It’s the 2030s, at the exit to Crossrail’s Tottenham Court Road station. The narrow arteries of Soho, clogged with dust and dirt for years from the construction works, are cleared. Drills and diggers have stopped, and off the trains step new battalions of consumers, spilling into Soho in their thousands, willing to spend money in restaurants, shops, clubs.
Whether this is nightmare, success or fantasy is not yet clear. Construction on Crossrail 1 began in 2009, forecast to finish in 2018, while the proposed Crossrail 2, if it goes ahead, will stretch to 2030 at the earliest. The influx of crowds, coupled with the decades of tinnitus to small businesses, perhaps forcing them elsewhere, may irreparably damage an already fragile sense that Soho has of its own independent spirit. Or it may be a fillip, and Soho may adapt as it has before to modern demands, bringing progress with it. The historic district at the heart of the capital has long been an open kitchen for chefs with good ideas; but now comes a sharp challenge to whether they survive or not.
Clare Lynch, administrator of the Soho Society, which campaigns for local and heritage interests in the area, sits in a wallpapered drawing room of the House of St Barnabas in Greek Street, a building with a typically Soho mix of contradictory uses in its past: first home to an aristocrat, latterly a women’s refuge, now a private members’ club.
“The local amenity group was set up in 1972, when Soho was under threat of a huge amount of it being demolished and converted into offices. There was due to have been a flyover and plans for canals and tower blocks,” she says. “Then the bubble burst and Soho got conservation status. The amenity society got the right to view every planning and licensing application in the area and comment on those. Every month we have groups who look at every application.”
The applications come thick and fast. Many are minor but enough come with grand designs, backed by powerful investors: “When it comes to the big schemes, by the time they’ve gone in, we’ve had nought per cent impact — we did detailed comments on Walker’s Court [a redevelopment by Soho Estates]; it made no difference. They’ve had experts going through all the planning policies, because they’re spending millions. We always have to try. With the majority of the big ones we may not make a difference, but we might.”
What is certain is the advancement of Crossrail 1, which will link Soho to the new Elizabeth line, stopping at key points west such as Heathrow and Reading. Its new underground station will have an exit and ticket hall at the end of Dean Street, described by Crossrail as “dark and cinematic, reflecting the nocturnal economies that characterise the area. At this site, black is the colour of choice for the glass and stainless steel inside the station.”
For the moment, though, there is very little sense of cinema, only the behind-the-scenes reality of hoardings and high-vis jackets blocking the end of the street. But it hasn’t stopped a business halfway down Dean Street from putting up its own hoardings in the heat of this summer and conducting a quiet, optimistic revamp.
Four townhouses, connected by a warren of staircases and corridors, form the Quo Vadis restaurant and private club (of which I’m a paying member) that the Hart brothers took over in 2008, following in the business footsteps of their father, who runs Hambleton Hall hotel in Rutland. The Harts — Sam, Eddie and youngest sibling recruit James — share an easy, eccentrically glamorous manner, often sporting starched white shirts and well-cut suits, crisply ready to practise the art of geniality, which they take very seriously.
As part of a louche inheritance befitting Soho, the past owner of Quo Vadis left a building each to his ex-wife and ex-mistress. So the Harts have two landladies in their late eighties. “We invite them out for lunch, and they don’t want change and aren’t greedy about the rent. They know we always pay it on time . . . ”
A third landlord, who owns the remaining parts of the building, reflects a harder-headed Soho. “Our rent went up at our rent review [in December 2015] from £90 per sq ft to £135 per sq ft, and we considered that to be really quite a good deal — that’s the scale of the rent increases in Soho. It’s wildly out of control.” Across the street, a building was reportedly let to Wagamama for £650,000 a year.
James says: “You’ve got to find extra revenue to make it pay.” His brother Sam elaborates: “In London it would be normal to have rent as about 10 per cent of turnover. We were consulting on a project in Hong Kong and they had budgeted 30 per cent of turnover. The people who are getting it right [in London] and are really packed have huge turnovers, and they can afford to pay these massive rents. It doesn’t leave any room for a normal business that’s just doing OK, or for an independent that’s taking a loss for six months.”
It’s here that the structural changes at Quo Vadis reflect a wider shift in how the Soho economy operates. Lynch says, “People are finding creative ways of operating in this area. They have to maximise on every square inch. It’s not so easy just to do one thing. QV are utilising every area of the building. The Piano Bar on Carlisle Street charges £5 a year [for membership], and it’s for licensing reasons. It’s a tiny wee place for cocktails but they manage to make it work [with later opening hours].”
The imperative now is to make sure all available space is used: a 24-hour Soho is not driven by revelry but by the need for constant revenue. (It’s no coincidence that the biggest new entrants to the area are hotels such as the Z group.) Quo Vadis’s ground floor has rethought itself to incorporate Barrafina, the Harts’ accomplished tapas arm run by Nieves Barragán, moving there wholesale from Frith Street. The downstairs negroni bar and restaurant is still in place, and upstairs is a new members-only restaurant by Jeremy Lee. In other words, there are no scraps of space that won’t be fit for the pie.
Bar Termini on Old Compton Street also makes little character switches through the day to survive, offering strong espressos during daylight and then dainty, expert cocktails in the evenings. Co-founder Tony Conigliaro says: “I lived on Greek Street for many years, working in and around Soho. I knew the characters and I used to drink at the French [House]. We kind of did [Termini] because people asked us to open somewhere that wasn’t a members’ club. We wanted an Italian-style bar — people come in for £1 coffee not because it’s cheap but because they understand what that means.”
Even if Soho is harder work than it used to be, it does have a warm degree of mutual pavement recognition among the people who work there.
“Although it’s right in the middle of London, there’s a lot of people who are always around,” Sam Hart says, “particularly in the daytime. I think that’s my favourite bit. It becomes less personal in the evening. At 10am it’s only the people who live and work here. We’re great friends with the people in the Sunset Strip next door. Just along is Cuts the barbers, who are members and cut our staff’s hair. The laundry on Berwick Street who do our uniforms is run by a really nice family. There’s a really nice sense of community. That’s the good side.”
James adds wryly: “There are many people semi-resident at the bar.”
Other operators echo this definition of the “good side”. Conigliaro says there are “still quite a few of the old faces. Phil Dirtbox the poet, he’s always around. Groucho’s maître d’ Bernie. Stephen Jones the hatter. [The restaurateur] Alan Yau gets his uniforms done by the tailors, Pokit . . . ”
Good and bad side, there continues to be a darkness to Soho, not of the pre-planned “cinematic’” kind envisioned by Crossrail. Lynch says there has been a resurgence in drug problems and a “rise in the homeless population [that] could be due to greater policing in Paris, which means the homeless move here, that’s what I was told by the police”.
But in the settlement between its different personalities, perhaps Soho will always arrive back at something in between — neither completely homogenised nor completely wild. As Conigliaro says: “There’s always been two levels of Soho — the romance of the old city, and then the level that was hidden and you had to know where to go — even though we’re on the most prominent streets on Soho, there are certain pathways.” Some will always hope there’s a place to get lost here.
Natalie Whittle is FT Weekend Magazine’s associate editor
Photographs: Rick Pushinsky