Down and dirty: the glorious return of old school Soho

·7-min read
 (Michelle Thompson)
(Michelle Thompson)

Don’t listen to the jaded grumps who insist that Soho’s heyday was in the raucous 1990s, the coffee-sipping, finger-clicking beatnik 1950s or the 1960s, when you couldn’t strut two feet down Carnaby Street without slamming into a Rolling Stone. If you know the right places to look, you’ll find its glory days are still in full flow now that lockdowns are lifting — and the best place to try is usually down a flight of rickety stairs.

Thanks to the scorched earth policy of Crossrail, which began its razing of Soho landmarks with the much-loved gig venue Astoria in 2009, at first sight contemporary Soho might seem sanitised. The sex shops and strip clubs the area was once notorious for have been slashed to a mere dribble and bland residential new builds are popping up instead. But even though the pandemic has clearly been horrific for hospitality — the sector accounted for one third of UK job losses at the end of 2020 — it seems that you can’t keep a good scene down.

In my experience, all the best nights out in Soho happen underground. Swanky rooftop bars might be fine for the likes of Brooklyn, but they’re simply not naughty enough for London. And there are too many distractions — too much of the humdrum outside world is on view. The same goes for street-level establishments. To see a man in a pair of ill-fitting jeans shuffling by a window would ruin the mirage. Instead, below ground is where louche and seedy Soho still lurks, a hidden world where nobody knows what time it is, but they’re all pretty sure that it’s your round next.

Think of the dimly lit Gerry’s Club on Dean Street, a dusty member’s bar for disorderly actors where a couple of years ago I witnessed a famous comedian spill a bottle of red wine over himself before whipping off his stained shirt and climbing triumphantly and toplessly on to my table. Nobody blinked an eye. Or how about Garlic & Shots over on Frith Street with its musty gothic crypt, perfect for kissing Hinge dates you’d rather not be spotted with and knocking back vampire-baiting vodka concoctions. Consider too the self-confessed subterranean ‘sleaze joint’ San Moritz, the headshot-plastered walls of LGBTQ+ cabaret hangout the Phoenix Arts Club or even Zédel’s chic Bar Américain, the closest you’ll get to feeling adrift on a luxury 1930s ocean liner without leaving W1.

Then there’s the mighty Trisha’s, a delicious dive that the late chef and bon viveur Anthony Bourdain infamously branded the ‘Dean Martin of drinking establishments’. Modestly tucked away beyond an unassuming blue door on Greek Street and with a fabulously diverse clientele, its regulars range from towering drag queens to Rat Pack wannabes. In her peak beehive-era, Amy Winehouse could often be found rattling around the bar’s tiny smoking area.

“Once at Trisha’s, a dapper, elderly gent who professed to be an ex-bank robber serenaded me with a sublime version of ‘Fly Me To The Moon’”

It’s been open for 79 years with owner Patricia Bergonzi running the club for the past two decades. She actually started drinking there with her late husband decades before, back when it was a men-only Italian gambling club. ‘They wouldn’t let me in, but I made such a fuss over it that they had to,’ she laughs. ‘Then I just stayed there!’ Born in Liverpool to a publican, hospitality is in Bergonzi’s blood. Also a registered nurse (which you imagine must come in handy when running a rowdy Soho bar), her first job in Soho was at the now-shuttered Whitcomb Hotel, where she’d make up cheese boards for the clientele of local policemen. ‘They used to love me, with the Liverpool accent and the big boobs,’ she says with a chuckle. Bergonzi’s brilliant bar is a word-of-mouth secret. With no sign or name hanging outside in garish neon, you’d never know it was there unless someone pointed it out and led you down those sneaky stairs. ‘We’ve never advertised,’ explains Bergonzi. ‘We just sort of grew — we’re one of those little gems.’

Patricia Bergonzi in the basement barTracy Kawalik
Patricia Bergonzi in the basement barTracy Kawalik

With its red-and-white gingham tablecloths, posters of Al Capone and a lifesize cut-out of Humphrey Bogart (a regular once turned up with it and it’s been hanging from the wall ever since), there’s no pretension at Trisha’s. This lack of airs and graces and the absence of a £15 cocktail menu is all part of its charm, as well as the conversations you’re likely to fall into while waiting at the bar. Once, a dapper elderly gent who professed to be an ex-bank robber and associate of the Krays serenaded me with a sublime version of ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ while I waited for my bottle of Peroni. You don’t get that at All Bar One. When lockdown saw the bar closed for the longest period ever in its storied history, fans raised more than £20,000 to help keep the place on its feet.

These secret, intoxicating worlds show off Soho at its finest and with the capital on the eve of a full reopening of indoor spaces, we can finally stop pretending that we’re having a nice time freezing our arses off with our pavement pints and get back inside.

Come the start of June there will be fresh blood below the cobbles of Soho, too. In the old Hix space on Brewer Street, Mexican restaurant El Pastor will be opening its third taqueria, following in the footsteps of its popular Borough Market and King’s Cross outposts. But it’s down in the basement bar, naturally, where things will get particularly spicy. Named Mezcaleria El Colmillo, the venue will pay tribute to the debauched nightclub that El Pastor owners Sam Hart and Crispin Somerville ran in Mexico City in the 1990s. A slice of ‘cool Britannia’, the original El Colmillo took Soho to Latin America, transplanting cocktail pioneer and late Soho legend Dick Bradsell’s protegé Jasper Ayres — whose mother, Mary-Lou, used to run The Groucho Club — to knock the bar into shape. It was the kind of place where Courtney Love would knock back tequila and Kiefer Sutherland would strip off.

‘We hope it’ll be a naughty addition to an area that’s already quite historically naughty,’ explains Somerville of their new bar. Somerville himself was born two blocks away from Soho on Mortimer Street, so it’s also something of a homecoming for the former MTV VJ, who had his first drink at Garlic & Shots and was a regular at The French House when Margot Henderson, currently of Rochelle Canteen, ran the dining room there.

Hart and Somerville also run Soho hotspots Quo Vadis and Barrafina, but Mezcaleria El Colmillo looks set to be a racier prospect. ‘Of course we’re 25 years older — we still love a party, we still love music and we love mezcal and tequila, but the new one is all a bit more grown up,’ says Hart. ‘There’ll probably be slightly less nudity,’ chips in Sam’s younger brother and business partner James with a smirk, but he’s certainly not promising anything.

With vaccinations continuing apace and live music and clubs set to return imminently, it’s an exciting time for the capital’s battered hospitality industry, including Soho’s finest and most authentic establishments. ‘We find ourselves at a moment where London is about to potentially be the best place in the whole of Europe — maybe the world — in that we are hopefully coming out of the pandemic,’ says James. ‘So many of the party people are coming to London, because there’s no certainty anywhere else. Miraculously, it does look like there might be a sort of summer of love here in the UK.’ If that’s the case, then we’ll see you for a round of Peronis over at Trisha’s.

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