Monday, December 08, 2014

Soho, please don't get too bland.

Photo from the set 'It's all happening' 

The sad closing of Madame Jojo’s last week has been hailed as a final nail in the coffin for the soul of Soho. It's true, with its streets over the past twenty years slowly but surely turning from famous den of freedom and debauchery to a sort of  norm-core shops-n-lunch village, the chances of catching a glimpse of some old stripper’s arse or - heaven forbid - paying said stripper to do exciting things to you in a flock-wallpapered back room somewhere are becoming extremely slim. 
With all the huggable feel-good brands to eat and drink at now, with their on-trend pastiche menus and US style service, it’s far more safe and sober, lots less edgy and erotic. 

Clearly, Soho appears to no longer be the byword for exoticness it once was. Its style and design has become bland and homogenous. Most new restaurants or bars opening today all look like some kind of buy-by-the-sq-foot BHS Brooklyn, a look you can get in any branch of Habitat. 
You can now buy a ‘Soho’ bathroom set (no crack addicts included, I bet) and even John Lewis now does a ‘Soho’ furniture range. 

Mind you I don’t claim to be any more edgy. My own early memories of Soho are not exactly laced with malfeasance.
I remember as an art loving teenager discovering a book of my Dad’s called ‘Soho in the Fifties’ by Daniel Farson, and consuming it as a kind of ‘essential reading’ for any budding louche and bohemian creative. In reality I am about as louche and bohemian as a Surrey Golf Club, but aged 16 I was convinced I was a cross between Mick Jagger and Francis Bacon.

My first memory of visiting Soho is passing my GCSE’s in 1991, my mother taking me for lunch at Andrew Edmunds, then - in her words - ‘the canteen of the gossiping media world’. Then a couple of years later I was rewarded for getting into university with lunch at The French House, by the same mother. It was then a funny little first-floor restaurant and home to a couple of chefs called the Hendersons. It was the first time I’d eaten pigeon. 

Later in the mid nineties I remember feeding a vinyl habit at the record shops: Chocy’s, Unity, Black Market and Uptown, and even occasionally playing them DJing at our little tin-pot do’s at Mars and Velvet Underground. A high-point in my blagging career must be in the late 90s gaining an unofficial membership at The Groucho Club under the name of an Iranian carpet dealer client of mine, which I used for nearly a year before being asked for six hundred quid or so in ‘unpaid membership funds’ and swiftly doing a runner, not to return for 10 years or more. 

Some other places ring a bell - peering through the stained glass of Quo Vadis at the time (I wasn’t rich enough then to book a table) you would catch a glimpse of Damien Hirst’s dead animals preserved in formaldehyde. How Brit-pop. 
Bars and clubs like Abigail’s Party, The Sun and 13 Cantons, Alphabet Bar and Soho House when it opened all felt the tread of my 90s cords and Wallabees on occasion, and of course there was The Midas Touch, a wine-bar style pub next to the Virgin Radio building Golden Square in quite possibly the naffest, post-naff, neo-naff, pre-irony naff wine bar styling the mid 90s could be capable of. It was like a tribute to Grecian Gods crossed with cross-channel ferry. Chris Evans was often there on a Friday afternoon. That’s my sole memory of rubbing shoulders with rock n roll Soho celebrities in the 90s. Everyone else had Liam & Patsy, I had Chris Evans and Billie Piper.

It’s not all bad, Lots of the best places in Soho are still here. My favourite pub, The Coach & Horses is now owned by a big brewery (Fuller’s) but remains untouched aesthetically, right down to the Skol Lager and Ind Coope motifs, rotten carpet and Jeffery Bernard cartoons. 
The French House still has an air of intellectual old-soak, and The Algerian Coffee Stores still serves a great espresso for a pound. The Blue Posts on Berwick St still has its pot plants and thick curtains. The Dog & Duck still has one of the best examples of Victorian glass engraving panelling in a London pub. 

There isn’t much that can stop the inevitable changes, as ultimately, landlords will always go for the highest paying and lowest hassle tenant, who wouldn't? Why would you want some skint little independent outfit always complaining about the rent, never paying on time and not investing properly in all the boring health & safety trivialities, when you could have a nice well-behaved superbrand paying you handsomely like clockwork every month, just for the Soho bragging rights?

I hope Soho is too old and wise to let itself fall completely into the bland trap. I know it's tempting to the planners, but remember, Covent Garden is next door, and look what happened to that. Leicester Square and Piccadilly is now a lost hope. And Mayfair will tell you it needs a naughty neighbour, not a girl next door.

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