ibrant, eclectic, diverse and oh-so storied: Soho’s streets once formed London’s red-light district, housing sordid clubs and questionable basements. There’s not quiteso much of that any more — climb down unmarked steps these days and you’re more likely to find a lavish drinking den than anything else — though if you look closely enough in the right places, glimpses of the seedy past can still be seen.
Now known and loved as the hedonistic heart of London, as well as the spiritual home of the capital’s LGBTQ+ scene, the area thrums with flamboyantly dressed life strutting in and out of the many clubs, pubs and bars. Soho has been a hotspot for drinking through the ages, from the 1600s through the swinging Sixties, barrelling into the punk scene and beyond — London’s naughty corner has long attracted writers, thinkers, dreamers and drinkers. From Orwell to Oscar Wilde, Mozart to Karl Marx and Siouxsie Sioux to the Sex Pistols, artists across the decades have been known to look for inspiration here — or at least, claim to be as a decent excuse for drinking — so its no surprise the number of bars has rarely dipped. While the drinking dens that would draw the likes of Jeffrey Bernard and Francis Bacon have mostly disappeared (although, gloriously, Gerry’s on Dean Street is back and in ruder health than ever), there remains fun to be had at Trisha’s and El Camion, fine whisky to be knocked back at The Vault under Milroy’s, a sense of Sixties cool at Disrepute, the attractive kind of late-night danger at Opium, and terrific wine at Bar Crispin. But, after quite some whittling down, here are 10 of W1’s best spots for a drink.
Busy, buzzy, and packed with Old Compton Street regulars, Swift is a Soho stalwart, and a near-permanent fixture near the top of lists rounding up the best bars in London, the UK and even the world. The cocktails are strong (in booze, yes, but also in character), mostly riffs on tried-and-tested classics. The place is inventive without being gimmicky or challenging: try the tequila take on a martini (nutty, rich and dangerously drinkable), or work through the expansive whisky list. The ground floor is lively, while downstairs in the basement den, the booths are just the place to cheerfully lose track of time.
12 Old Compton Street, barswift.com
Tucked in on the Charing Cross Road end of Old Compton Street, Bar Termini captures the mood of 1950s Italy — Rome’s main train station in all of its mid-century glory, to be precise. Complete with black and white chequered floor tiles, pale sage leather banquettes, and a team in suave white dress jackets, it’s pure golden-era chic. Coffee and cocktails are both served short and strong: Negronis by the near-thimble, pre-bottled for precision and served without ice, the idea being that the first sip tastes the same as the last. It’s a purist’s approach, and it works — the tiny seven-table space is always full, with a gaggle of punters queuing out front as much a feature of the place as the miniature martini glasses. Longer drinks are available, and there’s charcuterie too. But you’ll need to be quick; reservations keep these coveted tables for just the hour. You might as well do it the Italian way and embrace those short, sharp serves — pronto.
7 Old Compton Street, bar-termini-soho.com
Indian-accented cocktails from the team behind the popular Kricket restaurants, poured in a sleek, onyx-black basement under Denman Street. Drinks are contemporary-classic, with the likes of gimlet, Sazerac, and Ramos fizz stirred up with East Asian influences. Look out for curry leaf, cardamom and pickled mooli among the spirits. Open until 3am, it’s perfect for falling into for a nightcap after feasting upstairs in the restaurant — or, for the brave, after trying a few of the other bars on this list.
14 Denman Street, somasoho.com
In 2010 there was a royal wedding, Donald Trump was nothing more harmful than a wealthy reality TV star and the word “pandemic” sounded like the name of a big budget blockbuster (the kind that would have ended up going straight-to-DVD — remember those?). It was also a time when London’s nightlife had a real “roaring Twenties” thing going on, with cocktails in jam jars and gin by the teacup. It was the season of the speakeasy, where staff rocked braces and any bar worth its bootlegged salt required a secret password to get through the door. Nightjar landed on Old Street during peak prohibition fever and was promptly crowned the best bar of the moment. More than a decade on, much may have changed, but the love for Nightjar’s slightly quirky cocktails and plush interiors remain. While the rest of us may be older, more tired and generally a bit cranky, the bar’s sense of fun is as vibrant as ever, and this year has brought some of that sparkle to Carnaby Street’s Kingly Court. Live music, late nights and vintage spirits might be just the ticket to revive some old souls, and if Nightjar 2.0 can’t actually transport us back to simpler times, at least we can enjoy the escapism.
