Growing up just outside NYC (New Jersey, shamefully), I have visited many of Manhattan's neighbourhoods — but am particularly drawn to SoHo.
Now living in London, I can't help but compare London's Soho with Manhattan's. I love both for their cuisine and coffee, their surprising histories, and their general lust for life.
But now it's time to decide once and for all which is the best: Soho or SoHo?
To be clear: London has Soho, NYC has SoHo.
SoHo Manhattan (seen with the capital H) is derived from 'South of Houston Street', since Houston Street borders the northern part of SoHo. Urban planner, and the author of The South Houston Industrial Area study, Chester Rapkin, coined the name in 1962. No ambiguity. There's even a plaque.
The truth is murkier for Soho. The name, it is thought, originates from an an old hunting cry, said to have been yelled out by folk on horseback, when this area was a hunting ground during the 16th century. But there's ambiguity around that, and we'll never know for sure.
You Londoners win this round. Even though you haven't got the etymology entirely sussed, the story is far more alluring than NYC's dreary geographic one.
We already know Soho was a good place to catch deer back in the 1500s. French Huguenots, Greeks and Italians have called the place home its time. In 1854, the eminent John Snow traced a cholera outbreak to a pump on Broad Street, advancing medical science. (You can see a replica pump today.) Around this time, the aristocracy moved out as music halls and prostitutes came in, making Soho as a centre for good times and debauchery. Soho also had a burgeoning film industry. John Logie-Baird trialled his TV here. In the 1950s, Soho became the birthplace of British youth culture, with voguish coffee shops like the 2ii's. It basically invented rock n' roll.
Beginning as farmland, SoHo Manhattan became home to heavy duty industries, like steel making. Its history heated up in the mid-1900s with a series of factory fires, prompting the nickname "Hell's Hundred Acres". A renaissance was sparked in the mid-20th century, when artists began moving into the unloved area; artists posted warning signs outside their lofts: "A.I.R." — Artist in Residence, letting firefighters know there was actually someone in the otherwise abandoned buildings. Pop art pioneer Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat — doyen of the neo-expressionism movement — called it home. Locals protested the Lower Manhattan Expressway project to funnel traffic through the area, and in 1973, the city locked the area in as one of NYC's historic districts.
Both interesting histories. But for its contribution to epidemiology and defying the aristocratic fashionistas, London wins again.
Soho is inundated with well-established theatres. There's the London Palladium, where Bruce Forsyth's ashes are scattered. The Prince Edward Theatre, where Josephine Baker starred in her London debut. The Palace Theatre, where Harry Potter fanatics are probably going to be hanging out in their hats and gowns for the rest of all time. There is also Soho Theatre, which has existed since 1969. Nestled on Dean Street today, it is a hotbed of theatre, cabaret, sketch and stand-up. In short, one of the most fun places to be in London.
SoHo has SoHo Playhouse, not dissimilar to Soho Theatre. It's a small fringe-vibed venue that has been around since 1962. It's kept its vintage look, and puts on off-Broadway productions, stand-up, and cabaret from established and emerging talent. It's pretty awesome.
London outnumbers NYC in venues and productions. Although New Yorkers will argue that Soho's Playhouse is cooler.
Knowing how much Londoners love their tea, I'm surprised how strong Soho's coffee shop game is. The head honcho, of course, is Bar Italia — that neon-lit 24/7 Italian coffee mecca serving authentic brews from its 50-year-old Gaggia machine. There are plenty of other worthy joints, from the Swedish Söderberg — where coffee's paired with sticky cinnamon and cardamom buns, to the caffeinated Aladdin's Cave that is Algerian Coffee Stores.
As for SoHo, everyone will have a go-to place. Maman wakes New Yorkers in style with its outdoor seating, refreshing rustic ambience and abundance of freshly baked goods. Artisanal coffee brand La Colombe Roasters pours draft lattes (take THAT London pubs), while Now or Never Coffee turns coffee foam into an art form. My personal favourite is Ground Support Cafe, which has never disappointed in great-tasting brews... or seat availability.
Soho gives SoHo a run for its money, but there is nothing more NYC than a "cuppacaw-fee."
Where do we start? Our list of the 10 best pubs in Soho maybe. Soho really does have it all when it comes to pubs. The French House, known for its 'no music, television, or phone' rule, attracts conversationalists to chat over bottles of Breton cidre. Gerry's Bar, a legendary members club, where the great and the good of Soho have come to get sloshed since the '50s. The Toucan is a quintessential Irish pub experience. Ronnie Scott's is one of the oldest jazz bars in the world.
