The world on a plate in Soho
Chalkmarks Soho

WHAT if you had just one night in London and you didn’t want to waste time? Sometimes you want to hit a city and not eat on the hoof going from bad pint to nasty evening meal. That’s where Eating London Tours comes in. This is their Twilight Soho Tour. There’s no map – you just follow the guide who unravels the history and leads you through the dark alleyways to find the tastiest food and the liveliest places to drink.

We meet our master of ceremonies Hannah outside the Palace Theatre. It’s 5pm, the road’s choked with traffic and before the office crowd clock off, it’s time to hit our first stop.

It all begins with a drink at La Bodega Negra

This Mexican restaurant is a magnet to the stars including Prince Harry. Who could be in the crowd tonight? David Beckham? Kylie? Kate Moss? They’ve all been here. Disguised as a strip club, neon lights read “peep show”, “adult video” and “girls girls girls” but what’s really on the menu are tequila margaritas and street-style tacos. We sit around the grill watching the chefs prepare our prawn and pork tacos. It’s all crunchy salsas and frozen cocktails in a buzzing candlelit restaurant. It was too early for the celebs though. Like true A-listers we sneak out and don’t pay a penny. That’s taken care of by Eating London.

You pay £75 and for the rest of the night it’s VIP service.

There are six different experiences on the menu as we travel to Asia Europe and Central America. There’s none of that faffing around or queuing. No looking for a seat or waiting for the meal to arrive. Each venue is only a five minute walk away and guide Hannah seems to be able answer every question we have.

For our second stop we pass Soho Square and head to The Star aka The London Gin Club

This is yet another premiere spot but this one’s been around since the 1933. It’s a reminder of the old gin palaces that opened up in the Dickensian 1800s. It is stocked with 210 brands of juniper spirit with no other drink on the menu. For a tasting of their own 7 Dials London dry gin, we’re given a glass the size of a gold fish bowl. We pour the gin neat over ice. We taste. Then we’re told to mix only half a bottle of tonic. We taste the difference. We then drop in an olive. I’d never done that before. It was the worst thing that could have happened to my G&T. It really altered the taste – adding something tangy. I still drank it though and the crusty gin-infused beef pie was fantastic. This traditional gin pub decorated in old tin advertising boards is classic London.

Outside we stop on the pavement to hear a bit about Soho’s 400-year history. The area was farmland in the 1600s. The West End was a hunting ground where the wealthy would cry out SoHo and TallyHo whenever they’d shot a rabbit, hare or deer. Now only the sound of KooWee or YooHoo hang in the air. The forest soon became the talk of London when Manor House – now 21 Soho Square – was turned into a high-class hotel aka a brothel in the c.17th. This backwood was soon urbanised and buildings fanned out. The surrounding land turned into streets filled with pubs, theatres, music halls and prostitutes – it became England’s entertainment capital – home to sex, scandal and rock ‘n’ roll.

Our pilgrimage continues into the Enrique Tomas Jamon Iberico Shop

This is Spain on a plate – with ham and cheese as good as you’ll find in Madrid or Barcelona. Goats cheese and wafer thin slices of top grade cured, salted and dried ham straight from the rear leg are put on the table. The waiter explains how the pigs are reared on a diet of acorns or oats. A whole leg of ham will set you back hundreds of pounds but a plateful just a few quid. From the outside the shop looks like a butchers with 7kg hams hanging in the glass window. Inside it’s an open plan informal restaurant where you can drink a glass of rioja while watching Spaniards carving the meat to order.

As well as becoming one of London’s most fashionable addresses, Soho was renown for introducing quality catering from around the world starting with French, Italian and Chinese. In fact you’ll probably never run out of places or countries to choose from as the street lights never set in the West End. The latest food trends are Peruvian, Vietnamese while big American burger bars are back. Berwick Street market is the oldest in the capital and was the first to sell tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapple. Bar Italia on Frith Street was also revolutionary as one of the first to serve espresso. From then on in the 1950s, continental coffee culture took off. The café’s till going strong open 24 hours a day.

We journey on to Pix Pixtos

This place has legendary status among Londoners. The evening crowd has arrived and it’s heaving from the office overspill. The feast of tapas on sticks and in a shot glasses spread out across the bar looks irresistible. There’s patatas bravas, calamares with aiolo and salted cod. Funny thing with tapas is that you can never tell how much you’re eating as the dishes are so small. Between a meatball and a chilli chicken kebab, I drink a glass of fizzy dry white rezabal from the Basque country. Hannah’s having to shout as she gives us our five-minute warning to get moving.

Music is rising from all around as we leave. Jazz used to be the soundtrack to Soho from the 1920s. The British saxophonist Ronnie Scott opened his famous club in 1959 and that’s still attracting top acts today. In fact the whole area has been attracting musicians for centuries. Mozart lived on Frith Street during his grand tour of Europe in 1764. In the 1960s The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and more music heroes would either write their songs, record or perform in the district. Paul McCartney still has a studio on Soho Square. The area’s also been home to the world’s greatest lover Casanova and authors William Blake, Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas and the father of Communism Karl Marx.

Away from this noise our tour takes us east into Opium in Chinatown

This is an intimate, dark and hidden dim sum parlour. It doesn’t want you to know it’s even there. To keep the secret, it’s plain on the outside and on the inside the lights are dimmed as we head straight to the top of the stairs. The door then opens into a flame-coloured jewel box. It’s not easy to see the interior. There’s cozy corners if you don’t want to be seen. This is 50 shades of romantic. We fit around a big communal table and in the low light we drink smoked teas and share steamed dumplings served in bamboo baskets. We leave quietly for our final stop.

Towering above this world of entertainment is Soho itself. The old days are all around. Many of the townhouses are listed buildings and most of the streets remain as they were centuries ago. Back then women would be on corners selling themselves, men drinking and fighting and children playing under gas lamps. In the 1700s it was often safer to drink gin or beer than water. The red lights may be long gone but we still pass massage parlours and a row of houses displaying signs saying ‘no prostitutes here’.

Around 8pm it was time for a change of pace at Said Roma

This is its London branch with the original in Rome. It’s a chocolate-factory-come-store-come-café specialising in sweet treats and desserts. The shop window is packed with cutlery and milk bottles while on the inside the masters are at work filling chocolate moulds. We choose a thick molten chocolate cup either dark, milk or hazelnut. We also get a cool tiramasu. The taste is beyond language. All I can say is the standard is sky high.

Unlike a usual night in Soho, I’m not blurry but I am very full. If I ate this every night my lifespan would be shortened. But as a one-off treat this is a hands down chatty, charming and oh-so-cool food tour. I’ve been served the world on a plate. It’s just like Soho.

Categories
Suggested
Suggested contents and articles.
Suggested Contents
All at sea in Stockholm the city of islands
HERE’S something I didn’t know: Stockholm is a capital of 14 islands. This impresses me but I can’t find a Swede who agrees.
A trilogy of tartan treats in Aberdeen
FOR a moment I lose myself. I am drinking Scotch straight from the cask.  All of a sudden comes a roar of fire.
Baku in the (old) USSR
HIGH up in the 360 Bar, the view of Baku is unmissable and unstoppable. I can feel the hairs rise on my neck.