49-51 Carnaby Street, nightjarcarnaby.com
The Thin White Duke
Named after one of Bowie’s more controversial alter egos, this Windmill Street newcomer already has the makings of a great local, all candlelight and distressed concrete walls. The central bar operates as a cafe by day, slinging booze by night, and the subtly Bowie-inspired (crucially, not “themed”) drinks list is dappled with clues and hints to various albums, eras and lyrics. The last on the list, a heady mix of mezcal, Yellow Chartreuse and absinthe will take you “…Away”, an ode to the last word of the last track of the icon’s final studio album. A drink as smoky, rich and complex as it is strong, it may well send you off to the stars, but another sip is something to come back for.
22b Great Windmill Street, thethinwhiteduke.london
This velvet-clad natural wine and cocktail bar above The Blue Posts pub is something of a hidden gem — or at least it was until the revamped Evelyn’s Table, the 12-seat restaurant in the lower-ground, landed a Michelin star earlier this year and news began to swiftly travel. A particularly good spot for adventurous wine lovers and those with a curious palate, the attentive team can guide you through a variety of low intervention wines from around the world, with pit stops across sherry, vermouth and sake.
28 Rupert Street, theblueposts.co.uk
Below Stone Nest
This subterranean hideout featuring live music and cocktails beneath a Grade II listed former chapel on the edge of Soho may be dressed down as a dive bar, but there are still giveaways of the flair that keeps both Jackson and Frank Boxer at the top of their game, like the artfully-distressed walls, ornate gilt-topped structural columns and the sea of church candles. Still, any bar pouring white port and tonic, Jean-Paul Deville champagne and shots of Fernet Branca is one worth diving into, especially when there are Jägerbombs for good measure, a roster of first-rate live bands, and still a whiff of debauchery in the air (I think it’s debauchery — but then again, it is a very old building).
136 Shaftesbury Avenue, belowsoho.london
The London Gin Club
Offering more than twisted G&Ts and a back bar full of flavoured spirits, top barman Antim Solakov and team serve up a collection of gin-based concoctions noticeable for their thoughtful details, seasonal takes, and surprising flavour pairings including black pepper and cherry wood smoke. Gin might not still be riding its astonishing wave of popularity, but for a proper cocktail made with the stuff, this long-standing favourite (recently revived by the Inception Group, who also look after Mr Fogg’s) is the place to head.
22 Great Chapel Street, londonginclub.com
Not strictly a bar — the clue’s in the “Cafe” — this is the spot for watching the Soho wildlife that surges up and down Old Compton Street. Bag a table on the terrace for an okay glass of wine and a cigarette (whether you usually smoke or not, I don’t make the rules) — it’s the kind of place that demands a neck scarf, sunglasses and your friend with the most outrageous stories. Cocktails are the classics, straightforwardly but decently done.
13 Old Compton Street, cafeboheme.co.uk
Over on the other side of Soho is Bar Crispin, a box of a wine bar specialising in the low-intervention stuff. Though the old soaks putting away glasses of red and white in the French might disagree — as would the regulars at the sadly now-shut, old-school Shampers — Soho has never really been about wine. Crispin, though, has opened as part of a quiet revolution of the area, among the new vinotecas that are more relaxed. Staff here have a keen sense of getting to know drinkers on their terms — asking, for instance, about favourite foods or cocktails, rather than wondering about which end of the Rhone is preferential. The European-inspired food menu is a winner, too.
19 Kingly Street, barcrispin.com