In recent years its sex industry has been eased out and respectability has been easing in, with Soho’s streets becoming fashionable venues for good food and lively bistros.
The small restaurants and bars have welcomed loyal customers for years but three months of lockdown have crushed the hospitality business and livelihoods.
Now, in a bid to save Soho, 55 independent bars, restaurants and cafés, led by Soho Estates, have submitted proposals for the Soho Summer Street Festival — a summer-long alfresco event with roads closed to traffic and eateries spilling out on to the pavements.
Devised in early May, the festival has been beset by problems but in the last 24 hours Soho operators have been given fresh hope that it can go ahead.
After a consultation with businesses and an Evening Standard investigation, Westminster City Council confirmed yesterday that it has slashed a £1,950 licence fee per unit to nearer £500.
A council proposal last week listed the fees these businesses, some on the brink of collapse, would have to find to put a few extra tables outside, including planning permission (£500) and premises licence (£500).
Keep your social distance: bars and eateries in Covent Garden are preparing to reopen for business with strict anti-Covid precautions in place (AFP via Getty Images)
Yesterday, the authority said: “The council is doing as much as possible to support the hospitality industry and we are working with businesses to find creative ways to reopen the city’s pubs, restaurants and cafés.”
This followed news that social distancing will halve to a metre and the sector will reopen on July 4.
The 55 businesses will keep lobbying on street trading hours. They had asked for some streets, including Frith St, Dean St and Old Compton St, to close to traffic from 11am to 11pm so they can serve outside.
In response, the council will allow pavement trading from 5pm to 11pm, missing weekday brunch and lunchtime trade.
Kick-starting the Soho scene
“Soho has been a ghost town over the last few months,” says John James, chairman of Soho Estates. “The Soho Summer Street Festival is about survival. A third of these restaurants wouldn’t make it [through the coronavirus crisis] but the festival gives them a fighting chance.”
He describes the cut in licence levy as a good result but is more concerned about the application process.
“Most serious is the time this will take. We might simply run out of time to have any hope of success.”
A booking app is being devised so that diners can be told when their table becomes available, to prevent queuing.
There will be pop-up hand sanitiser stations and the centre of the road will be used for people to walk or access for emergency service vehicles. It is suggested that delivery vehicles access the area before 11am.
How indie businesses will draw in the customers
Lukas Rackauskas runs Russian restaurant and deli Zima from a Georgian townhouse in Frith Street.
When the lockdown hit, he turned Zima into a “makeshift kiosk” doing takeaways and deliveries. “It hasn’t compensated for the loss of trade but it has kept us going,” he says.
He describes the Westminster plan as “falling short but a step in the right direction”.
Rackauskas intends to put tables outside and serve delicacies such as pork sashlyk, washed down with his homemade kvass — a Baltic beverage traditionally made from rye bread.
Gearing up to reopen: Nima Safei of 40 Dean Street. After a deep clean this week the restaurant will be ready to serve Italian classics again (Adrian Lourie)
Nima Safei and his sister Neda have been dishing up Italian cuisine in Soho for nearly 20 years at 40 Dean Street but in December 2016 the restaurant burned down.
“It was the worst day of my life,” says Nima, who lives in Soho.
The pair built the business back up but of course, had to close for lockdown.
This week the restaurant is being deep cleaned as they gear up to serve their much-missed classics including Margherita pizza and black ink linguini.
A Covent Garden comeback
Covent Garden is also adopting an alfresco recovery strategy, heralded by a giant rainbow balloon flying 30ft overhead to welcome visitors back to the world-famous Piazza.
A socially distanced queuing system has been marked out, hand sanitiser stations have been set up and some stores are doing click and collect. Visitors are being advised to wear masks.
“Covent Garden has the advantage of being an open-air destination and we have now installed socially distanced alfresco dining in the Piazza, too,” says Michelle McGrath, director of Capital & Counties Properties (Capco), the developer that has transformed Covent Garden over the last 14 years.
In the streets around the Piazza, bars and restaurants are preparing to reopen in earnest and have been granted longer pavement trading hours than Soho, from 11am to 11pm every day.
Rob Hampton runs The Oystermen Seafood Bar & Kitchen, and mini market, in Henrietta Street. This street will be pedestrianised for the summer.
“Covent Garden closed overnight, so we run a mini market selling fresh vegetables, meat, fish and — in the early days — toilet rolls,” he says.
The Oystermen is running happy hour between 3pm and 5pm, when customers can buy six oysters and a glass of bubbly for £10. “Next, we hope to flip our restaurant on to the streets for the summer.”
Frenchie, the Parisian-style restaurant set up by celebrity chef Greg Marchand, is selling takeaway wine and beer by the glass and pint and delivers a three-course meal box.
As soon as possible, Frenchie will also be serving on the street.
Where to buy in the West End
From £642,000: flats in landscaped gardens with spa at West End Gate, Marylebone W2
Townhouses and period flats in Soho and Covent Garden come with multimillion-pound price tags. It’s the stamping ground of celebrities and the creative elite.
A three-bedroom flat with a roof terrace in Wardour Street, in the heart of Soho, is for sale with Dexters at £2.25 million (020 7224 5544).
Foxtons is selling an industrial-style flat above shops in Dean Street for £1.15 million, with a planted roof terrace and views over Soho. Call 020 7659 8100.
Capital & Counties (CapCo) has been transforming Covent Garden since 2006, adding new homes. Its Hexagon Apartments scheme has homes for sale in Parker Street on the border of Covent Garden and Holborn.
One-bedroom flats start from £1.11 million. For details, email Savills on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 7409 8756.
It is possible to find homes in Soho under £1 million — just. Above the new entrance to Tottenham Court Road Crossrail station are 81 new apartments priced from £990,000. Call Galliard Homes on 020 7620 1500.
Head to Marylebone as a cheaper West End village. West End Gate is the new Berkeley Homes development with 542 apartments under construction.
They will come with gardens, a piazza, gym, spa and cinema. One-bedroom flats start at £642,000. Call 020 3797 3218.