Soho does reinvention like Bowie.
Every time the London neighbourhood has flat lined over the years, it seems to find a way back from the dead, from industrious Europeans filling the void when the toffs fled forMayfair in the 1700s to the rallying of the gay community in the wake of the nail bomb attack on the Admiral Duncan pub in 1999.
The problem is that each time this happens, you get the feeling that Soho loses a little bit of its neon-lit soul—more so in recent years, which have seen honest sex workers replaced by "brothel chic" and a restaurant founded by Napoleon III's chef bought out by Pizza Express. It will be a sad day when Soho finally joins the zombie ranks of Leicester Square.
Let's not forget that the area takes its name from the hunting cry "Soohoo," carried on the winds when it was a popular deer-stalking ground for the rich in the 1600s. Fast-forward some 500 years and it couldn't be more apt. Only these days, the hunters aren't carrying shotguns—21st century huntsmen kill with clipboards instead.
In 2014, The Caterer reported that restaurants in central London were facing a 50 percent rent increase, something Restaurant Association chairman Richard Bradford condemned as "hugely damaging to the London restaurant revolution." The following year, the Guardian wrote on the fate of Chinatown, which occupies the Gerrard Street area of Soho, highlighting the plight of the West End (Chinatown) Tenants' Association, whose annual rent had risen from £66,000 to £244,000 in 18 years. Founder Jon Man predicted the death of London's Chinatown by 2020.
For other Soho establishments, life has already ended. Last year, famous vegetarian restaurant Food For Thought in Covent Garden closed after 40 years of business, citing "the corporate march" and "rent hikes" as the death knell. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall called it a shame and said Londoners were losing out as a result of the rental "nightmare."
Can Soho pull another immortality trick out the hat? Its long-serving restaurant owners and managers are divided.
Founded in 1926 by an Italian named Pepino Leoni, Quo Vadis on Dean Street is one of the most iconic food sites in Soho. Today the Hart brothers run the place, and Eddie Hart tells me that although you can't blame landlords for wishing to achieve the highest rents possible for their property, there is concern that independent businesses could be pushed out to make way for the bigger players.
"I feel very strongly that if this happens," he says. "Soho will lose its charm, atmosphere and community spirit."
"There really isn't anywhere else in the centre of London with so many independently run businesses."
Another Soho stalwart, L'Escargot on Greek Street, opened a year later in 1927. General manager George Pell says there's no doubt that Soho is "a jewel in London's food crown," with families from all over the globe—Italy, Greece, Algeria, China, France—running markets, cafes, and restaurants.
"There really isn't anywhere else in the centre of London with so many independently and privately run businesses," Pell says. "It is very sad to see massively famous and iconic places closing, and there is a concern that with them going, we lose yet another connection to our history and identity."
As Soho reanimates however, it emerges with another face. Last year the Groucho Club, the celebrity hangout of Damon Albarn and other 90s darlings, was sold to Alcuin Capital Partners, whose portfolio includes Caffè Nero and Krispy Kreme UK. Fellow Soho hotspot Madame Jojo's may have had its licence revoked after bouncers knocked ten bales of shit out of a bloke with baseball bats, but according to The Economist, the site had already been approved for redevelopment by Soho Estates, one of the largest landowners in the area. Crossrail is also digging up tradition and hoping to replace it with new, inoffensive, and familiar high street chains (fans of indie music will mourn the news that Denmark Street, once the home of NME and Melody Maker offices, is one such stretch tipped for redevelopment).
For restaurants though, Pell says the challenge of meeting the demands of a changing clientele in the wake of such gentrification can keep the industry on its toes. In recent years, L'Escargot has modernised, inviting bands to gig, fashion designers to shoot, and gallerists to exhibit. It's about being proactive and remaining relevant to the actual users of Soho now, he says.
"Is a three-course candle lit dinner really what the millennials that flood the streets of Soho want? I doubt it. Food culture is changing and restaurants have to react or fail," he says. "It's funny to see people cling on to the 'old Soho' and not make noise about its fantastic diversity now."
Indeed the burger, hot dog, and ramen revolutions have not passed Soho by. In fact, Tonkotsu co-owner, Emma Reynolds says Soho was at the top of their list because the "exciting, boozy location, with lots of diverse people mooching around" suits ramen so well. When they opened on Dean Street in 2012, Jon "Spitz" Spiteri of Quo Vadis and Hilary Penn from The French House were the first to come over and say hello.
"It feels like a small village community of restaurants and members clubs," Reynolds says. "It's great to be part of it. The old establishment restaurants—L'Escargot, Quo Vadis—very much set the tone for the quality standard of food and service."
Yet even in her short time on the street, Reynolds has noticed a shift in rent.
"We were lucky with our property deal. Now venues are changing for multi-six-figure premiums and high rents that we wouldn't be able to afford, even with five restaurants in the group," she says. "For that reason, I think we'll see more big branded chain type places moving in. Hopefully it'll be a while before that happens."
It's not just restaurant property moguls turning the screw. The lack of affordable housing in the city is also having an impact on the restaurant workforce. Last month, the Federation of Small Businesses cited housing as the number one issue for restaurateurs in central London, with more and more waiters and staff having to leave their shifts early in order to commute home. The example they gave was, of course, in Soho.
Despite this, Pell remains upbeat.
"Like everywhere across this unbelievable city, rents will affect how businesses operate," he says. "Restaurants have adapted. You can now eat in refurbished public toilets—what better indicator that we restaurateurs will keep working hard, adapting to survive? Restaurants are like paintings, they reflect the cultural and political conditions of their time. I pray that like great art, great restaurants will last the test of time and people will still want them."
And if we don't?
"We lose the sites that prove our multicultural heritage and adaptability. We lose bastions that show why London is great."
For more on London's changing restaurant scene, check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food.