Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. We all know the phrase, but few places in the world actually embody it like London’s legendary Soho neighborhood, the musical birthplace of the likes of The Rolling Stones, the Who, and David “Ziggy Stardust” Bowie. Maybe you’ve heard of them.
Today Soho is the story of gentrification. It’s better known for its fashion scene and upscale restaurants than the sex industry venues of Paul Raymond, The King of Soho, who became the neighborhood’s patriarch throughout the swinging (note the emphasis) 60s. (Though I was told one can still oblige in such services, if so inclined.)
Things have changed over the past half-century. Remarkably so. Making a name for itself in the Soho of 2016 is a food scene with more options available across the international culinary spectrum than you can shake a Wüsthof knife at. You’ve got Mexican tacos, Chinese dumplings, and Spanish jamón and tapas to accompany a gin-infused beef pie in a short jaunt around the neighborhood. In other words, any traveler to London needs to embrace their gluttonous side with an Eating London food tour.
Our meeting point was set outside the dominating yet elegant Palace Theatre just a few blocks from Leicester Square station. I had a few moments to take in my first glance of the neighborhood. It’s easy to imagine the debauchery that once took place here. Maybe it still does to an extent. The streets have a bit of grime to them, like they’ve seen a thing or two, and the pedestrian traffic is busy with locals. This is a neighborhood, not some spick-and-span tourist district full of clicking cameras and open maps. Eating London, I’d soon discover, is the least touristy, tourist thing anyone can do.
Our guide, a twenty-something London local whose wardrobe appeared to be inspired by the neighborhood’s roots, started us on a short stroll to La Bodega Negra, a Mexican tavern with a niche for serving small tacos. This wasn’t merely a Mexican rip-off with Brits working the kitchen. It was instantly clear, thanks to the Spanish orders bouncing off the walls, that La Bodega is without question Mexican. And indeed, the rows of tiny tacos coupled with the obligatory frozen margarita did not disappoint.
Next it was England’s turn to impress, and considering they had to follow Mexican eats, they didn’t do too shabby. The London Gin Club serves up authentic English gin and tonics to go with their unique take on a gin-infused beef pie. England might not come to the forefront of any so-called “foodie’s” imagination, but I’ve always rather enjoyed the simple stuff. That’s what people eat, right? Sometimes I just want the national dish in a cozy joint with all its booze lined up against the wall for me to ponder. In that, The London Gin Club is a worthy addition to the tour.
Things began to take a decidedly Spanish (specifically Catalonian) turn with stops at Pix Pintxos, a London incarnation of a favorite in Barcelona, and a bit of jamón with a glass of wine at Enrique Tomas, which is bound to give any lover of butchered pig something of a food-gasm. Look, I get where vegetarians are coming from. I’m not saying their complaints or issues are without merit. But dammit, there’s just something I love about walking around a butchery that would look like something out of a pig’s take on a horror film.
A visit is made even better when the staff is busy chopping away at the latest delivery for everyone to see and walking around to hand out samples to browsing customers. Now I understand how a Spaniard’s heart can ache when the doctor inevitably tells them they need to back off the jamón. (To be fair, the jamón is probably responsible for the aching.)
With some Mexican, English and Spanish cuisine under our belts (or more accurately, sinking into our stomachs), we ended with a dumpling stop in Chinatown. Opium Dim Sum & Cocktail Parlor takes you up four flights of stairs behind an emerald-green door to what’s described as Soho’s “hidden opium den.” Given, y’know… laws, opium itself is off the menu, but the diversity in dumplings, ranging from crab to Cantonese BBQ, more than makes up for the lack of illicit drugs. More interesting is their cocktail take on Chinese tea that may or may not leave you with a bit of a buzz.
Stepping back out onto the busy streets of Soho, the sun well past the horizon, groups of laughing friends already appeared to be contemplating the night’s mischief. Even our host, in her parting words, gave a friendly reminder that there’s plenty of fun for every palate with a bit of a wink and a nod implied. Perhaps the sins and hedonism of Paul Raymond’s Soho aren’t so far gone after all.