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Thursday, 3 June 2010

An Out-of-Towner

The French House, 49 Dean Street, Soho, W1D 5BG
Crown and Two Chairmen, 31 Dean Street, Soho, W1D 3SB
The Edge, 11 Soho Square, Soho, W1D 3QE

Soho attracts outsiders. The first stop for youngsters arriving in London on the bus with little money to spare, hustlers looking for easy money, stag dos from the provinces hunting for thrills. Times may have changed in W1 – on the surface at least – but it remains a major area of drinking entertainment, despite the rival claims of new contenders such as Hoxton.

I’ve been coming to London since well into last century but I’m easily still an outsider. It takes time to re-acquaint yourself, and once you’ve done that you search for what is new. Then the adventures can begin.

I remember the ritual walk from Euston or King’s Cross after an early arrival. Along the main road then down Tottenham Court Road and then plunging into the square mile of Soho. Stopping at an Italian café for a reviving coffee then wandering down to the Embankment, perhaps, for a kip on a bench or meeting with pals at a central rendezvous point. Who knows? I remember the bars and clubs though.

The Wag Club (nothing to do with footballers) near Ronnie Scott’s on Wardour Street let us in twice – it had by then obviously lost its eighties hipness. That alone made us happy: drinks till late without any more stress. It has since been turned into a massive O’Neill’s pub, a sign seen by many of the Disneyfication of the area. Another time, my frequent companion on London trips had bucked the unsuccessful trend and met a woman, a rock-chick with music connections who took us to a tiny, sweaty rock club somewhere in the north end of Soho. They had a good night. And weekend.

Alphabet Bar on Beak Street is still trading. A middle-of-the road, tad too comfortable joint where a group of us met a more sophisticated friend after we had drunk our way from The City all the way west. His business acquaintances looked askance at our attire but they did include is in a trip to a local Sushi bar, my first taste of the Far East and of conveyor-belted cuisine.

Another acquaintance arranged to meet-up on later trip to the metropolis. His venue was the White Horse on Rupert Street. I’d been used to a certain amount of dinginess and mild sleaze in pubs back home but this place took it to another level. Not only did every single surface seem to be sticky but we were surrounded by the neighbourhood’s contingent of clip joint and sex shop owners. Possibly the rudest bunch of folk in London and that’s some accolade.

My uncomfortable feeling rose higher when my acquaintance’s acquaintance arrived with a big holdall. The business transaction today was to be ‘high class erotica’ I was informed just as the guy sat down beside us. When they started talking about ‘monkeys’ and ‘bottles’ I thought a new form of perversion was being discussed and I looked for the nearest exit. Thankfully they were only money terms and without any more fuss the cash was exchanged for a huge bundle of VHS tapes. Recent reviews of the White Horse bear no similarity to the one I experienced that day so maybe it has changed or my opinion was a reflection on my safe middle-class sensibilities.

Safety issues also featured during another trip. A girlfriend and I had been out and about from our hotel all day so still had our bags with us. We reached Soho and entered the first bar we came to the famous gay bar, The Admiral Duncan on Old Compton. As soon as we were in the door we were ushered to the side and asked to open our bags. Was this the treatment all straight customers I received I was about to ask? Then I remembered the recent bomb outrage when a homophobe killed a number of pub-goers.

It was another gay bar that provided the highlight of the evening on a visit last year. The Edge on Soho Square was The Muse’s choice to begin our night. The relaxed vibe of diverse punters encompassing all four floors of this venue put us in the mood for our night ahead. Each level brought a slightly different feel and by the time we had to leave to go for our meal we wished for a clock rewind. Neither the meal in the premises of a well-known TV chef on Greek Street nor the club, Club 49, also on Greek Street, could live up to the promise of our evening’s beginning.

On the same trip last year, one of The Muse’s friends back home had a family connection with The Kingly Club on the street of the same name. Toying with the idea of chancing our arm there that night we decided to reconnoitre the surroundings during the day. Up and down the street we went for fifteen minutes. Couldn’t even find a sign let alone a door, let alone a feel for the place. That’s the thing about Soho, part of its allure. The delights seem to be hidden, for those in the know only. The many private clubs and drinking joints that populate the area just heighten the mystique.

In April this year I was back again, this time a family holiday. After a meal in Chinatown I steered the party towards Soho for a wee drink. Dean Street was as good a choice as any. Past LVPO which looked like a promising venue for a slightly different night than with the parents. The French House had been on my rough itinerary but I came upon it here by mistake. It’s open sash windows were all the welcome we required. Inside it’s as small, dark and charming as the reviews had suggested. On the wall various sketches, behind the bar various mementoes such as a police helmet, a bust of some eminent man and a fur hat. Most bars these days cram their premises with such items to create character for the place, The French House, you feel, has picked up these bits and pieces effortlessly, by accident.

As I was about to order I noticed the comedian and columnist Mark Steele by my side. I could only have been more happy had it been Will Self instead. He had on a pork-pie hat and seemed to be enjoying the place as much as me. Two pints of lager and two G&Ts was my order and I placed it. Back came the shorts and two half-pints. Nonchalantly I told the barman it was two pints I had ordered. “We don’t serve pints in here” came the reply. What's this southern affectation, I thought. A pause. Steele looked round at me. Eventually I shrugged, “Sorry, I’m an out-of towner” I replied and I’m sure Mr. Steele smiled. The half-pint thing is, I gather, to discourage beer-guzzling and promote the savouring of one's alocaohol, a la France.

We stayed for at least an hour, with me unintentionally breaking another house rule, using a mobile. I was using it to make notes but rules is rules. Photos of various artists such as Francis Bacon, a famous patron here, and the actor George Baker fill the wall space. French House’s history as a meeting place for the Resistance during the war and an informal Gallic haunt ever since adds to the atmosphere. All that was missing were the Gitanes. My father and I went outside for a smoke.

Looking back in to the pub I noticed a grey-haired chap talking to Steele. He too was a celebrity – how both of them would baulk at such a description – or a member of the fourth estate. I couldn’t remember his name and it has bugged me ever since. We left The French House after I had tried the esteemed Breton cider, and just behind Mr. Steele who sauntered off probably towards one of those afore-mentioned private clubs.

Just up the road we popped in to the Crown and Two Chairmen for the last of the night. This is a far more generic experience than The French House, despite the wide range of beers. The crowd was traditional after-work, tending to the leery. The floor is flagged and various offers appear on fair number of chalkboards. There’s a dining room upstairs, just as at The French House. This is common in Soho, almost as regular a feature as it is in Belfast drinking establishments.

So that was the night over. We had promised the parents an easy Friday night to prepare for a early Saturday morning start to the tourist thing, so a Tube from Leicester Square back to the hotel was reluctantly planned. Dodging our way along the buzzing streets and through thronged lanes of revellers I wondered if I should change my outsider status, if only for the night.

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