Travel review: London’s Carnaby and Soho

Carnaby Street.
Carnaby Street.
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It’s one of London’s most famous thoroughfares. But 50 years after Carnaby Street came into its own during the Swinging Sixties, Sarah Freeman checks out what it has to offer today’s visitors.

It’s 9pm and we’re on one of the most famous streets in London. We’re also lost. We’ve been told to go for cocktails at a bar where the clocks stopped ticking in 1946. It’s underground, designed as a 1940s Tube station, and the key to finding the entrance is to look out for a sign that says “To the train…”

We find it eventually via the back entrance of a nearby restaurant. Cahoots, just off Carnaby Street, is exactly as billed – a quirky theme bar where the menu comes as a newspaper and where the cocktails, which have names like Vera Lynn and Katharine Hepburn, are served in hip flasks and vintage milk bottles. The lighting is so dim it’s never entirely clear what you are drinking and, while it’s unashamedly targeted at tourists and the after-work crowd, it’s fun enough and better when they have a live band on.

Better still though is the rest of the food and drink emporiums that now line Kingly Court. It has had a bit of a makeover in recent years and the three storeys are now lined with independent and pop-up restaurants that offer everything from gourmet burgers to traditional Jewish breakfasts.

It’s all part of a move by the company that owns every single building in the 14 streets which make up the Carnaby Street area to give the place a future equal to its past. It’s no easy task. This is after all the place which was the most fashionable postcode in London.

It was where John Stephen, the man the papers dubbed as the £1m mod, began his menswear business, where Mary Quant opened a boutique and where the likes of Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney hung out.

The only celebrities we saw during our stay were the ones whose portraits adorn the carefully preserved cells in the old Marlborough Street Courthouse, now a hotel of the same name. John Lennon is there, as is Jagger and Christine Keeler, and while the decor is a mishmash of contemporary design, Eastern influences and the traditional courthouse architecture, it’s in a brilliant location to explore both Carnaby Street and neighbouring Soho.

The independent boutiques have largely been replaced by high street names, though there are still a couple of surviving mod shops in the Newburgh Quarter which have changed little in the intervening decades and it’s worth checking out The Great Frog jewellery shop. A favourite of bikers and metal fans, it sells the biggest, baddest skull rings you’re ever likely to see.

It’s the clash of opposites that makes Carnaby Street special, so just around the corner is the Liberty department store, which makes John Lewis look positively low rent. Famed for its floral prints, designer labels and high-end furniture, it’s worth spending an hour just browsing the various floors and imagining what life would be like if money were no object.

The best thing though about the Carnaby Street district has to be its food and once you’ve checked in, it’s easy to spend a weekend without ever stepping on the underground.

One of the latest restaurants to open is Claw which began life as a pop-up until one of its fans bankrolled a permanent restaurant.

As it’s name suggests, its signature dishes are all crab-based. There’s small plates of crab and chips, crab beignets, crab claws and crab mac ’n’ cheese. Too much crab, you think? You’d be wrong and the crab mac ’n’ cheese is the unlikely piece de resistance.

We were still full the following morning, but after parting with some hard-earned cash at the impressive Benefit make-up store (it is a rule universally acknowledged that you can’t go in there without spending £50) we had a pit stop at the Bread Ahead Bakery, which is what every cafe should be like. We had time to devour only a couple of brownies, but it also runs a series of workshops and experience days, including the irresistible-sounding doughnut workshop.

After more shopping, a bit more shopping and an introduction to nail art – my beautifully painted nails courtesy of WAH Nails were gone within 24 hours, but they were nice while they lasted – we stepped over the border into Soho for a night at Duck and Rice, which is best described as “swanky Chinese”.

All the usual favourites are there, like prawn dumplings, salt and pepper squid and beef in oyster sauce, but it’s much more refined – they even do espresso martinis.

Over the last 10 years the rough edges have been smoothed off this part of London, but scratch the surface and the things which made it great are still there.

So grab a pint in the Coach and Horses where the legendary journalist Jeffrey Bernard spent most of his waking hours, buy yourself a Harrington jacket and head to record store Sister Ray and remember a time when people bought albums.

As a weekend itinerary it’s pretty hard to beat.

GETTING THERE

We stayed at the Courthouse Hotel, 19-21 Great Marlborough Street, Soho, London W1F 7HL. 020 7297 5555, courthouse-hotel.com. Room rates start from around £190.

To find out more about Carnaby Street’s 150 shops and over 50 independent restaurants and bars visit Carnaby.co.uk and ThisIsSoho.co.uk

Virgin Trains East Coast (virgintrainseastcoast.com) operates regular services between Yorkshire and London.