It offers plenty of pizza joints and chain cafés, serving up overpriced ballast to drinkers stumbling out of the many pubs and clubs, but when it comes to real dining, London's Soho district has been off the radar for some time. In fact, it last bathed in the culinary spotlight in the 1980s, when restaurants like L'Escargot attracted literary and theatrical types by the score. But innovative young restaurateurs are rediscovering the area's advantages, including a central location, heavy pedestrian traffic, proximity to cinemas and theaters and rents made affordable by Soho's loss of luster. With the heavy hitters having moved west long ago, there's also a relative lack of serious competition although that won't be the case for long. Fergus Henderson's nose-to-tail St. John Restaurant, www.stjohnrestaurant.co.uk, is planning a Soho branch. When the very restaurant that kick-started the revival of British seasonal cooking is nosing around the neighborhood, there can be no better proof that Soho is gastronomically edgy again. Here are some other establishments in Soho's new dining wave.
ARBUTUS: Offering a produce-led, bistro style of eating, the Anglo-French Arbutus spearheaded Soho's gastronomic resurgence and keeps prices reasonable by utilizing neglected cheaper cuts creatively. This is the place to go for things like gratin of tripe, crispy boneless chicken wings or cured boar's cheek. Near constants on Anthony Demetre's seasonal menu include squid and mackerel burger, bouillabaisse and, come summer, roast peach with lemon thyme and salted-caramel ice cream. Details at www.arbutusrestaurant.co.uk.
HIX: Right on the culinary pulse with his championing of sustainable, foraged and forgotten British ingredients (roast gurnard with surf clams anyone?), Mark Hix opened at a Brewer Street address just under a year ago. His regulars, prominent on the walls as well as dining at tables, include the hard core of Britpack contemporary artists. Don't miss the decidedly trendy basement bar, serving up cocktails and punches made from 19th century recipes, as well as new takes on traditional bar snacks (think blue-cheese-and-oyster ale cake and bowls of unshelled peas). See www.hixsoho.co.uk.
GAUTHIER: Soho's latest arrival is located in an elegant 18th century townhouse but, in tune with Soho informality, Ducasse protégé Alexis Gauthier offers his delicate haute cuisine in small plates as part of flexible tasting menus. Those doubting Soho's restored culinary cachet need only taste Gauthier's pigeon with lettuce, veal jus and thyme to have their minds made up. See www.gauthiersoho.co.uk.