London’s Soho Trades Sins of Flesh for Wicked Steak Restaurants

London’s Soho has been a red-light district for hundreds of years. You don’t need to consult the history books to learn about its seedier side: Neon signs for strip shows, sex toys and “models” are openly on display.

Things are changing, and for the more family friendly. Vice businesses are being forced out in favor of restaurants and bars, and here are some of the best.

10 Greek Street: This no-reservations restaurant serves a changing menu of inexpensive British dishes. The ingredients are well-sourced, the preparation is unfussy and the results are impressive. The wine list is equally thoughtful and almost all options are available by the half bottle.

Arbutus: This is one of the most influential London restaurants of the past decade. Will Smith and chef Anthony Demetre opened Arbutus in 2007 with the goal of serving fine food at everyday prices. A Michelin star followed, as did imitators. Seven years on, Arbutus still shines.

Barrafina: The formula is simple: a long counter serving authentic Spanish tapas, reminiscent of Cal Pep and other classics in Barcelona. There are no reservations, so to get a good seat, arrive late for lunch or early for dinner. The owners are Sam and Eddie Hart who also own Quo Vadis and share a love of Spanish wines.

Bar Shu: This restaurant is packed with Chinese visitors feasting on the spicy Sichuan food. It’s both an authentic restaurant and accessible to non-Chinese diners, thanks to the involvement of Fuchsia Dunlop, a British chef who studied at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine.

Blanchette: This new venue is like a French version of Polpo, serving inexpensive snacks and small plates at a counter; think frogs’ legs, cheese beignets and some very good charcuterie, served with bread in a brown paper bag.

Bob Bob Ricard: There’s no other restaurant in London like this. The decor is over-the-top luxurious, with almost all the seating in booths, each equipped with a buzzer to summon Champagne. The food lives up to the setting but the prices are not over the top and the wine list may offer the best value in London.

Bocca di Lupo: Chef Jacob Kennedy serves dishes and wines from across Italy in this buzzy trattoria. It’s more like a tapas joint than a traditional Italian restaurant, so try to grab a seat at the bar rather than be shoehorned into a table at the back.

Ceviche: This bar-restaurant helped kick-start the fashion for Peruvian food in London and can get very crowded. It’s best to arrive early and grab seats at the counter, beside the window. Watching Soho street life is more entertaining than cramming into the dining room at the back.

Ember Yard: This tapas bar from the owners of Salt Yard and Opera Tavern is one of the best additions to Soho dining this year. The small plates are a match for any I tasted during a recent visit to Barcelona, and the Grilled Iberico Presa with Whipped Jamon Butter is as good as anything I’ve eaten in Soho.

Flat Iron: The queues form outside this no-reservations steak restaurant before it opens. It’s worth the wait, especially as you can head off to a pub until you are called. Flat Iron serves properly pink meat that is full of flavor for just a few pounds.

Gauthier: This is unusual in Soho: a formal Michelin-style French restaurant. The rooms are hushed as the male waiters simultaneously remove silver cloches. Yet chef Alexis Gauthier’s cooking is not old fashioned and he is a London pioneer of healthy cooking -- his offerings here include a vegetable tasting menu.

Gay Hussar: This charming restaurant has been serving Hungarian food and wines in London for more than 50 years. Its traditional style of service and cooking is particularly welcome in a part of London where fashion often prevails. The Gay Hussar is a slice of the past that should be savored.

Hix: Chef Mark Hix was an early pioneer of British regional cooking. His enthusiasms are reflected in the menu, featuring dishes from across the U.K. One of the main attractions is the basement bar, which is open to non-diners and serves fine cocktails, including historical national concoctions.

Jackson + Rye: There’s not a lot of competition for decent American food in Soho, so this new venue sneaks onto our list. The prices are reasonable, and the food can be good. It can also be inconsistent, so good luck. The Old Vine Zinfandel, at 29.95 pounds ($51), should help to smooth out any rough edges.

Koya: This udon noodle bar is very popular indeed, with long queues. The quality and authenticity of the dishes is widely appreciated. Despite its modesty, the venue was voted No. 52 in the National Restaurant Awards last year, beating establishments such as the three-Michelin-star Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse U.K. flagships.

