x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Soho is the London neighbourhood with the bohemian buzz

My kind of place: London resident Sakhr Al-Makhadhi offers his guide to Soho, a distinctive district in the centre of the capital.

London, England, UK --- Carnaby Street --- Image by © Tony Latham/LOOP IMAGES/Loop Images/Corbis *** Local Caption *** WK23AU-TR-MKOP-SOHO.jpg
London, England, UK --- Carnaby Street --- Image by © Tony Latham/LOOP IMAGES/Loop Images/Corbis *** Local Caption *** WK23AU-TR-MKOP-SOHO.jpg

Why Soho?

For centuries, this failed central London neighbourhood was better known as a den of vice and criminality. Avoided by locals and ignored by tourists, it's spent the last decade reinventing itself as a foodie hot spot. But gentrification doesn't mean that Soho has abandoned its bohemian roots entirely. These streets were once the most musical in London. Denmark Street is more commonly known as Tin Pan Alley because of the incredible number of shops selling musical instruments along this 100-metre strip. Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones recorded here, and the Sex Pistols lived above No 6. Soho is also home to the UK's first jazz club and what is thought to have been Europe's first rock club.

Soho is now populated by media types: film production agencies, public relations and publishing houses. They give these streets an authentic London buzz, despite being surrounded by the tourist traps of Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Regent Street and Oxford Street.

A comfortable bed

The 2004 opening of the Soho Hotel (www.sohohotel.com; 0044 20 7559 3000; doubles from £290 [Dh1,655] including taxes) symbolised the neighbourhood's rebirth. Each room is individually designed and has floor-to-ceiling windows. Downstairs, you might catch a glimpse of a Hollywood star sitting in one of the alcoves or going into one of their basement screening rooms for the press launch of a film. On Sundays, the mini-cinemas, with their individual leather armchairs, open to the public. Afternoon tea plus a classic movie costs £35 (Dh200).

Find your feet

Start at the last remaining green space, Soho Square. From here, walk down Frith Street and look up to the first-floor window above Bar Italia. This is where John Logie Baird first demonstrated television. Wardour Street, which runs parallel, is home to the new food scene. Old Compton Street, which intersects Frith, is home to Soho's bars. The farther west you head, the more upmarket it becomes, until you hit Carnaby Street.

Meet the locals

Berwick Street market is one of the last remnants of the old Soho. The colourful street market, staffed by cockney stallholders, serves residents of the neighbourhood's council estate. It still feels rough around the edges, but, in recent years, trendy food trucks have been tacked on to the market, making for an odd juxtaposition. The market is also home to Flat White, the Kiwi cafe that is generally accepted to have started London's coffee trend when it opened in 2005. The place is packed with a mix of antipodeans and Soho residents, but it can get crowded. Their sister cafe, Milkbar, has a more relaxed vibe.

Book a table

When the owners of private members' club Soho House took over the legendary Electric Cinema in Portobello Road, the attention-grabber was the food, not the films. The Electric Diner brought in Brendan Sodikoff, the chef behind acclaimed Chicago restaurant Au Cheval. Its signature dish, French fries topped with a fried egg and mornay sauce, crossed the Atlantic with him. Now they've brought the concept back with the Soho Diner (www.sohodiner.com; 0044 20 7734 5656; meals for two from £60 [Dh342]). The mustard-fried burgers are some of the best in London (a "single" has two patties; a "double" has three), and the flat-iron chicken in garlic sauce is just as memorable.

The New York dive bar Spuntino (www.spuntino.co.uk; meals for two from £30, Dh171) gets very busy, but is worth the wait. Its tapas-style comfort food isn't the most filling, but pays homage to Soho's down-to-earth past with options like egg and soldiers, and macaroni and cheese.

When Milan's most popular bakery wanted to open its first branch outside of the city, it chose Soho. Staffed by Italians, Princi's pizza slices (www.princi.co.uk; 0044 20 7478 8888; meal for two around £15 [Dh86]) are always fresh out the oven. The focaccia sandwiches are a popular lunchtime choice for the office crowd. If you don't fancy trying to work out how the chaotic self-service bar works, there's a table-service Princi pizzeria next door.

Shopper's paradise

Carnaby Street made its name as the place that set the trends for both mods and rockers during the Swinging 60s. The pedestrianised road is lined with independent boutiques, and runs from the mock-Tudor department store Liberty in the north, down to Regent Street in the south. Although it may feel more like a high street than in the rebellious era of The Beatles, Carnaby is still the soul of the western half of Soho.

What to avoid

The alleyways of disrepute (around the junction of Rupert Street and Brewer Street) are a reminder of Soho's bad old days. If you're just walking through, you're unlikely to be hassled, but these narrow streets are best avoided after dark.

Don't miss

Hidden away on a backstreet, you wouldn't expect to see queues out of the door at a neighbourhood gelateria. But Gelupo (www.gelupo.com; 0044 20 7287 5555) is different. Since it opened in 2010, it has picked up award after award. No one in London has come close to stealing chef Jacob Kennedy's crown (he also runs the acclaimed Bocca di Lupo restaurant opposite). Don't expect chocolate and vanilla, though. Kennedy is known for his eyebrow-raising concoctions. For the Queen's Diamond Jubilee last year, he created a coronation chicken flavour. Current options include pine nut and fennel seed, as well as their signature ricotta, coffee and honey combination.

Go there

Return flights from Abu Dhabi to London on Etihad (www.etihad.com) start at Dh3,255 return including taxes; the flight takes six and a half hours.

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