No. 9 Old Compton Street—in the bottom-right corner of London’s Soho—has no sign above the door, but it’s pretty hard to miss. A pair of blue-and-pink neon eyes peer from a rectangular-shaped window; underneath, a blobby ’70s typeface spells out ADULT VIDEO and PEEP SHOW. So, what do you find when you go through the door marked COME and down stairs so dimly lit that you will be pawing at the walls for support? Some kind of depraved sex dungeon? One of Soho’s famous clip joints, where punters are strong-armed into paying exorbitant prices for watered-down drinks?
No. Eventually you emerge squinting into La Bodega Negra (16 Moor St.; 44-20/7758-4100; labodeganegra.com), Serge Becker's (the Box, Miss Lily’s) first restaurant in the U.K. If you’d been looking for London’s finest Mexican food, then you’re in luck. If you had other, less-salubrious pleasures in mind, then you might be a bit miffed.
La Bodega Negra sums up modern Soho perfectly. The area was once the most louche, grubby, vibrant, and naughty corner of London. It was the city’s main red-light district, but this tiny warren of alleys—scarcely one square mile—was also home to artists, magazine editors, and Britain’s most acclaimed filmmakers. It had the best bars, terrific record shops, and really appalling restaurants. Then, about five years ago, almost imperceptibly at first, something started to change: Landmark venues closed down, luxury apartments sprang up, the restaurants began to serve edible, even delicious, food. It was becoming gentrified.
“Being in Soho has become a much blander experience,” says Colin Vaines, a film producer whose credits include Gangs of New York and My Week with Marilyn. Vaines first worked in Soho in 1977 and has lived in the neighborhood since 1992. “There was always this bohemian vibe and all these strange characters around. In the ’90s, I’d go out at 7:30 at night and come back at 7:30 in the morning and I’d probably gone about 100 yards. There were just so many people to see, so many illegal drinking dens—you never knew who you were going to meet, what you were going to meet, and, yes, it was all dodgy.”
Soho has a history like nowhere else in London, or anywhere in the world, for that matter. Perhaps the best way to appreciate it is to keep your eyes peeled for English Heritage's circular blue plaques, which are affixed to buildings of historical significance all over the country, but are especially abundant in Soho. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived and composed on Frith Street, while the first demonstration of television would, centuries later, be given next door by John Logie Baird; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels bashed out the principles for the Communist Manifesto above a pub on Great Windmill Street; the Who’s drummer Keith Moon is honored by a plaque above the old Marquee Club on Wardour Street.
That Soho has changed is inarguable: A stroll through its attractive soot-stained Georgian-era streets is now always accompanied by the relentless rattle and thud of modern construction. Gaping holes appear in the skyline seemingly overnight. The debate—and it has become a very heated one—is whether the area is being improved or destroyed, developed or dismembered. When Madame Jojo’s, a legendary burlesque bar, was closed down in November 2014, some local residents, led by the singer Tim Arnold, began a campaign called Save Soho (savesoho.com). The group quickly attracted some high-profile supporters, including actor Benedict Cumberbatch and polymath Stephen Fry. Their main targets were Westminster City Council, the local authority that oversees Soho, and a pair of landlords—Soho Estates and Shaftesbury—which own many of the buildings in the area.
“It’s essentially becoming a rich person’s playground,” says Vaines, a founding member of Save Soho. “There’s a sense of a Disney-fication of Soho.”
It is, however, too simplistic to portray money-grabbing landlords as the problem. And Soho may have become sanitized, but it still remains a thrilling and unique place. The main draw these days is restaurants and the area has a breadth of dining options that cannot be matched anywhere in London: newcomers such as BAO (Taiwanese- style buns) (53 Lexington St.; baolondon.com), the Duck and Rice (chop suey) (90 Berwick St.; 44- 20/3327-7888; theduckandrice.com), and Hoppers (Sri Lankan street food) (49 Frith St.) jostle elbow to elbow alongside institutions such as Maison Bertaux (28 Greek St.; 44-20/7437-6007; maisonbertaux.com), Bar Italia (22 Frith St.; 44-20/7437- 4520; baritaliasoho.co.uk), and Quo Vadis (26–29 Dean St.; 44-20/7437-9585; quovadissoho.co.uk).
“Soho has gotten cleaner and a lot safer, and that’s mostly for the best,” says Eddie Hart, who, with his brother Sam, owns the tapas bar Barrafina (54 Frith St.; 44-20/7440-1456; barrafina.co.uk) and Quo Vadis in Soho. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh god, where are the prostitutes? Where are the clip joints?’ But you need to think about whether those girls wanted to be there in the first place, whether they’d been smuggled into the country and hooked on drugs.”
Right now—though for how long who knows—Soho still has something for everybody: restaurants, strip clubs, restaurants made to look like strip clubs. “We all love the idea of seedy glamour,” Hart continues, “but it happens all over the world that great places disappear. You just have to hope that other great places will spring up in their place.”
Photo Credits: Alexander Spacher; Shomos Uddin / Getty Images