London: a cultural pub crawl of Soho

by Shipscook

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.

Shipscook

I'm a middle aged bloke, married with one daughter at university and a bunch of like minded middle aged pals. A former editor, copy writer and corporate PR manager, I'm now determined to grow old disgracefully getting around all of those places that I should have been to as a student, but never had enough cash for until today. I like art, culture, food and rock n roll. I have been around the globe, swam with dolphins, watched the Sun set and rise over Uluru, been caged with wolves, kissed by a super model and licked by a lion. Hear me roar!

I have been appointed by the Simonseeks editorial team as a community moderator, to review and rate guides on a regular basis.