Where to drink and eat well around Soho
A lot of city centres have ended up looking rather too similar these days, so when you travel it’s nice to end up in places that are a bit different. In London, there are few places as distinctive as Soho. Bounded by Oxford Street, Shaftesbury Avenue and Regent Street, it’s the epicentre of London’s theatreland, restaurant industry and nightlife, and yet it still remains a lively residential neighbourhood, which adds to its particular character.
Wine has always been part of the scene here – ‘Old Soho used to mean drunks, basically,’ says restaurateur Andrew Edmunds – but what does the area have to offer the wine lover today? Quite a lot as it happens, as also one of the long standing entries on our best London wine bars guide. This is where to go for wines that are hard to find and still (just about) affordable – and not just in private members’ clubs either (Soho is home to the famous Groucho Club and Soho House).
Edmunds’ eponymous restaurant on Lexington Street is one of the longest-established venues since Soho began to be gentrified in the 1980s. It would be easy to overlook its modest entrance and dining room, but it serves appealingly simple food in the St John vein (the east London restaurant reputed for its simple, nose-to-tail fare, where Andrew Edmunds’ chef used to work), and a wine list you would cross London for.
Despite the number of gems on his list, which at the time of writing included four Chassagne-Montrachets (‘a bit of an accident’), and Vieux Château Certan by both the half-bottle and magnum, Edmunds admits it’s harder than it was to find bargains. ‘Back in the 1980s, the difference in price between the nastiest supermarket wine at £3 and a serious bottle at £30 wasn’t that big. The same bottle could now be £4,000.’
‘We’ve been pulling in our horns when it comes to paying for hugely expensive wines. We used to have an allocation of Harlan [from California] but then found it was all consumed by one man who bought it because he could. He used to order two bottles and share it with the staff.’
You can also find a slice of old Soho at The French House on nearby Dean Street, which, despite some excellent cooking from Neil Borthwick, is notable for the low prices, rather than the quality, of its wines. But if you want to do a spot of people-watching or, better still, eavesdropping on some classic Soho gossip (as in, ‘He got sacked from the Criterion [Theatre] for being drunk. He was always a heavy drinker…’), then there isn’t a better place.
An institution reimagines
From The French House, a short walk along lively Old Compton Street (home to legendary wines and spirits emporium Gerry’s) and into Greek Street takes you to the most notable newcomer in the area: Noble Rot Soho. The second restaurant in the Noble Rot stable (the original is in Lamb’s Conduit Street in nearby Bloomsbury) is in the building formerly occupied by the Gay Hussar, the fabled Hungarian hangout of left-wing politicans and journalists in the 1960s and ’70s. Proprietors Mark Andrew and Dan Keeling have remained faithful to the look and spirit of the original restaurant, thus avoiding upsetting the so-called Goulash Co-operative – the group of Hussar fans who attempted to buy the restaurant when it was put up for sale a couple of years ago.
‘We didn’t buy the lease to rip out all the furnishings,’ says Keeling firmly. They’ve kept all the wooden panelling and the original lamps, while the first-floor dining room has a triptych of murals by award-winning cartoonist Martin Rowson, depicting the great and the good of Soho over the past half-century.
With his music background (he was MD of Island Records), Keeling is the perfect custodian. Two members of Coldplay – Will Champion and Johnny Buckland – are backers in the venture, for example. Soho has always attracted an artsy crowd.
The Gay Hussar was always more noted for excess than discrimination. ‘Wine was just the fuel for social activity. There was quite a lot of ropey Bull’s Blood,’ says Keeling. Now, it’s at the cutting edge of the London wine scene, with the extensive wine list on an iPad and 75ml tasters by the glass (follow its Instagram @noblerotsoho to see what’s open that day – if you can get in).
There’s a long list of Champagnes (also very Soho) – a drink that’s dear to Keeling’s heart. ‘When people ask, “what are the most exciting wine regions?”, Champagne is top of my list. It should be drunk at the end of the meal, as well as the beginning. Bordeaux and Burgundy obviously have their place too. We recently had a Château Batailley 1985 in really good condition for £70-£80. In most restaurants, the average Bordeaux is five to six years old. There’s a sweet spot between £50 and £70 where you can find a lot to gratify. We’re not super-cheap, but we do set out to be good value.’
