The recent fire in London's Soho saw no serious harm done to the flesh and blood of inhabitants, office workers, tourists and various others that teem through the capital's magnet for boozers, cruisers, losers and others.
Despite being currently exiled to the less glamorous Euston area, I have spent many years tramping the red and not so tranquil labyrinth that nestles within the mighty thoroughfares of the West End. If you're reading this, there's a fair probability that you'll end up there one day too, whether on business or else pleasure. With that in mind, and having witnessed the confusion of many strangers that have stepped into the fetid yet fashionable maze, here is my capsule guide to the village unlike any other village you know.
The best way to orientate yourself in Soho is to approach from Cambridge Circus, tip-toeing through the milling crowds around the Palace theatre. That way at least you have a basic code for remembering the location of three of the most important streets behind the Charing Cross Road perimeter: Greek, Frith and Dean streets are in reverse alphabetical order.
The best pub in Soho is the Dog and Duck on the corner of Bateman Street and Frith Street. It is a tiny Victorian stunner with a nice upstairs room if things are very busy downstairs -- and if there are more than 12 people there, it will be very busy downstairs. The pub has a fine range of well-kept ales and drinkers are unpretentious for an area with more than its fair share of poseurs. Madonna once claimed to be a regular here but now she has departed these shores the coast should be clear to venture in without risk of shrieking harridans. Other half-decent pubs are the French House on Dean Street (no pints, lots of plummy voices), Coach and Horses on Greek Street (but beware bearded men in hats playing pianos and drinking wine), The Blue Posts and The Endurance on Berwick Street, The Blue Posts (confusing, innit?) and Red Lion on Kingly Street, and the John Snow on Broadwick Street.
The classic place to drink coffee in Soho and act cool is Bar Italia on Greek Street, It's open about 28 hours a day so there's no rush, which might be some consolation as you examine the paltry change from a fiver for your caffeine fix. I very much doubt the idea that those are Rocky Marciano's gloves hanging up, but you never know.
The best hotel to have a meeting in Soho is none of them, and certainly not the Soho Hotel, a crammed, ridiculously priced joint on the site of a former car park. Instead, try nearby alternatives like the Hampshire in Leicester Square, Covent Garden Hotel or the Charlotte Street Hotel in Fitzrovia across horrible Oxford Street. Or if you know a member, try private clubs Blacks, Soho House or the Groucho.
The best places to eat in Soho are Gopal's on Bateman Street for the UK's national dish of curry, upstairs at the French House for classic Anglo-French dishes, or at Alistair Little for classic staples, or at upmarket Spanish tapas bar Barrafina on Frith Street. For cakes, Patisserie Valerie on Old Compton Street and Maison Bertaux on Greek Street are to be recommended. The fish and chips place on Berwick Street near Broadwick Street is superb.
That's all you need to do some work and enjoy the rewards of your labour. By the way, don't be tempted by other things for which Soho is famous. You'll be disappointed and out of pocket -- and maybe worse.