Soho’s comforting mishmash of old pubs, sex shops, bustling bars and budding restaurants is a familiar sight for most Londoners. It was the heart of the city’s Swinging Sixties era, underwent massive gentrification in the Eighties and is still constantly evolving. But somehow it has managed to remain the capital’s most popular district. First daters, pub hoppers, city boys and artists alike flock to Soho’s maze of bars and restaurants to get their fix of good food and booze.
After a few weeks of hibernating in Hackney, we reacquainted ourselves with Soho’s food scene and fell in love with the area all over again. We’re not sure if it’s the tempting mélange of drinking spots, the narrow streets or the heart-warming sight of a shop selling bondage starter kits, but there is something timeless about Soho. We also think the restaurant scene is better than ever – here’s our updated guide to eating and drinking in London’s eclectically artististic version of the red light district.
If you haven’t got a reservation at this sought-after Theatreland spot, your best bet is to hang around the front door just before they open at 5.30PM. Once you’ve got a foot in, do your best to get a seat at the action-packed bar – these guys are kings of counter dining. Watch bartenders whip up grapefruit and salt cocktails in golden shakers while chefs clatter around the steaming kitchen. The food is rooted in modern the flavours of Jerusalem with influences from Spain, North Africa and the Levant. Think burnt courgette tzatziki, octopus and aubergines with hummus, truffled polenta and the satiating Jerusalem mix, a dish of chicken liver, veal sweetbread, okra, tomato and tahini. The whole room drips with casual elegance, from the royal-blue booths and mosaic floors to mahogany walls and the neon-pink lettering on the back wall.
The lovingly dishevelled Ducksoup (sibling to Hackney’s Rawduck) is the kind of place you pop into for one glass of wine and end up staying for dinner and a bottle (each). It’s probably to do with the candlelight, the cosy smallness of the room and the menu filled with seasonal small plates, all of which have an entrancing effect. The constantly revolving wine list is filled with natural, biodynamic, low-intervention bottles. Basically, the headache is marginally less vicious the next day. The food menu changes also changes daily: we dived headfirst into a plate of shaved fennel with pomegranates and labneh, spiced crab with apple and hazelnuts, and lamb shoulder with artichokes. There was also a side of black-olive and rosemary potatoes. And radicchio with ricotta. Oh, and then we had lemon and ginger treacle tart. And some more wine…
It’s hard to imagine anything more warming, restoring and satisfying than ramen. Which probably explains why we have about three a week. Londoners caught onto this Japanese soul food in a big way a couple of years ago, and there are now endless places to get your noodle soup fix. But Tonkotsu has proven its worth among them, recently opening its fifth location in Hackney. According to owner Ken Tamada, the secret is in the noodles. Using a mid-century ramen machine sourced in Tokyo, Tonkotsu’s bouncy, stretchy noodles are created from a traditional recipe of flour and alkaline-salted water. They’re served in delicious broths like sea-salt pork stock or soy-sauce pork and chicken stock, topped with delights like soft-boiled egg, bamboo shoots and bean sprouts. Their famous ‘Eat the Bits’ chilli oil is now available to buy in pots, and after you’ve spooned a few dollops of it onto your ramen, you’ll understand why.
If you’re a fan of Ceviche, Martin Morales’ groundbreaking Peruvian restaurant on Frith Street, you’ll be happy to know that a branch has just opened down the road. Casita Andina serves food inspired by the Andes – zesty, crunchy, colourful flavours which just so happen to be gluten free. This detail seems more like an afterthought than a selling point which, in a city drowning smugly in spiralised carrot, makes a refreshing change. The menu showcases more of the signature dish – fish ‘cooked’ in citrus – as well as comforting plates inspired by Morales’ grandmother, who lives in the Andean mountains. The interior echoes her home and is cosily fitted out with traditional woven textiles, Peruvian artworks and warm tiles.