Noble Rot’s food, overseen by Stephen Harris – of one-star Michelin gastropub The Sportsman on the north Kent coast – is also better than the old Hussar’s, with a nod to its Hungarian roots in the form of goulash (in the winter), and a duck liver parfait-filled choux bun with Tokaji jelly as a regular ‘amuse’. The £18 set lunch menu is a joy. When I visited recently, the acclaimed late TV chef Robert Carrier’s legendary paté aux herbes had been revived, sitting alongside head chef Alex Jackson’s take on Provençal food.
On the list
Just around the corner is another relatively recent addition, basement wine bar The Black Book, from former sommeliers Xavier Rousset MS and Gearoid Devaney MS. The pair originally opened the venue in 2019 as Trade, a members’ club for the hospitality industry, but it’s now open to all. Rousset, who also co-owns Blandford Comptoir in Marylebone and Cabotte in the City, cheerfully admits he purloined the idea from neighbouring 10 Greek Street (which has its own hand-written ‘little black book’ of rarer wine gems), saying that it enables them to buy just a couple of wines that might be available on a ‘when it’s gone, it’s gone’ basis. ‘We’ll buy a Barolo or Brunello for £40 ex-VAT and sell it for £80 including VAT. We’re open till 3am from Thursday to Saturday, but it’s not a club where the music is loud, and people appreciate that. They’re also pretty much guaranteed to get in. A lot of the trade don’t come in until after work, at 2am.’
Don’t overlook 10 Greek Street, though. It’s appealing menu is short, fresh and seasonal, and its original black book includes rarities such as Conti Costanti, Brunello 2012 by the glass. The beers, meanwhile, come from owner Luke Wilson’s own brewery, Braybrooke Beer Co.
Then, for sheer unabashed Vegas-style glam, heading towards Mayfair (but very much still in Soho) there’s Bob Bob Ricard, owned by Russian restaurateur and wine lover Leonid Shutov. Here, just around the corner from the famous artsy shopping hotspot Carnaby Street, you can drink both Dom Pérignon and Château d’Yquem by the glass (just hit the ‘press for Champagne’ button for the former). The food, too, is splendidly flamboyant. I can recommend the lobster mac’n’cheese as well as the classic turbot coulibiac, caviar ‘dégustation’ and some spectacularly delicious Russian dumplings.
Shutov’s approach since he opened the restaurant in 2008 – and it’s one that fits Soho perfectly – is to offer the best-known names with minimal mark-ups. Dom Pérignon 2010 is on the list at £138 at the time of writing – less than you would pay at many retailers, or at Soho institution Kettner’s, where it’s £225. He says he consciously located the restaurant in Soho. ‘I liked the idea of having a much more eclectic and varied clientele than areas such as Mayfair and Knightsbridge seem to attract. An interesting clientele inevitably enhances the entire experience one has at a restaurant.’
Just over on the other side of Piccadilly – so not strictly Soho but a mere five-minute walk away – is Maison François and its brilliant new wine bar Frank’s, where you can enjoy the sort of old-school French cooking you all too rarely find in France these days. And the extensive wine list, defined by wine director Daniel Illsley as ‘east of Soho in terms of its DNA’, is more the kind you would expect to find in Paris: organic, sustainable and low-intervention.
‘Bordeaux and Burgundy may be our meat and drink,’ says Illsley, who also owns Theatre of Wine in Greenwich, ‘but we’re just as interested in what’s off the beaten track – wines such as the Connivence 2018, a collaboration between Armand Heitz and Aurélien Febvre that takes fruit from both the Coteaux de l’Auxois [in the Côte d’Or’s west] and the Côtes de Beaune.’ But, despite the restaurant’s name, it’s not all about French wine. ‘We take an imaginative look at the rest of the world. It’s a terroir-driven list without talking too much about rocks,’ adds Ilsley.
What’s great about Soho and its environs, particularly now the area has been pedestrianised and has extra covers, is that you don’t have to trek halfway across London to drink well. That has, of course, always been the case here, but post- pandemic (we hope) it’s even more welcome.