The late Soho dandy Sebastian Horsley called Soho ‘a madhouse without walls’, and if you stroll down Old Compton Street today, you can still get a flavour of that electric eccentricity. Running from Charing Cross Road to Wardour Street, intersecting the hectic grid of lower Soho, it pulsates with theatre-goers, rickshaws, café-dwelling people-watchers and parading characters. It’s a thoroughfare for tourists and busy media types, a high street for the local community, and home to some of Soho’s oldest surviving businesses.
Over the years, Old Compton Street has given refuge to many minorities and subcultures, from the Huguenots in the 1680s, through the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, to the British rock ’n’ rollers who played at 2i’s Coffee Bar in the ’50s. Today it’s one of London’s main LGBT+ hubs. It’s seen tragedy – in 1999 the Admiral Duncan pub was bombed in a homophobic attack – but strength and unity too. Crowds congregated here in 2016 after the Orlando nightclub shooting, and it’s a major focus of London’s annual Pride celebrations.
When I interviewed Horsley about Soho in 2008, he lamented: ‘The air used to be clean and the sex used to be dirty, and now it’s the other way around.’ But despite the sanitisation, Old Compton Street clings on to its alternative filthy spirit.
A potent, bottle-aged negroni at tiny cocktail and coffee haven Bar Termini.
A lager (half-pints only) at The French House, a Soho institution a few steps down on Dean Street.
A strong espresso at Bar Italia on Frith Street, another Soho classic just off Old Compton Street.
A bento box at Eat Tokyo, where the food is fresh, cheap and well worth the massive queues.
An Ari Gold burger (the original and best) at the bustling Patty & Bun.
A raspberry tart at Patisserie Valerie. This is the original branch of the chain, and still the best.
All the Cantonese-style bao you can stuff into your face at Bun House.
A taste of retro Americana at Ed’s Easy Diner. Grab a spot at the counter for a milkshake and fries.
A 3am full English at Balans Soho Society, which serves food and booze 24 hours a day.
Sing karaoke with quality drag queens at classic LGBT+ boozer The Admiral Duncan.
Get a piercing or cheeky ink by an award-winning artist at Tattoo 13.
Have a play with the vibrators at Harmony. C’mon, you’re in Soho!
A bottle of something rare from The Vintage House or Gerry’s Wine & Spirits. Hic!
Delicious beans, caffeine paraphernalia and the best-value takeaway coffee in town from old-school tea and coffee purveyors Algerian Coffee Store.
Freshly sliced Italian ham and cheese at traditional family-run deli I Camisa & Son.
Tiny pants, harnesses, leather, lube, bondage equipment, DVDs and so much more at gay sex outfitters Clone Zone and Fifty & Dean.
And if you only do one thing…
Have a dance at the utterly legendary G-A-Y bar, where the drinks are cheap, the crowd is young and pert and the music is always poptastic.