Peter Morrell discovers sex ‘n’ pies ‘n’ rock and roll on a walking tour of this once notorious part of London which is now a foodie’s paradise
Soho is a place of constant change, from its beginnings as an aristocratic hunting ground in the 17th century to the arrival of European migrants bringing their culture and cuisine. It morphed into an area of disrepute, was then the centre of the swinging sixties and in today’s incarnation has becoming the capital’s premier food and entertainments district.
I know all of this because it was part of the introduction given by the highly knowledgeable and entertaining guide at the start of the Twilight Soho Food Tour run by Eating London Tours. The format of the evening would be visits to six totally different bars and restaurants with the opportunity to learn more about the history of the area as we walked between locations.
The tour group featured visitors from the U.S., Australia and Scotland and with our shared interest in food a strong camaraderie soon developed. From the forecourt of the Palace Theatre, the red-brick confection at the end of Shaftesbury Avenue, our first destination was a mere 60 second walk away, La Bodega Negra.
We were soon parked at the bar of this Mexican restaurant, frozen strawberry margarita in hand while munching soft tacos including a delicious ‘al pastor’. From there the fast paced tour soon had us standing in Soho Square hearing about the building in its centre, what was under our feet and the music publishing office of a Beatle. Diving down a narrow street that ran off the square and through a passage we soon emerged in front of The London Gin Club. Here we ate a generously sized gin-infused beef pie packed with flavour which was accompanied by a tutored tasting of the Club’s own 7 Dials gin.
Punctuated with a stop at Enrique Tomas for a presentation and comparative tasting of three Spanish hams and cheeses paired with a welcome glass of Nuviana red wine, we heard about the pivotal part Soho has played in the evolution of the music industry. We saw the site of Trident Studios where almost every famous artist has recorded from Elton John to Genesis. And nearby on Wardour Street the location of the legendary Marquee Club, it was here that the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and The Who all started their careers.
Moving on to our next venue we were amused by a ‘sign of the times’ on a door stating emphatically that there were no prostitutes at that address. We saw the flat above the Quo Vadis restaurant where Karl Marx lived in Dean Street just before arriving at the Pix Bar. Here they served the highly fashionable pintxos, northern Spanish tapas. Large portions of cheese croquettes and a selection of seafood were washed down with Txakoli, a young, very dry wine poured with artistic flair for a surprising result
It was time to get more cultural and Frith Street was just the place to do it. A famous lodger in the street was Mozart and Dr. John Snow, who discovered that cholera was transmitted in the water supply, was another resident. It still plays host to Ronnie Scott’s world famous jazz club which he started in 1959.
Crossing Shaftesbury Avenue at the end of Frith Street brought us to Chinatown, one of Europe’s largest. A nondescript doorway was the entrance to Opium, our next culinary experience. Here in a dark and atmospheric bar we sampled traditional dim sum. Baskets of tasty pork buns and steamed king prawns arrived and we tried three different types of Chinese tea, with the delicate peony flavoured brew at one end of the scale and the mysterious smoky Lapsang Souchon at the other.
On the way to our final tasting we learnt about the history of the sex industry and of Paul Raymond who opened his Revuebar, the first strip club in Soho in 1958. Raymond who has now passed away was an astute businessman who created a property empire now worth over half a billion pounds.
Our final stop was the Italian chocolate shop SAID on Broadwick Street but before going in the guide showed us a red kerb stone outside. This was the site of the water pump that our old friend Dr Snow removed the handle from 1854 and stopped a cholera outbreak in its tracks.
Inside we feasted on rich tiramisu and revelled in the thick hot chocolate flavoured with hazelnuts which was redolent of liquid Nutella, it was a luxurious and fitting finale.
We parted company under a mural which showed all the characters who had made Soho the exciting and vibrant place that it is today. It’s on a corner of Carnaby Street, the epicentre of Swinging London but that is a story for another day.
I walked back to the tube station fit to burst and feeling very satisfied. It had been a rewarding and fascinating three and a half hours and I had learnt so much about the cuisine and heritage of this fascinating part of the city. I can thoroughly recommend it to both visitors and Londoners.
Eating London Tours also run a culinary adventure in London’s East End, another culturally rich area of the capital. If you are travelling in Europe they offer tours in Italy, Amsterdam and Prague.
For more information, prices and to book tours go to www.eatinglondontours.co.uk