This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)
London nightlife is busy and crowded. But it’s exploring the Soho bars that you realize it can be also fun and full of life. The first thing that came to my mind when I thought of Soho was “booze“. Then I educated myself to the art of fine dining and secret bars, known only to the locals. Let me introduce you to some of the best restaurants in London Soho, and why you should add them to your next trip to London. Believe me: there’s nothing else like Soho, and if you’ve never been there, it’s time to make things right!
Soho London: interesting facts
Soho used to be part of King Henry VIII’s hunting grounds and back then it was heavily wooded. The name Soho comes from “So-Ho“: a cry used by the hunters when they spotted a small prey in the woods.
Nowadays it has become a pretty popular destination for those interested in London nightlife. It’s the place where you’ll find live entertainment, mouth-watering food and lots of cool shops.
While I thought at first that the only interesting thing in Soho was booze, I realized quite soon that I was completely wrong.
Soho is lively, free and untamed. You’ll see it for yourself when you’ll notice the many sex shops, strip bars, burlesque shows and LGBT bars. Why we loved it? It was actually refreshing to walk around in such a colorful area. The things that would be frowned upon somewhere else, in Soho are completely normal… at long last! I love how you can just be yourself over there!
Soho is at the heart of London’s live music and clubbing scene. Some of the best bars in Soho London are located near popular venues where Eric Clapton, The Who, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and many others have offered the most amazing performances of their career.
If you look at the buildings as you walk around, you’ll notice dark blue plaques that tell you a lot of interesting facts. The places where Karl Marx or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived, or even where David Bowie recorded Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Yes, in case you were wondering, I have been kind of fangirling over this one, much like I did on our Manchester tour whenever we saw a famous movie location or music venue!
If you’re a keen observer, you’ll surely notice also some tiny noses on several buildings in Soho. In 1997 the artist Rick Buckley placed them under a few CCTV cameras to protest against the rise in government surveillance. He was trying to say “keep your nose off our business“.
The Soho noses have since then become the subject of myths and stories among the locals. You’ll find 7 of them, but you’ll have to pay a lot of attention to do so!
Bars in Soho: why they’re different from Italian bars
When people go out at night to eat some delicious Italian food in Italy, they always ask for a table. Soho nightlife is the opposite. Unless it’s raining (and we’ve been told that sometimes they do it even when it’s cold and damp), the Londoners like to drink their pint outside of the pubs.
As you walk the narrow streets of Soho, you’ll probably see a lot of people standing outside of the best pubs, drinking beer and talking to their friends or colleagues. It doesn’t mean that all the tables inside are busy. You’re not looking at a line of people waiting to be seated, so just walk inside: you could find quite a lot of free tables!
Best food in Soho… or is that Chinatown?
Not many people associate Soho with good food. Yet it’s a shame, because some of the best restaurants in London are located in this area. The locals tend to associate Chinatown to Soho, so some of our suggestions are actually in Chinatown. The two districts are so close that you can walk from one to the other in just a few minutes!
You will recognize Chinatown, one of the most colorful London photography spots, by the big, red gates, and the red lanterns hanging above the streets.
Here you’ll find some of the very best Asian restaurants in London, as well as shops selling ingredients you won’t find anywhere else.
Some of the best restaurants in Soho serve international food, and I mean the best espresso we’ve ever had outside of Italy (coffee in Naples is an art, so we’re pretty picky!), delicious dim sum, Jamon iberico, and much more.
To make sure you experience the real Soho nightlife vibe, you’ll have to add some of the “secret” bars and restaurants to your foodie itinerary in London. Keep reading for some very useful tips on where to find the best hidden restaurants in Soho London!
Finding the Basement Sate is pretty difficult. From Broadwick Street there’s no sign. You have to actually walk to an unmarked door, where you’ll read a small plaque that we found a bit… weird.
“This is not a brothel, there are no prostitutes at this address“.
The wonders of Soho London!
Not far from this plaque you’ll find another one, golden and pretty old, with the bar’s name. Yet to get inside you’ll need to climb down the stairs, walk through a dark corridor and in the end you’ll finally find yourself in front of yet another unmarked door.
Once you push the door, you’ll enter one of the fanciest bars in Soho. The Parisian vibe is quite obvious. Dark wood, intimate spaces, exposed bricks and comfortable leather couches make it a super-relaxing and cool bar.
