People have been drawn to Soho for many reasons over the years. Sex, obviously, and boozy company, and, always, food. Music, too. You could make a case for Soho as the Ground Zero of rock music; the skiffle bands who plunked away in the area's clubs and coffee bars inspired The Beatles, who inspired the world.
One of those clubs was The Scene in Ham Yard, a basement jazz dive which became a key mod haunt in the early Sixties, its sweaty walls shaking to the sound of The Rolling Stones and The Who. The club shut decades ago, and since then, nothing much seems to have happened in Ham Yard. Until now.
After four years of development, the hoardings are down, and this scrappy, semi-derelict patch has emerged blinking into the daylight as an 'urban experience'. Like an architect's drawing come to life, the ¾-acre site now houses a tree-lined piazza, a few recherché shops and a shiny new hotel; a slice of Canary Wharf in what was once the rackety heart of old Soho.
The Ham Yard hotel is the newest, and by far the splashiest, offering from the Firmdale group, owned by Tim and Kit Kemp, London's answer to Ian Schrager. The couple's prime-location portfolio already includes boutique hotels in Charlotte Street, Haymarket and Covent Garden. None of them has much in common with the area it's beamed down in. They're Independent Republics of Fabistan. And Ham Yard is fabber than all the rest; a pleasure palace complete with roof garden, theatre, screening rooms and even an original Fifties bowling alley imported from Texas.
Like all the group's hotels, this latest has been interior designed into submission by co-owner Kit Kemp. Geographically Ham Yard is in Soho, but its heart is elsewhere. Maybe taking mind-expanding substances at a country house shooting party, judging by the antique-goes-antic library. Or pulling a stool up to the zinc counter for a post-work Old Fashioned in the Mad Men-esque bar. Or having a nervous breakdown in the restaurant, which bulges with so many contemporary design memes – gilded pillars, mismatched upholstery, Indian fabrics and quirky paintings – that it manages to cancel itself out.
I arrive already in a huff with the place. Not because of its clientele – I quite like looking at young, beautiful, rich people enjoying themselves – but for the relative scarcity of the same. Why, when I tried to book a table, was I repeatedly told they had nothing between 6.30 and 10pm? Why, when I'm surrounded by empty tables which will stay empty for the rest of the evening, did I have to resort to dropping names (not mine) to score an 8pm booking? Are they trying to create some kind of Chiltern Firehouse-type buzz? Or keeping tables back for celebrity walk-ins? In which case, it's not working; the nearest thing we spot to a celebrity all night is someone who looks a bit like Daniel Craig, but turns out just to be a buff man with a side parting. Wherever the celebs are (and I think we know where they are, don't we?) they're not here.
OK, gather. To the food. Ham Yard's menu, unlike the décor, is measured and discreet. Nothing too trendy; all the dirty food action, sliders, pulled pork and the inevitable like, is confined to the bar. This is distinctly clean food, short on carbs and long on salads, vegetables and seafood; glazed candy beets with goat's curd; burrata with heritage tomatoes; poached cod with parsley risotto. It's a menu that TV execs would call 'female-skewing'.
On a balmy evening, summer minestrone was a fine thing, the broth slick with grassy basil oil. But a cold courgette vichyssoise was dragged down by what might once have been fried courgette flowers, though they'd turned into clumps of soggy batter.
Mains were fine, if subtle to the point of being forgettable; chicken breast elegantly draped with summer truffles and served with puréed sweetcorn, and red mullet minimally dressed with a scattering of tomatoes, a few lozenges of orange and some tiny toms. We boosted the carb count with really good cherry pie with clotted cream, and a slice of evocatively authentic Arctic roll, cut fashionably on the bias.
My guest, who spends a lot of time in LA, loves the Firmdales and all who sail in them. But even she was fretting that the room didn't feel quite right, the tables too widely-spaced to be convivial. The wine list is skittish, rising sharply from £29 to £50 with little in between. And the background music, clattery house, feels rather Nineties. Still, there's always the option of eating al fresco on the piazza, an all-too-rare outdoor space in crowded Soho.
It just doesn't feel like Soho, though. It feels like a gated community built to keep Soho out. If you were a film producer needing to entertain an American financier, Ham Yard would be perfect. But it made me want to take to my bed with a book of John Deakin photographs and a Lonnie Donegan compilation.
Ham Yard Hotel, 14-18 Ham Yard, Soho, London W1 (020-3642 2000). Around £35 per head, before wine and serviceReuse content