The best gay bars and clubs in Soho
Soho’s world-famous G-A-Y Bar has everything you’d expect: cheap drink offers, a young crowd and plenty of Britney. It’s spread over three floors, with a dedicated girls’ room downstairs, and never seems to empty out. Most Londoners over 25 profess to hate it, but they’ll still end up here a few times a year, knocking back a WKD-based ‘cocktail’ and dancing to Little Mix. And fear not, because when this door closes, another opens at G-A-Y Late. Located around the corner at 5 Goslett Yard, it offers a similar experience, but with a later licence and even louder pop songs.
Friendly Society benefits from the power of surprise: after entering through a bland back-alley doorway, you’re greeted at the bottom of the stairs by Soho’s most idiosyncratic drinking den. Barbie dolls hang from the ceiling, there’s a big fishbowl in the middle, and old movies are projected on to a back wall. Although the short cocktail menu has been the same for ever, the staff always seem perplexed when you order one (this is definitely part of the charm). The crowd here is gay in the broadest sense: anyone with a sense of fun will feel at home, whatever their gender and sexuality. If you fancy dancing to Donna Summer while sipping (relatively) inexpensive prosecco, this place is an essential pitstop.
A courtyard and loft bar on a popular Soho street that generally attracts a slightly older LGBT crowd. The downstairs alfresco area boasts sedate lighting, wooden banquettes and a fair bit of flora, giving things an almost bucolic feel. The upstairs loft bar has smart leather sofas and a balcony that’s popular with smokers. There’s a pretty simple food menu but realistically, most people come here to drink and mingle. The Yard gets especially busy during warm summer evenings, when its airy ambience makes it a queer space you could bring your mum to.
Long before Soho became known as London’s gay village, long before the likes of Ku Bar and G-A-Y, there was Compton’s. Once an old-fashioned gay club with blacked-out windows and sawdust on the floor, the venue has changed with the times and now has two floors, clear-glass windows and far nicer toilets. Compton’s is still popular with a crowd of beer-drinking, blokey gay men and remains kinda cruisey. But don’t let the throng of punters spilling on to the street put you off. The upstairs lounge is a good place for a date or conversation, and the ground floor is a surprisingly inviting bar space. It’s definitely a venue to try if you haven’t ventured inside yet.
Occupying a prominent spot on Soho’s Chinatown fringes, this large LGBT venue is regularly voted London’s best. Ku is a little classier than local rival G-A-Y, but it attracts a broadly similar crowd and the young, up-for-it vibe is just as fun. The ground floor offers a bright and modern bar space with video screens playing chart hits; downstairs is a clubbier room where fresh-faced types of all genders dance to pop and dance remixes. A second Ku Bar on nearby Frith Street offers a more sedate spin on the same experience.
This old-school gay pub is situated halfway between Soho and Heaven, hence the name. It tends to attract a more mature crowd, and the drag performers will be doing Olivia, not Ariana. The ground floor is a laidback bar space, but the basement gets much clubbier and cruisier on Friday and Saturday nights. Halfway is definitely worth a pitstop whether you’re heading to Heaven or not; just don’t be surprised if you end up having a second round there after all.
Shockingly, this cave-like Soho basement bar is now London’s only exclusively lesbian venue, and it takes this responsibility seriously. Unless you identify as a queer female or arrive with plenty of queer female mates, you probably won’t get in. Run by the team behind Ku Bar, SHE has a similar flair for laying on entertainment: as well as club nights, it regularly offers comedy, cabaret, karaoke and quiz evenings. BOi BOX, a monthly drag king talent contest, is definitely worth popping in your Google calendar.
Opened in 2011, Circa is one of Soho’s more versatile LGBT spaces. Swing by in the afternoon and you’ll find large leather sofas perfect for sinking into over a catch-up with mates. But later on, the dancefloor area at the back fills up as DJs spin club hits and pop remixes until 1am. It’s worth noting that Circa attracts a more image-conscious crowd than many Soho drinking spots. This isn’t a place where anyone goes in for ‘geek chic’ or ‘normcore’: tight T-shirts and skinny jeans are more the thing.
This famous gay pub in the heart of Soho has been operating continuously since the early nineteenth century. There’s so much more to its history than the well-documented nail bomb attack of 1999: for example, it was once home a wooden-legged ex-sailor transported to Australia for throwing stones at King William IV. Today, the Admiral Duncan remains a friendly and unpretentious Soho stalwart that generally attracts a crowd of slightly older gay gents. If the jukebox isn’t blasting out ’80s and ’90s hits, popular Soho drag queens like Baga Chipz will probably be on crooning duty instead.
If your idea of gay life was shaped by ’90s TV show ‘Queer as Folk’, then Rupert Street is probably the bar for you. It’s a little bit of Manchester’s Canal Street in the heart of London’s Soho. The staff are buff and brisk, and the punters fancier than average. It’s the sort of place where gay young professionals share a bottle of prosecco after work before getting more flirtatious later on. In the summer, drinkers spill out on to the street and it’s fun shuttling between Rupert Street and The Yard, which is handily located right across the road.
Molly Moggs is a proper Soho legend: it may look like a typical British pub, but some time around twilight it turns into London’s most famous (and raucous) drag venue. Passers-by who peer through the windows are often tempted inside, where they’ll probably be greeted by an affectionate ribbing from whoever is on stage. The drinks are a touch pricier than you might expect and there isn’t much space, but Molly Moggs gets away with it. You can’t say you’ve truly ‘done’ LGBT London until you’ve heard a blowsy drag queen blag her way through Abba here.
This busy bears’ pub has been around for ever, and attracts a loyal crowd of stocky, hairy, beardy guys who like a pint. The aesthetic is old-school and cosy: you could be in a country pub, except it’s crammed with gay men. There’s a DJ on Saturdays and karaoke on Sundays, but the King’s Arms often shows live sport too. Located a five-minute stroll from Old Compton Street, it’s worth trying if you fancy seeing a different side to Soho. Everyone is welcome, though obviously it helps if you have a beard and a thing for gentlemen in plaid shirts.
This large bar overlooking Old Compton Street is nearly always busy. Decent drink deals help, but Village also succeeds because of its appealing ambience. Downstairs is a louche L-shaped space with cute corner seating; upstairs is a calmer room that’s great for people watching if you can bag a window seat. Though there are often go-go dancers at weekends – a rarity in London – Village doesn’t just attract gay men; it’s a sexy yet welcoming venue for all members of the LGBT community.
This traditional two-floor pub attracts a similar (though less cruisey) crowd to Comptons. Downstairs is a decent-sized drinking space with more standing room than seats; upstairs is a cosier lounge bar that can be hired for private events. The ambience is more chilled than many Soho venues, but it fills up quickly on Friday nights and weekends. There’s ’80s music on Sundays and a ’90s night on Tuesdays, but The Duke of Wellington is most inviting on Mondays, when many drinks cost £2. Even Soho’s Tardis-like Wetherspoon’s, The Cross Keys, can’t beat those prices.
This Soho cocktail bar isn’t a designated LGBT venue, but because of its location and laissez-faire ambience, anyone on the LGBT spectrum should feel right at home. A daily happy hour where you can grab a pornstar martini for £5.50 sums up Freedom Bar’s appeal: it simply offers a winning combination of value and glamour. On busier nights, bar staff will open up the basement disco, which has a notorious stripper pole – any Soho regular can tell you about the time(s) they saw Denise Welch swinging around it.