The focus is both on the cocktails and the food. At the Basement Sate in fact they serve delicious desserts, the kind of instagrammable and yummy dishes that feed both the eyes and the stomach.
I mean… they even have a cigar cake which comes into a box of “San Cristobal de La Habana” and that is a must-eat if you love chocolate, since it’s actually made of smoked dark chocolate and filled with chocolate whisky mousse and hazelnut praline.
I tried the hazelnut rocher pudding that you see in the picture on this page, and absolutely loved it!
If you’re looking for a cozy bar where you can relax during a London night tour, by all means, stop by at the Basement Sate: it’s worth the hassle to find it!
I promised you hidden Soho bars that you’d never find on your own, right? Well, how does a bar you access through a bookcase sounds to you?
The Vault is hidden behind the oldest whiskey shop in London (Milroy’s of Soho). You’d never guess that the old bookcase is a hidden door to get to a secret bar, and there are no signs pointing to it.
You’ll just have to walk there, lightly push the bookcase and boom! You’ll find yourself inside a neon-lit hallway. Get down to the basement, to a candlelit cocktail den which is considered one of the coolest places to enjoy the Soho nightlife.
Because the space is limited and The Vault is almost always fully packed, it’s important to book ahead… even if you just want to have a look at this hidden Soho gem!
Just like Milroy’s upstairs, also The Vault focusses on whisky, served straight or mixed into a series of complex cocktails. They also have live music nights, often jazz, so always check online because when there’s music, this bar is even more crowded!
In case you’re looking for Soho bars specialized in delicious gin cocktails, The London Gin Club is the perfect place to go.
If you want the easy way out, order their mean gin & tonic with a British meat pie. Why am I saying this? Well, the fact is that they sell nearly 200 gins, and the cocktail list is absolutely huge. I don’t know about you but after like 3 pages on the menu I started to feel confused: so many different cocktails and just one me!
The best way to go might be a tasting menu. They start from £25, with four or eight gins that will be served to you by an expert.
From the outside The London Gin Club looks like an old building, like many others in London. Yet it’s a hidden gem that the Londoners almost don’t talk about, since they don’t want it to get too crowded!
This is one of the best bars in Soho if you’re looking for a friendly atmosphere, with fantastic service and an amazing choice of gins.
The Swift Bar is one of the best bars in Soho, and also pretty popular. So why did I add it to this list?
Not many people know that there’s yet another area downstairs at the Swift, which is a seated venue, with a strong focus on whisky and cocktails.
You can only access the Downstairs area if you’ve booked a table, and since it’s a bit expensive, the Londoners like to go there to celebrate a special event, anniversaries, birthdays, romantic dates and… well. There’s always a good reason to go drinking Downstairs at the Swift Bar!
Unlike the sparkling bark on the ground level, Downstairs is a dark lounge, very cozy, quiet and particularly elegant.
They serve great prosecco-based drinks, and Al particularly loved the one with lemon sorbet floating on top!
The staff is very attentive and ready to offer you tips and suggestions on cocktails and food.
The Blind Pig is hidden above the Social Eating House, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Soho. You’ll find it under an unassuming “Optician” sign. It’s one of our very favorite bars in Soho London because it fuels our… nerdiness (is it even a word?).
The menu looks like a notebook, with illustrations on different stories. Cocktails at The Blind Pig in fact are inspired by literature. So you will find a Baggin’s Shire Brew dedicated to the Lord of the Rings, a Robin Hood Quince of thieves, and so on.
Because I’m such a huge fan of Lord of the Rings, there was no way we could miss this, even if I’m not much of a drinker! Al actually loved his Baggin’s Shire Brew, and I enjoyed the “Capone-style” lounge, with mismatched furniture and an antique mirrored ceiling!
Hidden Soho restaurants and eateries
La Bodega Negra is one of the best restaurants in Soho for Mexican food. And one of those places where Al kept on saying “I would’ve never thought there’s a restaurant here” while they served us food.
The fact is that the entrance to La Bodega Negra is actually a sex shop. Or better, it used to be, so the owners have decided to keep the “Adult Shop” neon signs outside. As you walk inside, you’ll see a mannequin wearing a PVC gimp suit. It’s almost like a test: will you be brave enough to truly live the London nightlife without fear? Will you care if someone sees you actually stepping into an Adult Shop with your chin held high?
