There's more to Carnaby than the clichés: what I discovered on a weekend in London's pop-cultural heartland
Peter Ormerod explores one of the capital's most storied districts
There's no shortage of clichés when it comes to Carnaby Street and its environs. Those 1960s newsreels voiced with a plummy raffishness telling of hair getting longer and skirts getting shorter, the bright and brash music, the swirling colours, swinging this, cool that.
But visiting today, it soon becomes clear the place deserves better. This particular enclave of the West End may be in the middle of London but remains resolutely off-centre, reaching further back into the past and forward into the future than the tired iconography of bubble cars and Mod roundels would have you believe.
The word Carnaby has extended beyond the street itself to describe the area around it. This does not seem like a mere marketing contrivance: they share plenty of history and places and people. More than that, they appear to share a way of seeing the world.
It is difficult to imagine a better base from which to explore it than the Soho Hotel. It is a simply wondrous place: this much is clear the moment you are greeted at the door by a ten-foot black cat crafted by the Colombian master Fernando Botero. The interiors are by co-owner Kit Kemp, and to walk through the rooms, halls and lobbies feels like walking through the mind of a genius. It is no surprise that she has been named House & Garden’s Hotel Designer of the Year and Andrew Martin International Interior Designer of the Year, or that her work has earned her a Conde Nast Traveller award for Best Hotel in the World for Design. It's fun, exuberant, detailed, exquisite, individual; when it needs to be, it can also be elegant, refined, restrained, dignified. There are things here that no mortal would ever put together, but logic and convention are no match for Kemp's blend of imagination and skill. Disparate elements fuse alchemically. Its beautiful originality puts so much contemporary design in the shade: little here is concerned with being cool or slick. Rather, it delights in joy and charm.
This spirit appears to infuse the staff, too: they are faultlessly professional but pleasingly playful and down-to-earth. Luxury hotels - when this opened in 2004, it was Soho's first - can be a touch intimidating and haughty, but there is none of that here. Our suite was certainly sizeable but still felt somehow intimate; a vinyl turntable and record collection, reflecting the heritage of the area, brought its own sonic colour. Proportioned perfectly and lit immaculately, it was immediately comfortable and the right side of opulent.
Tempting as it was just to stay and savour it all, we had to places to go and things to do a few minutes' walk away in Carnaby Street. The Rolling Stones have long been a brand as much as a band, and this is made explicit by RS No 9 Carnaby. It has its own exclusive fashion label, an array of Stones-related accessories and, yes, their records too. All this can be browsed while enjoying watching the band on a big screen doing what they arguably do best. A tribute to their late drummer Charlie Watts on the door was a nice touch. The whole enterprise is a testament to the Stones' vision of creating a world around the band.
A few doors up is War Paint for Men, which proclaims itself the world's first make-up store for men. There has been no shortage of peacocks strutting about Carnaby Street through the decades, but this is not a flamboyant or garish shop: it is at ease blending an unshowy and contemporary masculinity with products rarely associated with such a thing. There's an in-house pop-up barber, a machine that makes bespoke foundation or tinted moisturiser and a virtual assistant to answer any make-up-related query. It's the ideal place for the man who may be interested in beauty products but is uncertain where to start.
Time for lunch. And there can be few more vibrant places to eat in central London than Kingly Court, a bustling, buzzing hive of culinary delights just off Carnaby Street. The three-storey alfresco dining destination has more than 20 restaurants, bars and cafés situated in an energetic courtyard. On the top floor is Imad's Syrian Kitchen, a restaurant exuding warmth, hospitality and an understated confidence, all in light and fresh surroundings. A lot of places do sharing plates these days but it really makes sense here, with dishes complementing each other commendably. A salad of halloumi noodles, watermelon, rocket and za’atar, a Baba Ghanoj comprising aubergine, tahini and pomegranate seeds, a Kabab Hindi with minced lamb, chopped tomatoes, mixed spices and pine nuts - there's mellowness, richness, acidity, crispness, softness, sweetness, saltiness, and not an ounce of heaviness: it left the mouth ringingly sharp and fresh. Followed up by a pistachio ice cream topped with candyfloss, and thick Syrian coffee with cardamom pods, it made for cheering fare. And it's all done with a big heart and a broad smile from the marvellous Imad and his team.
Shopping around Carnaby isn't much like shopping anywhere else. Huge global concerns in the corporate sense nestle alongside independent artisan makers and craftspeople, many of whose wares are then prized by huge global concerns in the celebrity sense. So there's Seven Mor and Mor London, which are just around the corner from each other, selling jewellery with such personality you expect it to start talking. It's all proudly human, perfectly imperfect; it gives the impression of never having been within a mile of a machine. It is glorious and full of life and relaxed and happy.
For something completely different, there's the NBA Store, all unapologetic boldness and brightness, although with a bit more subtlety than one might expect. For fans of American basketball, the place must be heaven, with vests and accessories for everyone from the Atlanta Hawks to the Washington Wizards, from the Boston Celtics to the Los Angeles Lakers. Caps, equipment, paraphernalia, merchandise galore - it's all here, with matches playing out on a big screen too.
