Hospitality Trends – The Latest in Hospitality Industry News, Opinion & Trends

Soho: The Rebirth of Cool

 Breaking News
January 31
20:23 2017

(Drinking Trends) Soho. There are few place-names more evocative. Synonymous with nightlife, home to the high-life, peopled by low-lifes; the gristly, pulsating heart of London. Bordered by the bookshops of Charing Cross Road, the high-street horror of Oxford St, the genteel curve of Regent Street, and the storied theatres of Shaftesbury Avenue, Soho has always been a domain unto herself. From the 60’s vibe of Carnaby St, to the peep-show voyeurism of Brewer St, to the Dean St media brigade, and the gay abandon of Old Compton St, Soho has long provided fertile soil for disruptive cultural influences. Here upstarts and outliers sprout like weeds through the cracked pavements of the Establishment. Often to blossom briefly and wither with the passing season, but many of the most enduring global movements in food, drinks, music, fashion and sexual politics took deep roots in Soho before propagating across the planet, changing the path of modern life forever.

french-house-1

Legendary Soho Boozer, The French House.  Image: Wikipedia.org

However, there has long been a deficit in the modern drinking culture of Soho. You’ll find many of London’s finest old boozers here (both pubs and people), and there’ll never be any shortage of Soho dive bars, tourist traps, nor gentlemen’s clubs primed to fleece their eager patrons. Meanwhile, Gerry’s Wine & Spirits, Amathus Soho, Milroy’s and The Vintage House is quite possibly the world’s best nexus of off-licenses. But Soho came quite late to the game in terms of high-end cocktail bars. While the East End steamed ahead with innovative and exciting independent bars, Soho dragged her heels, hamstrung by restrictive licensing policies. Bars closed rather than opened. New licenses remain incredibly elusive. World-class cocktail bars were the exception rather than the rule. Back in the day

But Soho came quite late to the game in terms of high-end cocktail bars. While the East End steamed ahead with innovative and exciting independent bars, Soho dragged her heels, hamstrung by restrictive licensing policies. Bars closed rather than opened. New licenses remain incredibly elusive. World-class cocktail bars were the exception rather than the rule. Back in the day LAB was at the forefront of the cocktail revolution, and while it always remained fun, it faded over the years by eschewing innovation for the passionfruit-tinged security blanket of the familiar. The Player similarly fell from atop the Martini-tower and closed its doors. Meanwhile, members’ clubs such as Quo Vadis occasionally attained greatness, Mark’s Bar at Hix championed quality British ingredients, while MASH welcomed meat-lovers into her voluptuous depths with stunning whiskey cocktails. Milk & Honey went through cycles of magnificence and mediocrity, while a Blind Pig pulled up alongside to bolster the quality Poland St offering. And when all was said and done, weary bar-staff would recharge in the basement of El Camion under the knowing eye of Dick Bradsell.

The Don of Soho Bartenders, Dick Bradsell. Image: Dick Clarke

The Doyen of Soho Bartenders, Dick Bradsell.   Image: Peter Clarke

Nearby, the Chinatown offerings of Experimental Cocktail Club and Opium offered quality drinking experiences to those brave enough to surmount sniffy door staff or vertiginous stairs, respectively. And of course, the many iterations of London Cocktail Club peppered the outskirts of Soho with party vibes and good times. But there remained the inescapable feeling that Soho herself was gathering moss, while the rest of London gathered garlands.

Now however, there is a distinct wind of change in the air, heralded by the openings of Tony Conigliaro’s excellent Bar Termini, and the twin wine and cocktail offering of 68 & Boston. Then we had the surprise opening of Milroy’s new whisky bar, beefing up the unparalleld off-license presence in Soho. What’s more, late 2016 saw two more independent, customer-driven bars set up shop in Soho. Taking over the former LAB site, Bar Swift is an amazing collaboration between two power couples; the Nightjar & Oriole’s Edmund Weil and Rosie Stimpson; and NYC/LDN cocktail couple Bobby Hiddleston and Mia Johansson. Meanwhile, over in Kingly Court, Ferdie Ahmed of Barrio renown and Sovereign Loss team, Chris Dennis & Joseph St Clair-Ford have teamed up to bring Soho heritage and scandal back to life with Disrepute.

soho

The Bar Swift team (l to r): Edmund Weil, Rosie Stimpson, Mia Johansson and Bobby Hiddleston. Image: Addie Chinn

Drinking Trends spoke with Mia Johansson (Bar Swift) and Chris Dennis (Disrepute) to understand what drives their passion for Soho drinking culture.

What are your first memories of Soho drinking?