L’Escargot: This Soho institution opened in 1927 and was reborn this year when it came under new ownership. The restaurateur Brian Clivaz is beautifully redecorating the old townhouse in which it resides and he has brought in chef Oliver Lesnik to overhaul the food. The early indications are that L’Escargot will regain its old glory.

Mele e Pere: This low-key basement restaurant opened so quietly about three years ago, not many people knew it was there. It has now developed a following for its unfussy Italian cooking and reasonable prices. Lunch specials cost 9.50 pounds and the pre-theater menu is 19.50 pounds for three courses.

Nopi: This smart establishment near Oxford Circus serves modern Middle Eastern cuisine by Yotam Ottolenghi. The chef has developed an international following with the book “Jerusalem” and this is his flagship. It’s popular for light and colorful dishes such as coriander seed-crusted burrata with slices of blood orange.,

Palomar: This brand new establishment serves the food of modern-day Jerusalem, with a menu created by the chefs behind that city’s Machneyuda restaurant. Palomar is the creation of siblings Layo and Zoe Paskin, who were behind The End/AKA night spot. The early indications are promising, with praise for the eclectic menu and the modern cooking.

Pitt Cue Co: You can’t book ahead, and may face a long wait. When you do get in, you’ll eat in a tiny basement untroubled by designers, and the website offers little clue to the menu or prices. The upside is that Pitt Cue serves some of the best U.S.-style barbecued meat in London (and the prices are low).

Pizza Pilgrims: Soho is filled with more chain restaurants and junk-food options than with great places to eat. Still, Pizza Pilgrims is exemplary in its commitment to serving quality food at low prices. Portobello mushroom and truffle oil pizza (with free sparkling water) costs 10 pounds.

Polpo: This small Venetian-style restaurant/bar brought something new to London when it opened in 2009. Restaurateur Russell Norman imported a New York vibe, with low prices and a lot of noise in a cramped space. There are no reservations for dinner. Along with Arbutus, this was a game-changer.

Polpetto: Polpo’s baby sister is the domain of chef Florence Knight. She presides in the basement kitchen preparing ingredient-led dishes such as hare pappardelle; burrata, agretti, chilli; and milk pudding, rhubarb and rose. The ground-floor dining room/bar is buzzy.

Quo Vadis: This is another London institution. It was founded by an Italian, Pepino Leoni, in 1926. Before that, Karl Marx wrote “Das Kapital” while living on the third floor of the building. The owners now are brothers Sam and Eddie Hart. Quo Vadis attracts the Soho and food crowds, drawn by the popular Scottish chef Jeremy Lee.

Social Eating House: This fashionable restaurant belongs to Jason Atherton, one of the U.K.’s most exciting chefs. With its exposed brick walls and copper ceilings, Social Eating House looks and sounds like a New York venue. This is not the place for a quiet bite. The menu is adventurous and the cooking, by Paul Hood, is first class.

St Moritz: I love St Moritz. Walk through the door and you are transported into old-fashioned Switzerland. I only go for the fondues, but veau Zurichoise, bratwurst and rosti are also served, along with surprisingly inexpensive local wines. I first visited in 1981, when a basement bar used to be filled with Swiss au pairs.

Tonkotsu: This is a ramen joint, bang opposite the Groucho club. It’s inexpensive and unfussy and has developed a following for its rich stock, created by cooking cork bones overnight. April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig in New York is among the chefs who have eaten here.

Yalla Yalla: This hole-in-the-wall café serves Beirut street dishes to 28 seats in a small, cramped room -- not a big step up from a kebab house. What distinguishes it is the quality of the food. Yalla Yalla opened late in 2008 and now has a larger sibling north of Oxford Street.

Wright Brothers: This is a first-class fish restaurant. It’s bright and buzzling, and a great place to settle in with a dozen oysters and a bottle of Champagne while you decide what to eat and drink for lunch.

Yauatcha: This modern Chinese establishment was created by Hakkasan founder Alan Yau, the Yau of the restaurant’s name. It retains some of the originality he brought to it and holds a Michelin star. It’s not cheap. The dim sum and cocktails are good.

Zedel: This cavernous basement brasserie belongs to the owners of the Wolseley, which has been one of London’s most fashionable restaurants for more than a decade. Zedel serves some of the city’s least-expensive food in one of its most striking dining rooms. The prix fixe menu is 8.95 pounds for two courses, 11.25 pounds for three. It’s great value.

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines)