanwhile, are coated in the same oxblood red as the nearby tube station's Leslie Green tiles. Lovely.
The beer ain't bad, either. This is a Nicholson's pub, and you can expect six or seven well-kept casks, ranging from the omnipresent Doom Bar to beers-less-swallowed. It's almost directly opposite the Palladium, so expect a crowd before showtime, but it's easy enough to get a table on a weekday afternoon.
Like this? The Sam Smith's pubs mentioned elsewhere (John Snow, Glasshouse Stores) will give you a similar vibe, or else try The Flying Horse (formerly The Tottenham and also a Nicholson's pub with big mirrors), which is the only pub on Oxford Street.
Argyll Arms, 18 Argyll Street, W1F 7TP
"We sell a lot of it," confides the bar made, when we order a pint of De Hems Pilsner. It's not hard to see why. Of the half-dozen or so taps of little-known beer, this is the easiest to pronounce (at least to an ignorant Brit like myself). De Hems is, by its own description, an 'authentic Dutch bar'. It sells Dutch beer. Its toilets bear the labels 'Heren and Dames'. It shows Dutch football. And Dutch words are written everywhere. I don't know why.
To support a beer menu that runs to 75 bottles, the brewing skills of the Belgians are also harnessed; it's more of a 'low countries' bar than exclusively Dutch.
Plenty of Hollander history here, though. The pub is named for a 19th century Dutch sailor, who became the landlord and invited all his salty old seadog mates over from the continent. Then, in the second world war, De Hems served as a rather obvious meeting point for the Dutch Resistance.
The pub's trimmings work hard to maintain the vibe, though the majority of customers were most definitely English on my last visit. Every single one, I'll warrant, was working on a 'double Dutch' or 'Dutch courage joke'. In summary, a gezellig bar of brown hues and light-brown beers.
Like this? Take the short wander over to Covent Garden where cafe-cum-pub Lowlander paints from a similar beery palette, with dozens of beers of persuasion Belgique.
De Hems, 11 Macclesfield Street, W1D 5BW
The John Snow
This pub's entry on TripAdvisor carries some enticing tags: 'traditional interior', 'old fashioned pub', 'nice beer', 'cholera', ... wait, what?
The cholera is easily explained. The pub is named after the local doctor who first made the link between this disease and dodgy water. A recently restored replica of the pump he isolated now stands outside the pub. Snow's epidemiology would ultimately save millions of lives. Even so, it still feels a bit peculiar to name a drinking establishment after a man associated with feculent water. The tag for 'nice beer' is harder to explain, given that this is a Sam Smith's pub. But that's just personal taste; I know almost one person who really likes it.
The chain is easily and often knocked for its untrendy beers, especially by me and my sneery friends, but it's impossible to argue with the appearance of its pubs. The John Snow is a particular corker, with three drinking spaces separated by partitions. To get between them, one must stoop down into a demi-crouch that anyone carrying a pint should have no business attempting. It's idiosyncratic, to say the least, but this is apparently what our ancestors expected from a good pub.
Like this? The Red Lion on Kingly Street is another Sam Smith's pub with an interior and attitude from another time. You can still get admonished for using a mobile phone in the front bar.
The John Snow, 39 Broadwick Street, W1F 9QJ
The website of this tiny pub lays claim to "an excellent array of draught and bottled beer". I think they're underselling themselves. The 'array' is beyond excellence, verging on the exemplary — at least for Soho where the craft beer scene is strangely lacking. 20 taps provide drinks you won't get anywhere else in the postcode.
It's a handsome devil too — not in flamboyant glazed glory like the Dog and Duck, but with simple wooden curves and a muted colour scheme. But for the lack of smoker's fug and the much improved beer, you could be back in the 1890s. There's more space upstairs in the dining room, and a bit of an adventure downstairs to find the toilets.
If I had to pen a short lyric to describe The Lyric, it'd be "A tiny old pub, with not many chairs; but gents please beware of precipitous stairs."
Like this? The BrewDog on Poland Street is a world away in its appearance and character, but its one of the few places in Soho that can rival the Lyric for choice of beer.
The Lyric, 37 Great Windmill Street, W1D 7LT
The Star and Garter
Every list like this has to have an underdog — a place that wouldn't appear in most people's top 10s and is included for the sake of throwing up something unusual. Well, the Star and Garter was the 11th pub on a recent jaunt around Soho, so I was just about ready to throw up something unusual.
You can't miss the place. It's painted a lurid shade of green that suggests an Irish pub, a notion reinforced by a pair of net curtains (!). But the S&G has no Gaelic connections we know of, besides serving a famous black drink like almost every other pub. It's been ran by the same couple for decades, and continuity is the watchword.
This is another thoroughly old-school Soho boozer, built of dark woods, warm panelling and comfortable corners. It wins a place in our hearts for its perfect sense of balance. Yes, it's traditional, but it's not as showy as places like the Argyll or Dog & Duck. It's bustling but, on a back street, also has its quieter moments. This is simply a warm, welcoming refuge from the excesses of nearby Carnaby Street — the perfect place to end our tour.
Like this? There's something of a lived-in Coach and Horses vibe in this place, with similar untouched fixtures.
Star and Garter, 62 Poland Street, W1F 7NX
Disagree with our choices? Of course you do. Let us know what you'd have selected in the comments.