Let’s face it, Soho is not what it used to be. Once a seedy, dirty (in all sense of the word) square mile sandwiched between Mayfair and Covent Garden, it was a mecca for the weird, wonderful and often hopeless. Little of old Soho remains; undergoing a vast makeover and construction drive to clean up the area, some would say that it has become sanitary and a mature playground where pricy excess and frivolity are seen as the norm. Yes, it has lost a little of its gritty soul – and whilst Old Compton Street has become something of a tourist strip – there are plenty of old world and new world Soho spaces to enjoy some gastronomic and alcoholic delights in the famed neighbourhood.
I start with possibly the most renowned restaurant that the area offers; Andrew Edmunds. Opened in 1986 – the year of my birth also – by the namesake print shop owner next door, the restaurant is as old school as it gets. Nestled on Lexington Street, the Dickensian-style interior is relaxed, atmospheric and eludes an effortless style as a welcoming haven. Often referred to as the ‘chefs choice’ – meaning, that it is not unheard of to find Michelin starred or big-name chefs eating here for lunch or dinner. I have eaten here on many occasion, taking up space nearest the window with a singular candle burning atop an empty wine bottle. The menu, which changes daily, is made up of hearty yet fresh English dishes which do not disappoint in portion, with starters often averaging £7 and mains coming in around £15-20. However, the biggest draw here is the very extensive and incredibly reasonably priced wine list; as a friend says ‘Why would I keep wine in the cellar when I can come to Andrew Edmunds and raid his own?”. Indeed.
There is no denying that Soho House & Co has become one of the biggest ‘non-chain-chains’ in the world, having a host of restaurant names under their umbrella (from Dirty Burger to Chicken Shop, on top of Cafe Boheme and Cafe Monico). Their latest addition to Soho is Cecconi’s Pizza on Old Compton Street. With plenty of seating outside to watch the world go by, inside the cool and airy space can often feel a little empty however both the service and food is second to non. I have visited twice already, both on a weekday and within the same week to sample their £10 lunch deal (Monday-Friday, 12-4pm) which is a delightful steal with one pizzetta or pasta dish with a house beer, wine or soft drink included. On my first visit, I opted for carbonara which came authentic without cream accompanied by a glass of house white wine. Pleasently salty, the egg and fresh pasta combined to create a sauce like no other with pops of the crispy pancetta jumping out with joy at being cooked so eloquently. The wine was fresh, pleasant and entirely drinkable on a hot afternoon. On my second occasion, my four seasons pizzetta arrived with little applause – too thin yet abundant with fresh ingredients; the anchovies tasted as they had been caught that day. I was joined by a friend who was passing on his lunch break, who opted to join for the deal and succumbed to the spaghetti pomodoro that was generous in portion and electric in taste. Hats off to Cicconi’s for this gem.
Whilst I strongly believe the person or persons who created the ‘walk-in only’ system of eating deserves to be fed their food hell for a decade, it does cut down on the amount of no-shows that can cripple restaurants. One opening that has never wavered in popularity since its opening a little under 2 years ago is KILN. Specialising in Northern Thai dishes, cooked on barbecue or in a kiln, I have enjoyed the food immensely over the past year or so, although have opted for Sunday afternoon’s when it can be at its quietest. Many of the ingredients are sourced in Cornwall and the fish is delivered daily from that mornings catch. Try the smoked sausage with turmeric for a fragrant kick of the taste buds or the monkfish miang which is a revelation for flavours. Their menu changes regularly, however the joy of eating here never falters.
Recently causing a storm with aplomb, Italian Soho institution Lina Stores delicatessen announced that they were opening a restaurant specialising in fresh pasta that debuted 2 months ago. With a small menu of small plate ‘antipasti’ and a hearty selection of fresh ‘secondi’ pasta plates made from fresh pasta created on the day, each mouthful is heavenly what ever you choose. Starting with gorgonzola extra dolce DOP, pear and mustard with fruit chutney cleansed the palette after the electrifying spicy calabrian ‘Nduja and buffalo ricotta. I had been itching to try two pasta dishes, however opted for the pappardelle with rabbit ragu, with a hint of rosemary and taggiasca olives that was full of hearty flavours to nourish the soul whilst the olives gave the dish a little bite. It wanted to grab one of the stools outside, however this is prime Soho property and they apparently go fast. Yet my bar seat in view of the street allowed me to watch the world go by whilst sipping on a very reasonable Gavi di Gavi white wine. Inexpensive and with each bite or sip worth every penny, don’t walk past and see if you can nab a seat – there is always room for a wine and small plate at the least!
Did you know that the easiest way to remember the layout of Soho streets west to east is alphabetical? Dean, Frith, Greek…however the real taste of Catalonia in the heart of the area lies on – hang on, I don’t remember! However, just a quick check of the name Rambla, created by Victor Garvey, will leave you floating somewhere between the Mediterranean and the Thames – it is a pure joy and delight to eat here that even friends are asking for us to go back. I first walked past with my partner, who is Spanish, and we were excited at the menu however often dismissive of Spanish food in London as very few places get it right. I then tried this for a work dinner which lead me to return again and again. The flaming roasted chorizo is cooked at the table and accompanied by a moist yet delectable onion topped toast, and works perfectly with the incredibly moreish and perfectly cooked grilled octopus. Spanish favourites patatas bravas, padron peppers and spinach croquetas are all honest, as-you-would replications of those in any small bar nestled within a small Catalonian town. The biggest test? The braised oxtail canalones which I have not tried yet but they will have to live up to Granny-in-Law’s to stand the real taste of Catalan cooking.