MJ: My first memories of Soho consists of being a little bit overwhelmed by Oxford Circus and Regent St, but when my friend Mario showed me around all these tiny little streets that hid something amazing and new behind every corner I felt like I was in a little town of its own. I wanted to taste all the flavours and see all the colours. Within just a few months I had made friends throughout Soho, and not only bartenders but also the friendly baristas, the stunning doormen that waved as I walked to the night-bus, or the guys that handed out papers at Oxford Street. It was very much a feeling of belonging to the neighbourhood.

CD: When I first moved to London, we used to hang out in Soho regularly, probably because we didn’t know any better, but also because there was still a sense of getting lost and finding yourself at a Sam Smiths. East London hadn’t really happened yet so it became pretty organic to meet up centrally. Gradually when we started to know those winding streets a little better, we would go for pints at the Endurance on Berwick Street and hang out at the Intrepid Fox.

Team Disrepute: (lto r) Joe St Clair-Ford, Ani Kyriacou, Chris Dennis, Ferdie Ahmed

Team Disrepute: (l to r) Joe St Clair-Ford, Ani Kyriacou, Chris Dennis, Ferdie Ahmed. Image: James North Photography

What are you most looking forward to with your new Soho venture?

MJ: I’m very much looking forward to belonging and adding to that neighbourhood feeling. Soho is such an original and historic space and it feels amazing that we are becoming part of it. I look forward to seeing some of our staff that have never worked in Soho experience having all flavours and countries on your doorstep, it is a true luxury.

CD: It’s a pleasure and an honour, really to work in a part of this fair city that everyone passes through, from tourists to residents and everyone in between. Because of this, we are in a way, partially responsible for many introductions to London bar culture. Helping weave the new tapestry of drinking in Soho is certainly something I’m relishing.

Soho is steeped in drinking culture, full of history and characters, all underpinned with an air of charming dodginess. What are you hoping to add to the Soho scene?

CD: Our original business plan was specifically based on the history of the venue itself and Carnaby St as an area. So, rather than creating some completely new, we’re resurrecting the stories that have already taken place in a new way, drawing on the original elements that helped cement that air of ‘dodginess’ and letting stories of Soho characters inspire the cocktails on our list. In a sense, it’s our homage to the area, and that period. I hope that we’re taking these stories and adding something contemporary, in order to create an up-to-date offering inspired by the place itself.

What has been the most surprising aspect of opening an independent bar in Soho?

MJ: Most surprising part must have been to see how people are much more educated about what they want to drink. People are more in the know of what we do now, what they prefer and there are no short-cuts or excuses. Which means you need to be on your game, always. Very hard but very rewarding.

CD: I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the variety of clientele and the friendliness of the Soho community. It’s been a great experience finding our place among great neighbours. Busy Sunday trade, in particular, has been a great surprise and we’re developing a long list of regulars at the end of the week.

soho

Image by Gregg Tavares via Flickr

From Drinking Trends’ point of view, it’s enormously heartening to see Soho drinking culture adapt, evolve and thrive, despite regular reports of its demise. It’s a testament to the rebel spirit that pulses through the veins of the gloriously idiosyncratic old girl. That’s Soho for you; the minute you think you know her, that you’ve sussed what makes her tick, she flits off in the least expected direction, leaving trails of perfume in her wake, daring you to follow.

At DrinkingTrends.com when we see essential drinks news we want the world to know, so we have shared it here for your reading pleasure. Subscribe here to stay up to date with the latest drinks news.

Industry Expert

Charlie McCarthy

Charlie McCarthy

A seasoned veteran of the international drinks scene, our Managing Editor, has spent the last decade opening new venues across the globe, consulting for key drinks industry groups, running A-list parties, and advising major spirit and beverage brands. Charlie is a respected figure in on-line, televised and print media for the global drinks industry. If it involves making drinks, chatting about drinks, thinking about drinks, writing about drinking, or drinking drinks, Charlie has been 'biting that bullet' since 2005.

Related Articles

Subscribe to Hospitality Trends

Search Hospitality Trends

Sidebar Medium Rectangle

Sidebar Medium Rectangle

Sidebar Medium Rectangle

Sidebar Skyscraper

Sidebar Medium Rectangle

Sidebar Medium Rectangle – visible if space

Sidebar Medium Rectangle – visible if space

Sidebar Skyscraper – visible if space

Sidebar Medium Rectangle – visible if space

Sidebar Skyscraper – visible if space

Sidebar Skyscraper – visible if space

Sidebar Skyscraper – visible if space

Sidebar Skyscraper – visible if space

Sidebar Medium Rectangle – visible if space

Sidebar Skyscraper – visible if space