➤ Fond farewells to Joe Allen who revolutionised London’s restaurant scene

Joe Allen, obituaries,Covent Garden, New York City, Orso, restaurants, tributes, theatreland,

Joe Allen at his regular spot at Joe Allen NYC, opened in 1965, before his block was christened Restaurant Row. (Photo: Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

❚ JOE ALLEN, THE RESTAURATEUR who splashed bazzazz across theatreland, has died aged 87. His photograph confirms the memory of him being a double for Humphrey Bogart, who as Rick also sat alone at his own table in the film Casablanca – though Lauren Bacall always denied any similarity! He pioneered his empire in 1965 with two outlets in New York City on a strip of West 46th Street that would become known as Restaurant Row. Then in 1972 he took the Joe Allen brand to Paris and in 1977 to London, opening both Joe Allen’s in a former orchid warehouse, as well as Orso’s Italian brasserie, during the revival of Covent Garden which had idled since 1974 when the vegetable market moved out.

Immediately lunchtimes became social hubs for publishers from Bloomsbury and newspaper hacks from Fleet Street, both a short walk away. By night both places were packed with stars coming on from their West End shows and I only ever managed to sit on star table No 1 once which was in 1984 when I met Hollywood’s legendary Dorian Gray, the actor Hurd Hatfield, visiting from his home in Ireland, who told a very bawdy joke (sorry, unrepeatable)! On Saturday nights Andrew Neil, editor of The Sunday Times from 1983 to 1994, held court round a large table at Orso with his top team awaiting a courier bringing first-edition proofs for the next day’s paper.

Joe Allen’s personal style was laconic, his restaurants unpretentious and clublike, from red brick walls to an inexpensive hamburger-led menu, and waiting staff who were invariably resting actors. Most famously the walls were lined with theatre posters – of productions that had flopped. Notable patrons have included A-listers such as Al Pacino, Stephen Sondheim, Elaine Stritch, Elizabeth Taylor, Sean Connery and Sir Ian McKellen, while the restaurants maintained a strict no-photograph policy to protect the privacy of its high-profile guests.

Though Joe himself was very visible during the first year in London, often sitting at the table beside the kitchen, in fact the day-to-day operation was run by the baker Richard Polo as a partner, who died in 2019.

❏ Joseph Campbell Allen, born 20 Feb 1933, died 7 Feb 2021.

Joe Allen, Covent Garden, New York City, Orso, restaurants, tributes, theatreland,

Informality the keynote: Joe Allen’s restaurant on West 46th Street. (Photo: Robert Stolarik/The New York Times)


➢ Less about the food than about the atmosphere – Obituary by Joyce Purnick in the NY Times: “West 46th Street’s proximity to New York’s theater district made it viable, and Mr Allen, concluding that actors, directors, writers and theater patrons would always want to eat, created a relaxed pub aimed at attracting the theater crowd. There was nothing quite like the restaurant in the mid-1960s, and it took off.”

➢ Remembering Joe Allen, who fed Broadway in untheatrical style – by Peter Khoury in the NY Times: “Even before Joe opened Joe Allen, he was a partner in an Upper East Side restaurant called Allen’s. If you watch the 1965 Jack Lemmon comedy How to Murder Your Wife, you’ll see a few shots of a handsome, dark-haired bartender there. That’s Joe.”

➢ A magnet for actors, journalists and royalty – Obituary in The Times of London: “Allen kept a flat in Chelsea, visiting London several times a year. Business meetings occupied his mornings. At night he perched at the end of the bar quietly draining a case of his favourite American imported beers and observing more than conversing with a studied determination not to “inflict myself on the customers”. If he sat at a table it was always the worst one in the house.”

Joe Allen, Covent Garden, New York City, Orso, restaurants, theatreland,

Poster wall of flop shows at Joe Allen’s: at centre, “Got Tu Go Disco” a short-lived musical from 1979. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

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