Soho: one of the most well-trodden square miles of central London, sought out for atmospheric cobbled streets by day and busy bars by night. And, for its almost incomprehensibly large number of restaurants.
When Samuel Johnson said that a man who is tired of London is tired of life, he could have spoken just for Soho and its food. Head west out of Chinatown or north from Piccadilly and in under two minutes you’ll have stumbled across some form of eatery (though beware that queues for some restaurants are common and can last for longer than hunger might allow).
This guide is a round-up of personal favourites and a number of recommendation from heartily-fed friends, and will provide you with plenty of fantastic entry points to the Soho food scene.
Andrew Edmunds was first recommended to me as one of the last places to discover the louche Soho of yore. It is, without question, one of the square mile’s most romantic restaurants with a menu that is proudly old world British (roast grouse, hake and chips etc.) and a surprisingly wide-ranging wine list.
If one restaurant could epitomise Soho’s journey through time it would be Quo Vadis. Once a brothel (and, it claims, home to Karl Marx), now a beautifully revived restaurant and private members club. A restaurant critic friend named chef Jeremy Lee one of the ‘faces’ of Soho – someone those in the know should know.
The Gay Hussar
For those who like old school and to feel like they are dining in the seats of politicians of old, try Hungarian restaurant The Gay Hussar. It’s been a Soho institution for more than 50 years and does a very good goulash. It also has a remarkably affordable pre-theatre menu of two courses for £14.95.
The Ivy Soho Brasserie
Not, strictly speaking, ‘old’ (it opened in 2016), but The Ivy Soho Brasserie is a faithful representation of its legendary sister restaurant in nearby Covent Garden, which opened in 1917. It has touches of Soho throughout with a clash of pop and classic art decorating the walls. The food is nicely-made British fare and word is that it can get quite rowdy on Friday and Saturday nights.
L’Escargot allows dogs. It allows you to book tables. And, most importantly, it allows you to linger in its panelled environs with barely a disturbance. Unsurprisingly, the house special is snails (six for £15 – it was, the menu claims, the first place in the UK to serve them) but it also has a run of good French classics and a mightily reasonable wine list.
Never not packed (patience is a virtue on the reservation front), Palomar has turned shish kebabs and fattoush salads into something modern and often surprising. Even those suspicious of octopus would be well-advised to try its ‘josperised’ (ask the waiting staff) version. Sit up at the bar or in the leather banquette-lined restaurant at the back.
The house udon noodles at Koya are made on-site each morning, the dough having been kneaded by foot in the traditional Japanese way. The daily menu is chalked up on a blackboard and made up on the day by chef Shuko Oda from ingredients delivered that morning, but there’s a regular run of cold and hot bowls of slurp-worthy udon too.
The second outpost of Hackney’s Rawduck team, Ducksoup specialises in using whatever’s seasonal and serving it with natural wines. The little restaurant does feel a bit east London for Soho but the menu is constantly intriguing with ingredients such as cod cheeks and blistered cabbage. The team are also known for their fermented foods and pickles if you want something to really get the tastebuds tingling.
You may have to bear the wait to eat at Hoppers but it is worth it (and they do let you go for a drink in the meantime). The extremely Instagrammable hoppers – a type of Sri Lankan pancake made from coconut milk and rice flour – are as good as they look. If you can’t choose – or aren’t sure what half the names mean – try the ‘feast’ menu for tastes of all sorts of Tamil/Sri Lankan specialities.
Bao was at the head of the charge for trendy Taiwanese bao buns in London having started as a roving stall. Don’t be put off by some of the more bizarre menu listings (I can’t say I’ve tried the pig’s blood cake or trotter nuggets), the pillowy steamed bao are unctuous and well-filled – the fried chicken and lamb shoulder are recommended.
You’ll find Yalla Yalla down a tiny alley and opposite a couple of Soho’s less prepossessing doorways. Inside it is light, bright, and elbow-to-elbow with tables. There are just 28 seats. If there’s space, settle in for quick and reasonably priced Lebanese street food. A spread just from the mezze menu makes a decent meal. If there isn’t space, try its bigger second branch just north of Oxford Circus.
This place is open until helpfully late if you’re in need of a decent midnight burrito or a churros fix. It’s not necessarily the most refined Mexican food but it’s colourful and buzzy and serves up damn good margheritas.
Soho’s best place for pizza has two outposts, one on Dean Street and one on Kingly Court. It started life as a street food stall run by brothers Thom and James Elliot out of the back of a Piaggio Apé they bought in Naples. No Hawaiian toppings here. Just generously covered and decently sized Italian-style pizzas and a guest pizza that changes by the month.
Babaji serves up pide, the Turkish answer to pizza. The restaurant is one of Alan Yau’s creations, the man who gave us Wagamama, Hakkasan and Yauatcha (see below for more on that one), and with an attractive blue and white tile interior, decent hummus and pide around the £10 mark, it’s a reliable stop.