We’ve been banging on about the mighty hopper – a savoury Sri Lankan pancake piled with spices, fresh herbs and a runny egg – for quite some time now. So we when we heard that siblings behind Gymkhana had opened a restaurant specialising in hoppers, dosas and ‘short eats’, we could hardly wait to ruin some more sleeves getting stuck in. It’s a messy old process, but so very worth it. The delectable bar snacks (‘short eats’) include hot butter-devilled shrimps and duck roti. The hoppers and dosas come with a selection of extras like black-pork or guinea fowl kari and coriander, tomato and coconut chutneys. There are also a few ‘rice and roast’ dishes such as buffalo buriani with duck-egg kari and yoghurt or Ceylonese-spit chicken. This menu, combined with shiny tiled surfaces and a drinks menu of ‘hards’ like gin, fresh curry leaves and cardamom tonic and you’ll see why London is going crazy for Hoppers – and why you’ll have to join the queue.
Rich, restorative broths are the name of the game at this ramen restaurant, which is inspired by the rockabilly culture of Tokyo. Loud rock music fills the air along with the smell of chicken-bone broth with sesame; corn, wakame and shredded chicken or 20-hour pork-bone broth with spring onion and chashu pork. You can crank your soup up a notch with extras like pulled chicken, soft corn, spicy ground pork or a handful of delicious cock scratchings. Bowls come complete with an indulgent ‘fat pipette’ should you want to add that extra injection of tasty.
Sidle down the narrow stairway to this basement restaurant specialising in chops, prime cuts and cocktails for a fiver. Join the communal table made from nailed-together wooden planks and peruse the menu with a couple of ‘pre-chop bites’ such as duck rillettes and apple kimchi. Drinks like Aperol negronis and grandma’s spiked lemonade are wheeled out on a trolley – if you’ve been on a long-haul flight, you’ll know that alcohol is almost impossible to decline when it rolls by at eye level. Meaty mains include ‘skinny chops’ like beef short-rib, pork loin or tender lamb neck, while ‘big chops’ are large prime ribs and sirloin on the bone. Blacklock also does sides extremely well. Choose from strawberries, beetroot and fennel, heritage tomatoes with labneh and almonds or 10-hour-roasted sweet potato. If you’re feeling particularly porky, go ‘all in’ with every skinny chop on the menu, served with flatbread and any two sides.
NOPI is the fruit of Yotam Ottolenghi and head chef Ramael Scully’s combined talents. Unlike Ottolenghi’s delis, NOPI has a more formal, elegant atmosphere offset by gleaming white-marble and brass surfaces. The menu is an amalgamation of Scully’s southeast Asian influences and Ottolenghi’s Middle Eastern flavours. The fashion pack flock here for dinners of heirloom tomatoes with wasabi mascarpone and hazelnuts, twice-cooked baby chicken with lemon salt and mackerel with green apple and wasabi fish roe. The lunch and dinner menu is combined and is constantly changing (which means you’ll have to go back several times, just to triple check.) Breakfast is dreamy; baked eggs come with rich tomato sauce which tastes like it’s been bubbling away for years, while the black rice with coconut milk and banana made us come over as modish, clean-eating foodies. Until we went downstairs and saw our wine-puffed faces a hundred times over in the famous mirrored loos.
Those who were wandering around Soho last week may have been treated to the delightful sight of us squabbling over a cone of gelato the height of Mt Snowdon. After dinner at Bocca Di Lupo – the renowned regional Italian eatery that will have you hungrily slurping up clam broth and fresh pasta – head to this neighbouring gelateria to placate your sweet tooth. The menu changes weekly, sometimes daily, and offers the softest, creamiest ice cream in seasonal flavours such as ricotta and sour cherry, fresh-mint stracciatella or jade-coloured pistachio.
At some point last year, the hearts of Londoners melted into soft, pillowy Taiwanese buns. Since opening their first permanent space in spring 2015, the family behind Bao have been feeding the nation’s addiction. Their handmade, milky buns are bursting with staple fillings like braised pork, peanut powder and fermented greens; fried chicken with Sichuan mayo, or lamb shoulder with daikon radish, pickle and hot sauce. Other dishes include Taiwanese-fried chicken, trotter nuggets (don’t mind if we do) and aubergine with a wanton crisp. The best bit? You fill out your menu selections with a biro which means maximum consumption, minimum shame.