Tuesday, February 05, 2008

London's Soho Rediscovered

Everything we love and hate about London can be found in Soho. Vibrant, edgy and authentic on the one hand, crowded, filthy and menacing on the other. We suspect it was always thus. When we were students in London decades ago, Soho was a really naughty place to go. Maybe we’re just “past it” now, but Soho’s Saturday night raves are not for us anymore. Some might find London’s most famous entertainment district exciting but we can’t help feeling that on a weekend evening it is uncomfortably crowded, filled with drunks and ear shatteringly loud. Because of this, we haven’t spent much time in Soho in recent years.

But recently we ran across a description of an eccentric Soho café, Maison Bertaux and an old fashioned and unusual coffee merchant, Angelucci, that focussed our attention on the fact that Soho still has places to go that are interesting and original. After whinging repeatedly in this forum that homogenized chain stores and restaurants have taken the fun out of many London neighbourhoods, we thought it was time to wander around Soho for a day and see how much fun we could find.

The first thing we noticed, thanks to London’s Blue Plaque system for commemorating famous residences, was how many free thinkers of the past, such as Casanova, Karl Marx, William Blake and Isaac Newton all chose to live inSoho. Today, the streets may be full of advertising and media office workers, tourists and free spirit wannabees but the old bohemian and tolerant atmosphere still exists and despite rising rents and creeping gentrification, Soho still feels naughty.

And what about the purveyors of vice? Still very much in business we can report but the thing which differentiates Soho from other red light districts is that there is a much nicer mix of sex and residents. There’s something about watching a woman touting for business standing next to the Soho Parish School which puts the whole sex industry into a different perspective. It is as if to say, “It exists. So what. And why do you care?”

Having wandered around Soho for a couple of hours, we finally made out way to Greek Street and Maison Bertraux which has been a centre for the French community for over 130 years and today is a café and patisserie that is the most perfect antidote to Starbucks. From the mismatched tables, the home made pastries, the French music and the very French proprietor, we were in heaven. There were all kinds of kooky people whiling away the afternoon and we sat for the longest time, revelling in the fact that such a place still exits.

Afterwards, we headed around the corner to Angelucci’s to buy some coffee. This shop has been run by the same Italian family since 1929 and has sold coffee to everyone from Charles de Gaulle to Dire Straits fans, as the shop was mentioned in the band’s first album. If the survival of Maison Bertraux is a miracle, we would liken the existence of Angelucci’s to the second coming. The shop is really a hole in the wall, the cash register is so old we couldn’t begin to date it. The grinders are out of a museum and the wonderful lady who served us has worked there for 26 years and her twin sister before that. Of course, we bought Angelucci’s special and secret blend, Mokital and of course we paid cash because they don’t take cards. If you want to try the Mokital before you buy, head next door to Bar Italia, the most famous place in London to have a late night espresso and the best place in town to watch an Italian football match. Had we not been late to pick up a child, we would have stopped at Bar Italia too.

Making our way towards home, we made a mad dash into Camisa, a small but perfect Italian grocer of the old school on Old Compton Street. As always, there was a line of loyal locals queuing up to buy the classic ingredients of the Italian kitchen. We have shopped here for years and like the locals, we know that this is where you go for the best quality ingredients at the best possible prices.

Heading home, with the pungent aroma of coffee filling the entire bus, we thought about what a great day it had been. In the future, any time we need a vacation from our middle class life, we’re heading back to Soho. Sometimes, as Dorothy found out in the Wizard of Oz, the stuff you are looking for is right in your own back yard.

Maison Bertaux
28 Greek Street
020 7437 6007
Open Monday – Saturday 9 to 8pm, Sunday 9 – 7 pm

23b Frith Street
020 7437 5889
Open Monday – Saturday 9 to 5pm except Thursday when the shop closes at 1pm

I Camisa & Son
61 Old Compton Street
020 7437 7610
Open Monday – Saturday 9 to 6pm

Bar Italia
22 Frith Street
Tel: 020 7437 4520
Open 24 hours

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