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Joe Allen: the restaurant of choice for theatremakers past and present

In need of pre or post-theatre dining, interested in the gossip and scandal from stage and screen stars in times gone by? Joe Allen’s restaurant in Covent Garden offers all of this plus excellent service and delicious food

The poster-plastered walls of Joe Allen’s legendary restaurant in the heart of the West End have been witness to every great story and scandal, and to Theatreland’s biggest stars and starlets for the last four decades.

Since it opened in 1977, it’s been as much of a West End perennial as Les Misérables and The Mousetrap, a home from home for actors and creatives across theatre, film and television.

The eponymous Allen already had a restaurant in New York, opened 12 years earlier, which was famous for its outrageous stories of stage and screen, as well as the legendary people who told them. Stephen Sondheim was a regular, as was Elaine Stritch. Allen always kept a table for Al Pacino (he was an excellent tipper, apparently).

Allen had been inspired to open his joint after frequent visits to his local Manhattan bar, PJ Clarke’s. PJ’s became the regular hangout for the Rat Pack, including Frank Sinatra himself, and Allen loved the feel of the place and the way it attracted starry clientele. So, he bought a basement in a brownstone building on West 46th Street, stuck his name on the door and history was made.

Then came an unusual connection: Allen was in Paris to see his friend Roy Scheider, who was there filming The French Connection. They decided to hop over to London for a jolly. Allen found himself in the heart of Theatreland where every second building was a theatre, every third person a wannabe star, but he noticed how few restaurants there were to serve them.

With Joe Allen going strong in New York, he realised Covent Garden was a prime place to open a second branch.

So a disused orchid warehouse at the old Covent Garden flower market became Joe Allen – a restaurant dedicated to theatre, with theatricality seeping into its very being. A bar where the barman could slide glasses from one end to the other, a staff of waiters who were actors by day, one booking away from stardom, attending the tables of the actors, producers, directors and agents who might give them that lucky break.

These days, there is barely an anecdote about the place that wasn’t an instant classic, such as the time Elizabeth Taylor asked Jimmy the piano player to take her dining companion Rock Hudson for a “boys’ night out”, and he took Hudson to Heaven – the famous gay nightclub.

Jimmy ‘The Piano’ Hardwick was a fixture in the restaurant, from its opening in 1977 to his death in 2014. Among his fans were Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Hardwick duetted with Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris, and on holiday in Greece he bumped into Tony Curtis who said: “Hey, I know you, you’re the piano man!”

But it wasn’t just Jimmy who gave his loyalty to the beloved restaurant. Many of Joe Allen’s staff have been there for more than 20 years, from restaurant managers Debbie and Stewart, to George, Jonny and Wendy cooking up the restaurant’s famous dishes in the kitchen. This year, too, general manager Cathy Winn celebrates her 30th year at Joe Allen. Described as “part of the fabric of the place”, Cathy’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the restaurant, its patrons and its history is unparalleled.

Although the restaurant moved a few doors down the road in 2017, the place has stayed the same. The red brick walls are still covered, floor to ceiling, in old theatre posters brimming with starry names of every age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality – there’s Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Marlene Dietrich, Patti LuPone, Bette Midler, Pete and Dud, Jane White – and the iconic designs are testament to the skill of the visual artists who designed them.

And it continues to be a haven for actors and performers, with a 15% discount for Equity members – as well as The Stage subscribers. On top of that, Joe Allen houses the West End’s biggest open secret (hint: ask your waiter for the off-menu burger!).

Still, there’s one mystery that remains unsolved. At the end of the corridor that separates the ladies’ loos (you’ll know it by the poster of Elaine Stritch on the door) from the gents’ (a poster of Allen himself) there’s a framed still from a film. Three people sit at a table in the New York branch of Joe Allen, instantly recognisable from its checkered tablecloth. The man in the middle is Jack Lemmon, standing up, fairly old. But no one can work out what film it’s from…

If you’re looking for a pre or post-show bite, if you fancy soaking up the starry past and backstage atmosphere of this historical joint, if you’re an Equity member in need of some excellent food at a discounted price – or if you can solve the mystery of Jack Lemmon – then Joe Allen’s is the place to be. From 1977 to now, as well as being an archive of theatre’s history in the UK, Joe Allen’s beloved restaurant is a crucial part of that history, too.


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