The French House is Soho’s most infamous pub. It is the London watering spot where an exiled de Gaulle supposedly wrote his call to arms, “À Tous les Français,” and where Dylan Thomas accidentally forgot the manuscript of Under Milk Wood. Dig around on the Internet and you’ll find a clip from Bastille Day, 1989, when the French House’s then landlord, Gaston Berlemont, retired after 37 years at the helm, and all of Soho came to celebrate his mustachioed tenure, including a swaying, drooling Francis Bacon, demonically drunk just shy of his 80th birthday.
Historically, I’ve found the pub’s insistence on serving beer in half-pints a little trying, and their regular clientele somewhat performative, but I’ve recently become friendly with the manager, Hilary Heath, and it’s a nice place to stand—no one really gets to sit—to drink jammy glasses of the house pinot noir at $9. Today, the pub is more rammed than usual, as it’s the start, and finish, for a very peculiar race.
Since the 1950s, the main event of the Soho Village Fete—a sort of village fête held in the heart of the city—has been the Soho Waiters’ Race. Back then, Soho’s servers paced around the course in starched whites and bow ties, racing to the finish line while carrying a tray balancing a bottle of champagne, an ashtray, and a glass—all balanced on one hand.
In the 2020s, the rules remain the same but the outfits have changed: one runner from Balan’s restaurant is topless, but is, however, wearing a bow tie. There are waitstaff, mainly men and mainly youngish, from all of Soho’s renowned restaurants—Kettner’s, Noble Rot, L’Escargot—waiting at the start line, and a jostling line of hi-vis-clad race marshals keeping the crowd back. Dean Street Townhouse, an outpost of the now global Soho House empire, has won the race two years in a row. Will there be a hat trick? Does anyone take it that seriously?
A bank of photographers waits, and then, in a sudden cinematic swoop, two flashing fire engines, sirens blaring, shunt everyone off the road, park on the finish line, and then disgorge a score of firemen to investigate what we later learn is an underground electrical fire, sparked by a discarded cigarette.
Dean Street Townhouse, an outpost of the now global Soho House empire, has won the race two years in a row. Will there be a hat trick?
Earlier in the day, in the garden of the parish church of St. Anne’s— largely destroyed in the Blitz—there had been a tug-of-war match between the Metropolitan Police and the Westminster Fire Brigade, which, true to form, the police had taken far too seriously. Now the defeated firemen and the triumphant policemen compete to put up barricade tape around the French House.
Despite the ongoing emergency, the Waiter’s Race will not be stopped. The start line is moved further up the street, and the crowd shuffles along to take up new vantage points.
It is Bright Kougbe, the general manager of Ronnie Scott’s, the venerable jazz club, who surges through the pack to win by quite some distance. He’s eventually joined by his peers—some jogging, some walking—at the finish line, and there’s a burst of delight as the waiters spray champagne over each other. Here’s young Soho, the people who serve the rest of London their Negronis and roasted pork belly, out in force and drenched in joy.
Over at St. Anne’s, things are more agreeably staid: there’s a ukulele band playing and a cake stall. For more than 30 years, the Reverend Simon Buckley, the rector of St. Anne’s, was one of Britain’s leading puppeteers. He worked on The Muppets and the cult satirical show Spitting Image (puppeteering Margaret Thatcher, among others). Today, he’s a raffish, likable figure at the age of 60 and we talk briefly about crime in the neighborhood, something for which it is infamous.
I work in an office around the corner, on Archer Street, above the Windmill, the neon-tiered pleasure palace that hosted nude variety shows throughout the Blitz. Last week, its co-owner, Ryan Bishti, was convicted of corrupting a police officer, Sergeant Frank Partridge, after videos of a dominatrix whipping Partridge were found on Bishti’s phone.
For Reverend Buckley, issues of crime in the area are misrepresented. It’s not some native deviance on the part of his parish, he says. It’s troublemakers drawn to Soho who make life difficult for his residents. Soho has for many years been the epicenter of L.G.B.T. London, and that means it has among the highest proportion of hate crimes in the capital. But the neighborhood has recently become something of a national obsession because of a perceived lack of sleaziness, with even the Daily Mail publishing a piece on the “death of Old Soho.”
Despite all the obituaries—and they’ve been written for the last 30 years—there’s nowhere else in London that’s maintained its essential character like Soho has. In 1723, if you wanted to have something interesting to eat, meet your friends, have sex, or be entertained, you would head to Soho. In 2023, that remains pretty much true, though there are more bubble-tea shops these days. You can’t have everything, I guess.
Charlie Baker is the editor of The Fence magazine