The only outpost of this Milanese pizzeria and bakery in London, Princi sells – like any good Italian pizza shop – by the slice as well as in the round. You have to feel reasonably strong to deal with the hectic self-service set up but it does also have a calmer table service section if you’re in less of a rush.
Belgian beers and roast chicken are an easy win and Belgo, which opened its first branch in Chalk Farm back in 1992, do both very well. They have 62 Belgian brews on their list, and even beer cocktails. If you fancy something messier, the other house speciality is moules frites which come in big traditional buckets with plenty of garlic.
A solid choice for quick and good quality French bistro food. The mains are a little more expensive than many Soho stops – they range from £13.90 to £17.90 – but the portions are generous and few say that they didn’t think the price was worth it. The wine list is also very good.
Bocca di Lupo
A treat of an Italian with a menu of regional plates – it even tells you exactly where they come from. You can either order small or large: an array of arancini balls and artichoke fritti, or try the excellent vongole. A good wine list and you can also ‘BYO Truffles’, though I admit I’ve never taken up this kind offer.
It’s smoky and hot in Temper, both food and atmosphere. All the meat (goat, fish, beef) is cooked over an open fire in the middle of the restaurant before being served to you in Mexican-style on flatbreads or tortillas. Not one for the vegetarians (chef and owner Neil Rankin’s restaurants are renowned for their carnivorous menus), this place has a list of taco toppings that include beef fat and aged cheeseburger. All washed down with mezcal as you breathe in the wonderful barbecue aromas.
Strictly speaking Sakagura is just outside Soho but having just come back from Japan, it was recommended as one of the best places in London to find a proper Japanese-style izakaya (a bar where food is also served). The sake menu is extensive – it helps, no doubt, that Sakagura is owned by a sake brewery – the bento boxes are meticulous and the donburi is filling and delicious.
The Duck & Rice
An intriguing mix of British pub and Chinese food right in the middle of Soho. If you like your chop suey washed down with beer then this is the place. The dishes are more refined versions of what you always hope to find in your local Chinese takeaway – tasty, sticky and fun to manoeuvre with chopsticks, which in a pub atmosphere seems fine to make a bit of a mess of.
New kids on the block
We first headed to Kricket, the permanent home of the Brixton pop-up, for the adventurous Eastern-spiced cocktail list. It turns out the menu, served tapas-style, is equally intriguing. An unusual mix of British ingredients (wood pigeon) and Indian flavours (tamarind and curry leaves). Be warned that dinner reservations are for four or more only. If you can, sit at the bar to watch the kitchen at work.
Another place where it’s worth trying to get a place at the bar is Kiln, which opened a year ago. Barbecued Thai street food is the vibe and the speciality is the claypot of glass noodles with Tamworth pork belly but there’s plenty more to pig out on. Try the small but succulent aged lamb skewers to start. About six plates makes a good supper for two. For oenophiles, the wine list includes some orange wine options.
Xu was opened in June this year from the team at Bao. This time it’s less buns and more grown up Taiwanese food with things like char sui pork collar and bak kwa – a kind of Taiwanese jerky. Overall it’s an elegant experience with tables separated by curtains and two bookable mahjong rooms.
Another summer 2017 opening, Dum has a satisfyingly simple menu of three kinds of biryani and a list of daily specials. Soho office workers have quickly cottoned onto the £5 biryani lunches. If you’re there in the evening, follow your biryani with a saffron-infused whisky for a warming night cap.
Ham Yard Hotel
There’s something about going to a hotel for afternoon tea that seems a tad decadent and very English. And Ham Yard’s Orangery is a great place to go for one. It also has a colourful Kit Kemp designed restaurant that dishes out uppercrust versions of favourites such as schnitzel and shepherd’s pie.
For fancy dim sum and Chinese/pan-Asian food, Yauatcha is your place. It’s all square white plates, bamboo boxes and efficient service. The dim sum is light, delicious and there’s plenty to choose from (including such wonders as roast duck and pumpkin puffs). For meat lovers, the jasmine tea smoked ribs come highly recommended.
Social Eating House
The exposed brick walls and copper ceilings of Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton’s Soho venture gives it a lower key feel than a glance at the menu might suggest. As you would expect from an Atherton restaurant it’s meticulous stuff: confit pork belly, wagyu beef and roasted foie gras. It’s a place to sit and savour what’s served up to you.
Beautifully cooked Spanish tapas (with the occasional Italian twist thrown in), mostly emanating from a grill in the open plan kitchen. If there’s a space, it’s a nice place to head to for a sophisticated drink (the negronis are very good) and snack. The charcuterie is delicious and high leather cushioned stools are great for people watching from too.
NOPI has some of the Ottolenghi trademarks – heaped up displays of salads, plenty of exotic spices – but less deli style and with an Asian-inspired twist to the menu. The marble top tables and white tiled walls lend a cool, calm ambience – it’s a great spot for a smart lunch or brunch. The list of small plates has enough aubergine options to keep Ottolenghi aficionados happy.