London’s Pub Scene: Nellie Dean of Soho

When a traveler stumbles upon the Nellie Dean, a classic corner pub in London's Soho, he enters as a stranger, but quickly finds himself among friends.

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The pub is an important part of life in London. Nellie Dean of Soho is a classic London pub. Flickr/Garry Knight
The Nellie Dean of Soho is a classic London pub. Flickr/Garry Knight

Of London’s numerous attributes, one of its most storied is the pub scene. The drinking frequently begins early in London, as friends and colleagues escape the clutches of office life, pouring out into the streets of popular neighborhoods like SoHo and Covent Garden.

As a New Yorker, I was naturally drawn to SoHo, given the familiarity of the name. Londoners tend to look upon the comparison between the London SoHo, and the New York one, with disdain.

London Pub Scene

London’s SoHo draws its name, as I learned during one of my recent business trips, because it was once King Henry VIII’s hunting ground. Apparently “soho” is something the men would yell to their dogs in pursuit of live game. Comparatively, New York City’s “SoHo” neighborhood bears its significance simply because its south of Houston Street.

Apart from their unusual names, most British pubs tend to bear a similar resemblance. From the wood paneling, to the ledge on the buildings façade, where people can rest their drinks, the consistency is striking. It was through this indistinguishable fog that I spent my first couple of trips roaming the London streets, until I stumbled into the Nellie Dean on the corner of SoHo’s Dean Street.

Nellie Dean of Soho

From the outside, the Nellie Dean is reminiscent of its London counterparts. It wasn’t the visual that drew me inside however, but rather, the music which was irresistible. The late 90s and early 00s mix of R Kelly’s Ignition, or Fabolous gave the pub a distinctive edge.

Inside, it didn’t take me long to make my first London friend. I found myself talking to a guy at the bar, him urging me to order a pint, quipping, “are you going to order, or stand there all night?” Despite this forward inquiry, we easily struck up a conversation.

Exterior sign at Nellie Dean of Soho, a popular pub in London. Flickr/Ewan Munro
Exterior sign at Nellie Dean of Soho, a popular pub in London. Flickr/Ewan Munro

Within minutes, I had met his roommate, the two bartenders, and even the manager. In typical London fashion, one pint turned into a second, third, and fourth. We found ourselves closing the pub, and stumbling out onto the now quiet street, the cool, misty March air aiding ever so slightly, our sobriety.

Just One More

“Why don’t we go for just one more” my new friend urged me. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would come to learn that this was one of his most common refrains. How could I say no? Out we went, our little group, meandering down the cobblestone streets, and off into the SoHo night.

I have made multiple business trips to London since the first time I discovered this hidden gem. Much like the rest of the SoHo locals, my face has become a familiar one around the bar. What strikes me about the Nellie Dean is the familial atmosphere.

On multiple occasions, I’ve met George (not his real name), the retired Naval officer, who must be well into his 70s. Apart from his age, George has a way of standing out, once matching a blazer with shockingly bright orange running shoes.

“We’re worried about George” my friend explains to me, commenting that he is battling cancer. “We all kind of keep an eye on him.” Indeed, I’ve seen this reality play out in front of me. Men half George’s age have engaged him in meaningful conversation, and when they leave, they’ll pull him close in a heartfelt embrace, the sincerity unmistakable.

Besides George, there’s the Fijian immigrant, built like a professional rugby player, picking up odd jobs at the pub to help ends meet. When he tends bar, he’ll lean close after pouring our drinks, a glimmer in his eye: “where we headed tonight boys” he eggs us on, eager to keep the night alive.

Nellie Dean of Soho at night. Flickr/J Mark Dodds
Nellie Dean of Soho at night. Flickr/J Mark Dodds

In keeping with the theme, many of the other bartenders are the younger brother or sister of a past generation of Nellie Dean employees. From the ring stained tables that line the windows, to the narrow, crooked stairs leading to the basement, one gets the feeling that not much has changed.

During my most recent visit, towards the end of July, I find myself enjoying several pints with my friend, and some of his acquaintances. During the summertime, the London evenings are glorious, the sun offering glimmers of light until nearly ten in the evening. For hours, we stand against the pub’s outside ledge, watching the passersby, and sharing stories of nights long since gone.

“Remember when” one story would start, or “how about the time when” another would pick up. From friendships formed, to love long since lost, the little pub remained a focal point, the connective tissue of lives interwoven through time.

As I stand sipping my pint, and listening to conversation, I’m acutely aware of my surroundings. Outside the quaint dimensions of the Nellie Dean, the world rushes by. SoHo is arguably the most recognizable destination in one of the world’s largest cities. A transient neighborhood, it offers only the trendiest restaurants and cocktail bars. Yet amid this bustle sits the Nellie Dean, an enclave unto itself, a subtle reminder that anywhere your travels take you, the best things in life are forged over time.

Author Bio: Ryan McCormick is a Consultant, and aspiring writer, currently living in New York City. In traveling, both for work and pleasure, he has developed a passion for exploration and cultivating new experiences. In his writing, he tends to focus on an interaction, or observation, and how it can have a lasting impact on one’s outlook on life.