Back to the independents and we're amid the glories of Annie's Ibiza. It's a fashion haunt favoured by, among others, Kate Moss, Rita Ora, Paris Hilton, Peggy Gou, Maria Carla Boscono, Giovanna Battaglia and Maya Jama, who travel especially for Annie’s one-of-a-kind pieces. Again, it's not offputtingly cool or pompous - it's vibrant and sunny and welcoming, bedecked with golden curtains and radiant works of sartorial art. It's a few yards away from The Great Frog, which is now its 37th year and has made its name within the international fashion and jewellery industry catering to a niche clientele of rockers, bikers and those on the edge of the mainstream. Pieces depicting the darker side of life - skulls, snakes, goats' heads - are rendered with great care and skill, bringing a delicate edge to heavyweight imagery. It's produced bespoke pieces for a cross section of the fashion & music industry since 1972, including for Metallica, Iron Maiden and Aerosmith as well as the likes of Naomi Campbell, Alex Turner, Alice Dellal, Alexa Chung and Kate Moss (honestly, her again).
There are delights around every corner. They include the first Mallet London store, whose dark and moody atmosphere reflects the luxury of the brand while still feeling inviting (the footwear especially is something to behold). Aubin does the classy cool British men's fashion thing very well; its clothes marry weight and wit, quality and character. Celebrating authenticity and longevity, Aubin is underpinned by the belief that better is greater than more, and its relaxed style would sharpen up any wardrobe.
A couple of minutes' walk away is Ganni, yet another vivacious place to shop. Starting out in 2000 by an art connoisseur and gallery owner's desire to create the perfect cashmere knit, it has developed over recent years with its Scandi sense of style. It has 21 concept stores across Denmark, Norway Sweden, with this its first UK store. The smiles that bedeck some of its outfits are quite infectious; it's hard not to enjoy yourself there.
Of course, Carnaby Street can be enjoyed without having to step into a shop. It has an array of decorations expressing its individuality. Shimmering arches bookend the street, with glistening rainbows arching over the pedestrianised thoroughfare. Pink festoon lights wind over neighbouring streets, while one has an installation of 51 giant LED bulbs hanging above it; they light up in a spectrum of colour, creating a mesmerising light show.
It was under those pink lights that we had dinner at INO, Bringing bold Greek flavours to Carnaby, from the team behind OPSO and the Michelin-starred Funky Gourmet in Athens, INO prizes the Greek tradition of cooking over charcoal. The result is a treat for the senses and something of an adventure for those accustomed to convention. Sharing plates are once again the mode of delivery: in our case, these were the carpaccio of the fish of the day with unripe olive oil (smoky and refreshing), taramas with slow-cooked yolk and pitta bread (creamy and texturally enthralling), the Funky slider burger with tahini brioche and tartare sauce (packing a whole heap of flavour and fun into a few centimetres of food), Gyros Iberico pork Secreto with tzatziki and tomato sauce on olive oil flatbread (a bit like a pizza that's gone to Oxbridge, only better and more enjoyable), a lamb chop with michichurri and a Greek yoghurt labneh, presented on a miniature forest of rosemary (melting, juicy, gently sweet) and a Greek salad with barrel matured feta and mint (proving that absolutely nothing beats simple, beautiful ingredients treated lovingly). A glass of Karydas proved a sublime accompaniment. Then a short stroll under those giant lightbulbs to the little but lively Bar Crispin for lush Neal's Yard cheeses and an orangey glass of Montesecondo, bringing the night to a sweet, sharp and satisfying conclusion.
For a building at the heart of everything, it transpired that the Soho Hotel is a great place just to sleep: you'd never know that you were in the middle of one of the world's great cities. My repose had been of such depth and duration that a breakfast of substance seemed the correct way to proceed. This was taken in the hotel's Refuel restaurant, named in honour of its former life as a car park (it is difficult to countenance a greater transformation, despite the fact the decor includes some typically artful petrol cans). The Soho full English breakfast does everything you might want it to, even throwing in a mix of streaky and back bacon for the particularly hard-to-please, along with eggs poached to an almost transcendent state. They do gluten-free bread expertly as well; testaments to excellence in the baking arts come no greater.
We also realised the hotel held many more splendid charms. It comprises 96 bedrooms and suites. There are two spacious drawing rooms and four private event rooms plus a fully equipped gym. There are four spectacular fifth-floor penthouse suites, each with wrap-around tree-lined terraces and views stretching across London. Perhaps most impressively of all, it has two state-of-the art cinemas, the smaller of which - equipped with plush sofas - seems like an unimprovable place to watch a film.
Having fed the stomach, it was time to feed the soul. Carnaby Echoes is an enlightening and invigorating way to learn more about the area's peerless musical heritage, from the jazz clubs of the 1920s to Deal Real, the hip hop record shop and musical hangout that hosted performers including Amy Winehouse and Kanye West between 2002 and 2007. A mobile app is your guide as you listen to music and voices telling the remarkable story. Along the way are premises that once housed the likes of the 1950s coffee and skiffle bar The Cat's Whisker, jazz club The Nest, where Fats Waller was a regular, the goth-punk club the Batcave - popular with figures such as Marc Almond and Siouxsie & the Banshees - fashion and accessories shop Street Theatre (once the workplace of Boy George), r'n'b and reggae club The Roaring Twenties, the offices of the NME and Smash Hits, which overlooked each other to amusing effect, and Tatty Bogle, the transvestite and transsexual club night that ran until 1999. It is a reminder of what this place once was, but it never feels like a harking-back to the 'good old days' - more a celebration of this remarkable place.
And remarkable it still is. It may be more orderly, neat and tidy than it once was, and the anarchic air that fuelled pop-cultural revolutions may be altogether cleaner now. But there remains a fierce independence of spirit, and Carnaby today stands as a testament to doing things differently, to creativity, to difference, to the best sort of individualism. It's five minutes away from Piccadilly Circus but feels like a different world. Its past echoes through it; it's time for the wider world to listen again.
* Peter Ormerod stayed at the Soho Hotel for the weekend of September 11 and 12, 2021. Visit Carnaby for more information about the area.