Jostling against each other like spirited siblings, Soho and Mayfair are as distinct as you could wish, yet you can stagger between them in moments
While Soho pulls you in with its concentration of eating establishments, sprawling across many styles and countries, with plenty to offer for those watching their budget, Mayfair is swish with a capital S, with plenty of places to make a large dent in your finances. Choose your style, or flit between the two…it makes for an intriguing contrast.
Soho’s rakish history drips with bon viveurs and dandies, booze-soaked bohemians and porn barons; this patchwork of streets has seen more debauchery in all its forms than perhaps any London neighbourhood. The term ‘Soho’ is said to have been coined in the 17th Century, a former hunting cry, and one used by the 1st Duke of Monmouth, James Scott, as he rallied his troops at the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685.
The energy and excitement emanates from the pavements. Despite much of ‘old Soho’ having been erased along with the sex workers that have largely been booted out, the gentrification of the area has sanitised much of its historical bawdiness and rough and ready vibe. We can but scratch the surface of what’s on offer, but here we go…
A journey worthy of Phileas Fogg
Cuisines from around the world spill out from every corner, and a journey worthy of Phileas Fogg can be taken over the course of an afternoon or evening. We can start in Koya Bar, an all-day gem serving an ‘English Breakfast’ udon noodle soup, where a fried egg, bacon and shiitake mushroom are added to a nourishing dashi broth, with their signature springy noodles made downstairs every day. From slurping noodles in one spot, we can continue slurping at Tonkotsu ramen bar seconds away, their nourishing soups, karaage fried chicken, and homemade gyoza amongst the best in town.
A pub with its own Chinese restaurant is the kind of thing that makes all kinds of sense in Soho. The Duck and Rice on Berwick Street, close to the aforementioned seedy sex venues, was opened by Alan Yau (founder of Wagamama, Hakkasan, Yauatcha), and it’s where you can find unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell and a raft of beers accompanied by dumplings, chow mein, chop suey, prawn toast and more.
Tapas at its finest
For a bit of traditional British fare, Quo Vadis has the estimable Jeremy Lee at the helm in the kitchen; an elegant dining room will deliver crab and mayonnaise, pies aplenty, and the now legendary smoked eel sandwich. Barrafina is a Soho institution, recently moved from its Frith Street location, but now nestled securely alongside Quo Vadis: tapas at its finest, in a buzzy room…no bookings, so be prepared for a wait and a glass of Manzanilla or three.
Hopping across to Hoppers is to be recommended, where the food of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu will hold you in thrall, big and bold flavours coming out of a tiny kitchen at the back. Bone marrow Varuval, a devastating mini-curry, must be ordered and duly mopped up with flaky and buttery roti bread. Another no-reservations venue, with arrival on opening highly recommended.
An atmosphere resonant of a Dickensian London
What else? Bocca di Lupo for peerless Italian bar seat dining; Gauthier for its French flair and beautiful building and rooms; Bone Daddies for raucous late night ramen; Brasserie Zedel for one of the largest (and cheapest) dining rooms in town; Thai barbecue and dive-bar vibes at Smoking Goat; steak at Blacklock, in a former brothel, no less; steak for a tenner at Flat Iron…
If you’ve missed Andrew Edmunds, let’s just say many Londoners will have passed it without noticing. It’s a wonderful old building with the quaintest of interiors with an atmosphere resonant of a Dickensian London. This 18th century townhouse has a classic British menu, with no-nonsense dishes such as pork chops and turnips. A stupidly good-value wine list, heavy with Burgundy, seals the deal. Go.
Regent Street marks the western boundary of Soho. Cross it, and the atmosphere shifts, the buildings get grander, and the pace slows riiiiiight down – everyone feels a lot more grown up on entering Mayfair, and suddenly a shirt (at the very least), and possibly smart shoes, feel a lot more appropriate.
The best value martini in Mayfair
Scott’s on salubrious and boutique-bedecked Mount Street is as good a place to start as any, a premier destination for fish and shellfish, with a smattering of star-spotting thrown in most days: Dover Sole meunière is the Golden Fleece here, filleted with a flourish at the table.
A stroll down the street (twirling a cane, if you like) and a new restaurant at The Connaught Hotel, where garlanded chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten is heading up the offer. Punishingly pricey? Yes. Very Mayfair? Absolutely. Pop in for black truffle and fontina pizza (£31), truffle cheeseburger (£28), or native lobster (£52). Hey c’mon, this is what Mayfair is all about. Their Coburg Bar is a cracking place to cosy up after dinner.
It’s not all Flash Harry (although most of it is) in this part of town: keep The Running Horse in your little black book if funds are tight after lunch, and you want a decent drink with excellent Scotch Eggs and pork pies. Upstairs, you’ll find the best value martini in Mayfair, in The Whip. Don’t tell everyone, or they’ll all want one.
The true steak experience
More value is to be had, but again, hidden away: in the Beaumont Hotel, hugging the edges of Mayfair close to Marble Arch, is the Colony Grill Room. It’s inspired by historic grill rooms in New York and London, and has a fine (and very affordable) menu, from eggs Benedict in the morning, through to a classic burger, shepherd’s pie or New York hot dog. A beautiful dining room, great food, and without the wallet-smashing bill.
Richard Corrigan’s Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill is worth a stop off for oysters at the bar and a classic fish pie, and the high-end Chinese served at Hakkasan Mayfair in its seductive shadowy basement, is one of London’s great highlights: stick to dim sum baskets and avoid the black cod, and you’ll be able to skip out with your bank balance intact.
Gymkhana for swank Indian with plenty of game dishes in a British Raj inspired wood panelled interior, Goodman Mayfair for the true steak experience, Hawksmoor Air Street for more steaks and a bit of surf and turf, or Jason Atherton’s bistro Little Social for a superior burger and decent cocktails.
Pricey, yes – but good sushi should be
A less obvious place to have a superior Mayfair evening, is Umu, tucked away behind Berkeley Square. Yes it’s pricey, but good sushi should be. Often forgotten in favour of more obvious joints, they have held a Michelin star for many years.
A stagger away sits The Guinea Grill, a mighty fine pub that is run by the charismatic Irish landlord Oisin Rogers. There has been an inn here since the 15th Century, and must be your stop for one of the best pies in town, steak and kidney with the butteriest of puff pastry. Sausage rolls and Scotch Eggs at the bar are another highlight to have with your Guinness.
Mayfair doesn’t have to be expensive….but it can if you ask it to be.
So, choose your style. Press go. You’ll have a ball either way.