Here’s to 40 years of Joe Allen

The iconic West End restaurant is changing location, but will retain all the ingredients that have made it a long-lasting showbiz success…

This September, Joe Allen, the historic Theatreland restaurant that has sat at the heart of the West End for more than 40 years, is to move to a new home 25 metres from its original Exeter Street abode, to number 2 Burleigh Street. Coinciding with a landmark 40th birthday, Joe’s move has prompted a look back through its history, from serving the famous faces of stage and screen, to the restaurant’s origins in New York, where Joe Allen himself first opened the doors to his eponymous brasserie.

Back in May 1965, Joe’s pre- and post-theatre menus quickly gained notoriety on the Broadway circuit, becoming a place for the stars to socialise, the chorus to gossip and audiences to pass judgement. Spotting a gap in the late-night dining scene across the pond in the midst of the one of the world’s most well-known showbiz districts, Joe Allen snapped up a cheap basement in London’s then rather run-down Covent Garden, a stone’s throw from the grand theatres of the Strand, Drury Lane and Piccadilly.

As befits the history of the area, the building was previously home to an orchid warehouse for the Old Covent Garden Market, and Joe didn’t make too many changes. He simply dimmed the lights, imported the first long American ‘slider bar’ from the States, installed a jukebox (still there but sadly now unplayable) and put up his favourite theatre posters, which he had packed from NYC on to the walls. With its exposed brickwork and wood panelling, the restaurant was almost an exact replica of its Off-Broadway counterpart when it welcomed its first guests in January 1977.

Almost overnight, the restaurant became the place to hang out when the curtain came down. In the early days it didn’t need a canopy – you knew you were in the right place from the queue around the block – but it was also more than a restaurant, it was a place where major shows were bankrolled while agents schmoozed. Serious table-hopping took place among the stars and those looking for their big break, all set against the tinkling of the piano and the drum of conversation, which filled the room well into the small hours.

The discretion of Joe’s staff meant that London’s famous faces often found a quiet corner to take refuge from the stage-door crowds. Over the years, everyone from the likes of Kevin Spacey and Elizabeth Taylor to Barbara Windsor and Joan Collins (and even a few members of royal family) have graced the tables of the restaurant.

Joe’s dining room has been the setting for novels, a location for photoshoots and film sets, and a venue for live music. However, Joe’s lasting popularity is owed to its American dishes, from signatures like the Hudson Bay prawn and crab sandwich to the famed Caesar salad, which has kept punters coming back time and time again for their fix of classic New York brasserie food, which, at the time, you couldn’t find anywhere else in London.

In 2012, London restaurateurs Tim Healy, Lawrence Hartley and Stephen Gee took over the reins at Joe’s, breathing a new lease of life into the restaurant they have been visiting since they were children. Continuing to cement its reputation as ‘the actors’ canteen’, Tim and Lawrence threw a star-studded 40th birthday party to kick off the new year in support of Mousetrap Theatre Projects, a charity working to make theatre more accessible to young people. This year, Joe Allen is sponsoring the inaugural Joe Allen Best West End Debut award in association with The Stage, to recognise emerging talent making its debut on the West End.

When it was announced earlier this year that actor Robert De Niro had snapped up the original Joe Allen site for a boutique hotel, whispers in the stalls were rife as to the fate of Joe’s. However, after a brief hiatus to move everything but the kitchen sink down the road, Tim and Lawrence will reopen Joe Allen on September 1. The walls will still be filled with classic theatre posters and photographs of famous faces, the nightly piano sessions will play on and the team, many of which have been members of the Joe’s family for more than 20 years, will continue to welcome everyone from drama students to Joe’s much-loved regulars and acting royalty as they celebrate curtains up on another fabulous 40 years.