Five years ago it had been quietly acknowledged that the Soho drinking scene became a bit, shall we politely say, uninspiring? Not that every bar was churning out second rate classics (although many were) but it takes more than three great bars to hold an entire London area together and establish it as a excellent drinking destination. Having the same night out each time you visit an area quickly stops you coming back, and after all if different drinks suit different moods then so too do bars.
Meanwhile the Soho food scene was flourishing. You barely had to walk three shop fronts in any direction between Charing Cross Road and Regent Street to find a great restaurant each offering a staggering range of cuisines. But somehow the cocktail scene was left behind. East became beast and no one even bothered to utter west is best in response – it simply wasn’t.
The major shame in Soho’s cocktail decline was that this was the area that spawned our renaissance for good mixed drinks, service and a seat at the bar. This was the stomping ground of the generation trained in LAB and the one following who cut their teeth in the glory days of Milk & Honey. Before Shoreditch, Hoxton and Dalston, Bethnal Green and even Brixton there was Soho. And before Soho got in on the cocktail action it was still an incredible place to go drinking, you simply have to listen to the tales that came out of The Colony Room or The Groucho to know that this was where the reprobates came to drink and make trouble.
Soho may have needed a bit of a spruce but a Costa on every corner was a step too far. Gone were the notorious member's clubs, gone were the family-run restaurants and jaunty gingham tablecloths, gone was any sense of individuality. For years Soho functioned like this, with barely a handful of decent bars, hidden in among old boozers, strip teases and tourist traps.
2013 was the first hint of the tide changing when Jason Atherton took over a three-story site on Poland Street and gave us the Blind Pig cocktail bar, perched above his restaurant. Here drinks such as Dill Or No Dill reigned supreme as Londoners knocked back some of the finest cocktails they’d had in central for years. But it couldn’t carry the weight of Soho on its own.
A year later Cocktail Trading Co’s first site (now closed) opened on Great Marlborough Street. Add in Experimental Cocktail Club and Opium in Chinatown and suddenly you have a night out, possibly all followed with some mezcal shots and Margaritas at El Camion late into the evening.
It was better but it wasn’t yet a scene to rival the likes of east London which boasted Happiness Forgets, White Lyan, Callooh Callay and NOLA all within a minutes walk of each other. But then in late 2014 Tony Conigliaro opened Bar Termini and very firmly put Soho back in the game. It was a bar designed around movement, around the ebb and flow of a person’s day and it was, and still is, majestic. A lingering moment at the bar over one of their thimble-sized Negronis is all you need between work and play to charge you up and send you on your way. Nowadays, a night in Soho always begins at Bar Termini.
It didn’t take too long for the others to follow, 68 & Boston opened in 2015 serving great wines to Greek Street, as did their next-door neighbour Milroy’s who launched The Vault – a subterranean den filled with whisky and cocktails and which as just been named by GQ as Soho’s best underground bar.
Which brings us neatly to today, right now, a mere week after Swift has launched, taking over what was once LAB. This opening became the embodiment of the new wave in Soho and in the run up to Swift’s launch its owners accompanied each post on social media with the hashtag #bringsohoback.
“Soho is the original drinking spot of London, and originals never go out of fashion! But, with the restaurant boom which has happened over the last 5 years it was hard for bars to take over the licences,” explains Mia Johansson, one of the co-owners of Swift, “but the interest has definitely come back and with it the opportunity will open up for many more I believe, and hope!”
Both Bobby Hiddleston and Mia Johansson worked in Milk & Honey on Poland Street years ago and they’ve seen the evolution of this area. “Our guest and the Soho clientele is much more knowledgeable about their drinks preference now, and they know what they want much more than looking to be surprised and wooed by mystery behind closed doors,” says Mia.
Swift was opened to cater to that moving crowd, just as its neighbour across the street, Bar Termini does. It’s all about an early drink, a pre-dinner nip or a slug of something refreshing before a show. It’s also a stunning whisky bar, perfect for a nightcap on the other side of your evening.
Swift isn’t the last opening in Soho this year though, it’s only another week to go until we’ll also have Disrepute in Kingly Court, which, when it opens, will comfortably fall in alongside its peers. A collaboration between the Barrio group and the owners of now-closed Sovereign Loss in Brixton, Disrepute will be a member’s bar taking inspiration from the end of the 50s and beginning of the 60s when the last of Soho’s gentry were drinking with the younger crowd who would lead the nation into the swinging Sixties.
“I think one of the factors for Joe and I,” says co-owner Chris Dennis, “was that there’s been this slow creeping sense of change in Soho and there’s been this chipping away at Soho’s identity and uniqueness so it’s pleasure to come in and open our own spot.”
Soho’s last challenge will be licensing, although that is a challenge that may never be surpassed. Westminster council haven’t extended or granted a drinking license in years and the only way to get around the midnight curfew is to add membership clauses which is why you see so many bars in Soho that have that policy – a challenge east London hasn’t had to struggle with.
For now though, even if it is only until midnight, we can all go back to the streets of Soho and know that each new discovery could be another great bar and not a cup of lukewarm chain coffee. Soho has officially been brought back.