London: a cultural pub crawl of Soho

By Simon Ball, a Travel Enthusiast

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Follow me as I walk in the footsteps of London's cultural and political elite for a stagger around Soho's legendary drinking shops and a visit to a history-making restaurant

London's Soho is right at the heart of the UK's cultural life. More bohemian than neighbouring Mayfair or Bloomsbury it's a magnet for politicians, artists, actors, writers and musicians. From Oxford Street to Chinatown, Soho's eclectic drinking shops and restaurants have welcomed everyone from Charles Dickens to Keith Moon and even Tony Blair! So, without further ado, let's go have a drink. (Budget for £3.50 to £5 per drink.)

Starting in Dean Street, we pass Quo Vadis, the restaurant that now occupies Karl Marx’s former home, and then the members-only celebrity hangout The Groucho Club. Our first stop is The French House (49 Dean Street; 020 7437 2799; www.frenchhousesoho.com).

According to Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant this is his "favourite bar in the world". During WWII General de Gaulle and the Free French adopted the York Minster (as it was then known), prompting the acquisition of its present name. Officially renamed in 1985, it’s no surprise that it serves more Ricard than any other British outlet.

Wall space is crammed with former patron’s memorabilia, including original cartoons by the London Evening Standard’s Jak, complete with printer’s marks. Former guests include painter Francis Bacon, Oliver Reed and Guns and Roses. Don’t order a pint though, beer only comes in halves, save for the year’s first pint, traditionally drawn on 1 April by Madness singer Suggs. It’s a family thing; his mother was a barmaid here.

Going Dutch

On the borders of Chinatown our next boozer is De Hems (11 Macclesfield Street). Originally called the Macclesfield, it was leased to a Dutch sea captain known as ‘Papa’ de Hem. It soon became a haven for Dutch sailors and the wartime headquarters of the Dutch resistance.

Fruit flavoured pints like Fruli (strawberry) and Bellevue Kriek (cherry) are on tap along with more familiar Dutch and Belgian brews like Grolsch. There is a pretty extensive selection of the more exotic low country bottled beers, like Kwak while the menu features delicacies like bitterballen (Dutch meatballs) and frikandellan (deep fried sausage).

It gets pretty stuffed, but most casual visitors don’t know about the bar upstairs in the Oyster Room, where we found a table. The walls used to be plastered with oyster shells. Only a few patches survive thanks partly to the Who’s Keith Moon, who reputedly hammered them with an empty Champagne bottle. A popular music business hang out in the 1960s, it was here that Alan Price met Georgie Fame, while Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldman and spy Kim Philby propped up the bar.    

Next stop is The Coach and Horses (28 Greek Street; 08721 077 077; www.coachandhorsessoho.co.uk). Inside you might imagine that you have gone back in time to 1975, what with the backlit signs for best forgotten beers like Double Diamond, fortunately Fuller’s London Pride can be had from the bar. If you fancy a snack try the home mad pork scratchings the size of nachos (£2.50) or the Scotch eggs (£3.00) they are delicious.

The Coach had its interior reproduced on the Old Vic stage for Keith Waterhouse’s play Jeffery Bernard is Unwell - about the infamous Spectator columnist who regularly imbibed here. On stage Bernard was played by Peter O’Toole, himself a regular along with former Dr Who Tom Baker and painter Lucien Freud. The satirical magazine Private Eye holds its fortnightly lunches in the upstairs restaurant.

Our final pint of Hobgoblin bitter is downed at The Pillars of Hercules (7 Greek Street). The present building dates from 1910 but the Pillars has been a pub since 1733. It's mentioned in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Mannette Passage to its side is named after the book’s Dr Manette.  More recent literary customers include Martin Amis and Clive James who wrote most of At the Pillars of Hercules here. 

Where to eat

The night ends at The Gay Hussar (2 Greek Street; 020 7437 0973; www.gayhussar.co.uk/index.asp). It’s said that Hussar founder, Victor Sassie, spied for MI6 while training as a chef in Budapest. Whether this is true or not the Hussar has been a hotbed of political intrigue since opening in 1953. Autographed caricatures on the wall bear witness to its past as the Labour Party’s unofficial canteen. Here Michael Foot celebrated his 90th birthday and, legend has it, Tony Blair was persuaded to run for the party leadership.

Whatever its political heritage, it is London’s best Hungarian restaurant. I’d recommend the herring in soured cream or the smoked Hungarian sausage to start, while the smoked goose with scholet (a bean paste) and red cabbage makes a sublime main. Our meal for four with wine, coffee and brandies came to £180 including service. Make sure you book to avoid disappointment.

Where to stay

As a Londoner I rarely need to stay in a hotel but the Premier Inn Euston is only a few stops on the tube from Tottenham Court Road. It offers a good standard of budget accommodation and is very handy for Euston, Kings Cross and St Pancras stations.

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More information on London: a cultural pub crawl of Soho :

Author:
Simon Ball
Traveller type:
Travel Enthusiast
Guide rating:
5
Average: 5 (2 votes)
Total views:
1667
First uploaded:
12 April 2010
Last updated:
4 years 16 weeks 4 days 8 hours 57 min 50 sec ago
Destinations featured:
Trip types:
Cultural, Food and Drink, Nightlife
Budget level:
Expensive
Free tags / Keywords:
pubs, literature, theatre, artists, musicians, politics, journalists, satire, rock n roll

Simon recommends

Hotels

Price from Rating
(out of 5)
1. Premier Inn Euston
£80
N/A

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Community comments (5)

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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Excellent guide. Very insightful and helpful.
Thank you.

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Rating:
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1 of 1 people found the following comment helpful.

What a great theme for a guide! Thank you for taking us on an enjoyable crawl around Soho, Simon and for cramming so many interesting facts in about each recommendation – I love the image you have created of Keith Moon hammering oyster shells with a Champagne bottle (whether this is true or not). Your food and drink recommendations are always the strongest elements in your guides on the site and your passion about eating and drinking really shines through in this.

One small point...please watch your spelling of its/it’s – it’s should only be used to shorten it is. I look forward to reading your next guide.

What do other readers think of this guide? Can you add any other recommendations? Can you recommend a good hotel in Soho? Thanks.

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Dear Cathy,

As a keen traveller,I am a frequent visitor to Simonseeks. Before reading a post, I read the editorial comment first to see if the post is likely to contain the kind of information that I require.

I find your editorial comments, unlike those of some of the other editors on here, are usually constructive and extremely informative. I was extremely disappointed on this occasion therefore, to see your inclusion of the "small point"......

I did find this remark a little patronising and question the value of it, as I am certain that everyone over the age of 5 would know when to use an apostrophe. You are also incorrect I think, "it's" is not just a shortened form of it is. "It's" is also used to demonstrate possession as in those were it's features. In any case as I believe I have said on here before readers do not enjoy reading this kind of feedback, surely the editor's role is to correct typos of this nature and any feedback of a technical nature should be given discretely to the author and not published.

Kind regards

QueeneMab

Cheers Cathy

As you can imagine the problem with Soho is what not to include, my favourite missing fact was about Private Eye's £5 bounty for each spotting of Roy Hattersley in the Gay Hussar, now sadly discontinued. I think they had to pay out too often!

Simon

The Gay Hussar has a Dining Club, join and you get a handsome 20% off your bill, plus collect ten visit stamps and you get a free bottle of house champagne see http://www.gayhussar.co.uk/index.asp for details