Over in NYC, Soho Cigar Bar is decorated 1920s speakeasy-style: plush leather seats, an array of single malts and — as the name hints — the opportunity to spark up a fat Cuban. If you're in the mood for an early morning eye-opener, it's got to be the Spring Lounge, coined as the oldest neighbourhood dive bar (and known by locals as the 'Shark Bar', due to the stuffed sharks jutting out of the walls). You can get a beer here as early as 8am, although there's one minor issue... technically it's just outside SoHo.
NYC might've just got this one if Spring Lounge moved slightly to the east. Close but no cigar.
In Soho, I've seen an eclectic range of restaurants. There's the stained glass-windowed Quo Vadis, which used to be a brothel, and a home to Karl Marx. There's Tonkotsu for excellent ramen action. And there's London's oldest Swiss restaurant, St Moritz, with its indulgent fondues. Plus Soho has a few authentic delis, not least Italian I Camisa & Son, opened by two Italian brothers in 1929, and good for a mortadella sandwich.
SoHo is next to Little Italy, so Italian cuisine is well known (and tasted) there. You can enjoy homemade focaccia bread sandwiches under hole-in-the-wall Pepe Rosso's sunroof and, similarly, Alidoro with just as authentic food — takeaway style. Famous Ben's Pizza's crispy crust and soft inner dough pizza will not disappoint (it also serves Italian ice in hotter months.) As for a taste of France, Raoul has been around since the 1970s, serving classic French bistro food.
Neither are exactly lacking culinary institutions. But at the end of the day, you can't top the classic New York slice.
Soho Square, the quaint green space at the centre of Soho, provides a haven from the busy Oxford Street. The Square has green grass (at the right time of year), benches for lazing on, table tennis, and, most notably, its black-and-white rustic gardener's hut with an intriguing history. A classic spot for a picnic in central London.
SoHo frankly fails when it comes to green space. It has a small, concreted-over area called Vesuvio Playground, featuring a mini pool conveniently placed for cooling off during hot summers. But that's about it, really.
An easy win for London's Soho.
(Side note: I did not include Washington Square Park. It would, however, knock Soho Square out of the park so to speak.)
Soho is renowned for its exuberant LGBTQ+ scene. The oldest gay bar in London (since 1832), Admiral Duncan is still partying hard. Just as well known is G-A-Y Bar, known for its joyous pop music and cheap drinks from dawn till dusk. Soho Zebrano is a cocktail bar and nightclub hosting drag brunchettes. Honestly, this list could go on and on and on...
While NYC as a whole has a rich LGBTQ+ scene and history, SoHo specifically doesn't compare to London Soho's nightlife. It does, however, house the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, the world's only dedicated LGBTQIA+ art museum.
London beats NYC, both history-wise history and with its current offerings.
Museums and galleries
Soho has the Photographer's Gallery, which constantly opens your eyes to new photographers and perspectives. There's also Soho Revue Gallery, showcasing emerging contemporary artists, and Frith Street Gallery, a commercial offering featuring art from photography and sculptures. House of MinaLima, of course, is a fave among Potter fans. There is a Museum of Soho, but it's only online.
SoHo has the Museum of Ice Cream, a creative way to learn about all sorts of ice creams... with an ice cream sundae bar at the end! Another contender is the Color Factory of New York, an art exhibit with participatory installations focused on colour and vibrancy. The best part is the candy and other sweets you eat while exploring. SoHo's cultural scene is sweet, if a tad 'novelty'.
You can't experience either Soho/SoHo without seeing some art.
There are more than a few quirky tidbits about Soho. Firstly, you have Soho George. The 80-year-old fashion icon is known as the "Soul of Soho", and can be is seen strolling around the neighbourhood and enjoying its cafes, in his 1950s-style menswear. Soho also has its 'Seven Noses', created by artist Rick Buckley in 1997. And there's the Waiter's Race every summer, dating back to the 1950s, where Soho's best servers race around the block while balancing a tray, bottle of fizz, glass and ashtray.
The people of SoHo are the most eccentric of the two by far. As for places, definitely the Sloomoo Institute, an interactive amusement centre where you can manhandle over 30 vats of textured, scented slime. It's a slime immersion in every way possible. Less interactive is the Evolution Store, which attracts crowds with its beautifully showcased artefacts: framed bugs, fossils, seashells, skeletons. NYC's answer to The Last Tuesday Society.
There really is no debate here — another easy win for London. Not to say NYC isn't eccentric; I mean, they parade a giant turkey in the air every November.
And the winner is...
London! Final score: Soho: 7 SoHo: 2. Well done. Guess I'm moving here forever now.