The Algerian Coffee Stores on Old Compton Street was open when I bicycled into Soho last Thursday afternoon. So was the whisky shop (and wine merchant) Vintage House. In the early 1990s I’d buy a bottle there and go with it to Lorelei, the pizzeria on Bateman Street, which closed almost a decade ago. Then onto Alistair Little on Frith Street for pudding. Now it’s as easy to picture the restaurants, bars and shops that are long gone as it is to imagine the life in the places that are shut because of the pandemic.
With so few people on the streets, your eyes are drawn upwards. I’ve walked or cycled down Rupert Street countless times but have never before noticed the Exchange and Bullion Office at No. 9. The Survey of London says they were the offices of Benjamin Smart, a gold dealer in the 18th and 19th centuries.
At 19-21 Old Compton Street was Wheeler’s. No book about Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, John Minton or Frank Auerbach can fail to mention this fish restaurant – ‘the sea in Soho’, as it was known. Those artists often met there. Oysters came from Whitstable, on Kent’s north shore, where the original Wheeler’s began. On the menu were so many versions of Dover sole that the place could have been renamed All Soles: Meunière, Mornay, Véronique, Marguery, Normande, Maison, Pommery, Capri, St Germain, Antoine, Egyptienne, Alcove, Maryland, Walewska, Cubat, Florentine, Sicilian, Portugaise, Colbert, and on and on to, finally, Sole Dubarry. Wheeler’s cookery book explains how to make the last dish. ‘Poach the sole in fish stock, and trim off the side bones, head and tail. Cover half the fish with wine sauce and half with lobster sauce. Glaze under the grill.’ But maybe you’d prefer the Alcove.
Buñuel said he could never find a decent bar in Paris, but there were ‘superb cafés’: ‘you can always find a table, and a waiter to take your order,’ he wrote in his autobiography, My Last Breath. ‘Without cafés, without tabacs, without those marvellous terraces, Paris is unimaginable. If they suddenly disappeared, it would be like living in a city that had been levelled by an atomic bomb.’ Soho still stands, despite the pandemic, even if its streets are currently dead.