London has a wealth of excellent Irish boozers. Pubs like The Auld Shillelagh in Stoke Newington, The Fullback in Finsbury Park or the Sir Colin Campbell in Kilburn are all Guinness-scarred pillars of the capital’s drinking scene. One afternoon in them is worth ten sipping Espresso Martinis in an All Bar One.
But for me, the best will always be The Toucan. First of all: location. Not a day goes past when we’re not learning of yet another area or road being turned over by the developer’s spade, and Soho is currently under the cosh more than most. The Toucan’s position - on Carlisle Street, 30 seconds from Oxford Street and half that from Soho Square - means it can lay claim to having one of the world’s most desirable urban bar locations.
This gives it a piquant mix of personalities. I’ve always liked it because unlike, say, the very media-heavy Blue Post on Berwick Street, there’s also a business crowd and shopper overspill from Oxford Street. You can go to The Toucan at any time, literally any time day or night, and meet smiling Americans weighed down by Topshop bags. They’ll have smiles like Chevrolets, be checking themselves in on Facebook, and drinking their Guinness very slowly. They’ll be nicer than you, so do speak to them but best avoid getting in rounds.
Crucially, it’s also still hanging onto its olde Soho roots- behind the bar downstairs there’s pictures of Richard Harris, and though its not written into Soho boozer lore as much as The Coach and Horses on Greek Street, it’s certainly one of the few left around that can still claim to carry that good thespy flame.
Added to that of course you get your central London media crowd. Go there on a Thursday and they’re all there, spilling out on the pavement, sniggering into plastic glasses about whichever ex-Hollyoaks star has just turned up at the bar
Obviously the Guinness is spot on. It takes an age to pour and you’ll not find velvetier. But, like all really great pubs, it has one USP: one element that if you know you know, and assures it a place in the great boozer pantheon. And for The Toucan it’s the entire downstairs bar.
Descend the ruler-width stairs straight down from the street - don’t go through the stairs at the back of the top bar - and it’s a shootable cliche but you’re instantly transported. It’s a cramped, pokey snug lit only by muggy orange light, where the stalls are plastic Guinness pint glasses and The Pogues are playing gratifyingly regularly. It never gets cool and it never gets too hot. It’s a grotto, a grotto full of boozers, beards and weirds, and the sort of place you can lose an afternoon in the time it takes to say ‘a rainy night in Soho’.
I went to The Toucan a lot in my mid to late 20s, and it will always be a sort-of-hallowed place for me; a place to kill time with your best mates or lovers whilst the world turns upstairs. One of my absolute favourite times was when we heard the reliably moody manager describe all the bar’s occupants as ‘parasites’. It was just perfect, and to be fair he might have been right.
But downstairs was an Iberian barman who was the opposite of the manager- he just seemed to love the people, and if he didn’t he made you believe he did. He’d gladly fill up the free bowls of stale Tayto crisps on the bar, happily hear you opine at length about the things you were going to definitely going to achieve when eventually you got out of this place, as he served you a perfectly poured eighth pint of Guinness. Love that guy.
So anyway. Fuck All Bar One. The Toucan forever. If you’re in Central London tonight, you shouldn’t be anywhere else.
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