We made it! After descending the stairs, into the bowels of the ex sex shop, the corridor was almost pitch black and quite loud (the light bulbs have been blacked out: it’s part of the “trial“). Then you step into a lovely restaurant, which smells of good food and has a homely feel. You won the right to sit at the table to enjoy a meal!
Me and Aldo ate their soft flour tacos, with a mix of spicy meat and a different take on fish’n’chips, crunchy fish fingers with lime sauce, potatoes and greens. Everything was delicious!
One of the popular dishes at La Bodega Negra is the Seafood cazuela, a paella with clams, squid, prawns and mussels.
You can sit at the table for two hours, but if you want to stay longer, you can camp to the bar (that’s what we did).
In case you’re not brave enough to step in from the main entrance, through the Adult Shop, La Bodega Negra has a smaller and inconspicuous second entrance. For the no-thrill kind of people. Yet let me tell you… it feels like cheating!
Opium is not only one of the very best hidden Soho bars/restaurants: it’s our favorite spot in Soho.
Many people stop at the Dumplings’ Legend, a restaurant on the ground floor. It’s difficult to notice the tiny “Opium” plaque on the wall next to a blue door. There was a bulky bouncer next to it and stepping inside felt a bit like intruding into a private party.
Opium is one of the few real luxury bars in Soho, but to get there not only you have to go through their bouncer – you’ll also have to climb quite a few stairs (high heels alert: be careful unless you’re a pro!). This tiny cocktail bar is located at the very top of the building and as the name suggests, it used to be an opium den.
Tip: if the light next to the entrance is on, it means you can go upstairs. If it’s off, the Opium is fully booked already.
Inside you’ll find four different areas, each with its own personality, yet all dimly lit and pretty romantic. The Londoners often go to this cool restaurant in Soho to celebrate something or for a special date.
While prices are a bit higher than usual, Opium makes some mean dim sum and is very popular for some of their signature cocktails, like the Opium Cocktail Number One and the Double Bubble cocktail, with tapioca balls, served hot with a fortune cookie.
Me and Al sat in the area called “The Academy“: there’s a large communal table where the bartenders craft their intricate cocktails. Al tried their “A rose by any other name“, made with vodka infused with rose, Mondino Amaro, orange flower water, lemon and Champagne: he loved it.
Since I’m not a huge drinker, I treated myself to a white tea with violet buds, served in a cute Chinese teapot.
Our favorite treats were the King prawn dumplings and the lobster dumplings: a must-try!
Since the cocktails are delicious and very sweet, Al asked me to warn you to go easy on them, as they go straight to your head!
Enrique Tomas is very popular among those who enjoy the Soho nightlife. A lot of people think at first glance that it has to be a ham shop, and that’s what it looks like.
They sell little cones of Jamon iberico at £ 5.50 (which look like the “cuoppi” you can eat in Naples), as a snack you can enjoy while walking, before or after drinking your pint of beer. Another one of the popular options is their baguette bread with Jamon: the price varies according to the kind of Jamon you want in the baguette.
Yet Enrique Tomas is much more. This shop in Soho is the first branch outside of Spain that they opened, and while it’s a no-frills space, it has a few tables at the back. You can in fact request a tasting experience.
A member of the staff will bring over a glass of red wine and a bowl of crackers. You will then be presented a dish with three different kinds of Jamon iberico, and three slices of Spanish cheese. The staff member will guide you through the tasting, asking you to sip some wine or eat a cracker to clean your mouth before you eat another slice on your plate.
We had so much fun, not only because both cheese and Jamon were absolutely delicious, but because we have learned a lot about Jamon iberico.
While in Italy we also have prosciutto, Jamon is much more expensive: a whole leg can cost more than £800.
Since Aldo’s family in South Lazio (near Frosinone) used to produce prosciutto, he was very interested in learning about how it’s done in Spain: the process is pretty different and our Spanish guide was amazingly knowledgeable, answering each and every question. I mean… that alone is a good reason to get back for more. They truly have a passion for jamon!
Nellie Dean looks like many other bars in Soho by night. It’s crowded, with a lot of people drinking beer on the outside.
Yet if you ask for a Pieminister experience, you’ll be walked to another area of this pub. Upstairs at Nellie’s is a small, cozy room in a building that dates back to 1900 and is Grade II-listed.
Being a real British pub, here you can choose an award winning British pie, add a side, select a beer… and ask your server what kind of gravy goes better with your order.
Me and Al tried the “Moo” pie, with beef steak and gem ale: the meat actually melted in our mouth. It was absolutely delicious!
The three best beers they serve are the Fuller’s London Pride, the Sharp’s Doom Bar and the Timothy Taylor Landlord.
The thing I particularly liked, and that I didn’t notice in many Soho restaurants, is that they have gluten free pies, made in a dedicated gluten free kitchen, so there’s no risk of gluten contamination. This is very thoughtful, as it’s not easy to find real gluten-free food: when you’re traveling and have a food allergy, eating out can be a real pain.
Hats off to The Nellie Dean!
Special mention: best coffee in Soho
While I’m aware that the entrance to Bar Italia can hardly be considered a secret, me and Al found this to be one of the hidden gems in Soho.
Being used to drink coffee in Naples, we are particularly picky when it comes to espresso when we’re on the road. Of course we are aware of the fact that it can’t be the same as home, but this doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy a good cuppa.
Well, after trying espresso at Bar Italia, we decided that it’s one of the best bars in Soho if you want to drink real cappuccino and a good cup of Italian coffee.
This place has become an institution in London, and uses a real Italian coffee machine (Gaggia).
Note it down also because it’s probably the only bar which stays open almost the whole day in Soho. They only close between 5am and 7am, so if you’re in need of a coffee to sober up after having experienced the London nightlife, by all means, stop here!
Are you a solo traveler? A few tips!
Traveling solo can be a bit overwhelming, especially in a city like London, which is always full of life and never really sleeps.
While talking to a friend in London, she confessed that many female solo travelers feel unsafe, especially when they have to go out on their own in the City at night.
Soho, in particular, seems to give off a bad vibe. Because it’s such a colorful, wild and busy district, solo travelers feel very much intimidated.
Believe me: it happens also to the seasoned travelers!
My tip is to plan a short tour in London, using a reliable company, to meet new friends. If it hits off, you can explore with the others: it will be lots of fun!
I’m absolutely not telling you that to explore London you should rip your itinerary in two and let someone else plan it for you. Add an extra activity or an experience that you can enjoy with a tour. It will be less expensive and you’ll still be able to socialize!
In my experience the best tours are always those with smaller groups. Sure, if you go out with twenty other people there are more chances to meet people… or you might end keeping to yourself the whole time, because it’s easy to feel alone also if you are among people.
Eating Europe: the best food tours in London
A Soho food tour can be a great option to meet new people and to just enjoy yourself.
As I mentioned, it can be difficult to locate some of the hidden bars in Soho. And finding a table is sometimes a mission impossible, especially if you’re on your own. Sad, but true.
Let an experienced company deal with all the hassle, and just enjoy the night with your new friends!
Many of their tours are kept strictly under wraps until the end, so you will receive a list of the places you will experience only when you’re actually supposed to take part to the tour. This means that the whole experience can be considered a bit of a “secret tour“!
Our experience of their London Soho night tour was absolutely fantastic. The group was tiny: only 5 people. What does it mean? We got to actually chat with the other participants for the whole time. And it was lovely! By mid-tour we were already showing off pictures of our pets, discussing the best shops to find amazing shoes in London and talking about Dolly Parton. Because… people, “Jolene” is absolutely fab!
I won’t lie: we have been invited to other tours in London in the past and we didn’t have nearly as much fun as we’ve had with Eating Europe.
A food tour isn’t only about the food, even if it’s of course the main thing (doh!). Having a fun, local guide who knows all the interesting facts (our guide, Adam, was a powerhouse), and who can break the ice when you first meet the others, is a very important thing that not every company considers.
Planning a food tour with Eating Europe means getting to know new people, letting the company deal with the bookings, and experience a new side of the city that you didn’t know before. No one knows London better than a local guide, and no matter how much you can take notes from a Lonely Planet: you will always miss that bit of local knowledge that makes the difference!
So if you’re traveling solo, if it’s your first experience as a female solo traveler and you don’t feel like navigating Soho on your own at night, don’t be afraid and book with Eating Europe. We have already tested them several times and couldn’t be happier.
Eating Europe offers several tours in London, Rome, Florence, Amsterdam, Prague, Lisbon and Paris. They have become our go-to company whenever we’re planning a food tour and I hope you’ll have the chance to experience their services. They’re definitely worth it!
The Eating Europe tours in London are:
- The East End Food Tour
- The Twilight Soho Food & Cocktail Tour
- The London Old Docks – Historic Pubs, Food & Beer Tour