Joe Allen: Russell Norman and Gary Lee on the return of a class act

24 November 2021 by

The curtains are raised for Joe Allen, the long-time hangout for London's showbiz finest. But the West End venue for classic American comfort food has no intention of resting on its laurels, as Andy Lynes discovers

The curtain was raised on the third act of Joe Allen, one of London Theatreland's favourite restaurants, in October this year when it reopened after 18 months of pandemic-enforced closure. Originally opened in 1977 in Exeter Street, Covent Garden, 40 years later the restaurant relocated just 40 yards away, in Burleigh Street behind the Lyceum Theatre.

The 2017 move, which included taking not only the posters, pictures and light fittings from the Exeter Street venue, but also much of the wooden floor and the bar, was precipitated by the proposed development of the original site into a luxury hotel by Robert De Niro, although that project was scrapped a year later.

When West End theatres closed in March 2020 due to Covid, Joe Allen closed too, with the loss of a large percentage of its turnover, which had come from pre-theatre dining. Now that the audiences and performers who form the backbone of Joe Allen's customer base have returned, the restaurant has opened its doors once more.

The feel of the restaurant, with its exposed brick walls, reinstated fixtures and fittings, and resident pianist, will be reassuringly familiar to the restaurant's many loyal customers – relaunch night included everyone from legendary theatre director Trevor Nunn to panto favourite Su Pollard. There is, though, only room for 125 covers compared with 130 before, and no private dining room.

However, owners Tim Healy and Lawrence Hartley, who with business partners Andy Bassadone and Stephen Gee took over the restaurant from founders Joe Allen and Richard Polo in November 2011, have rung the changes for its latest iteration. Enter stage left Russell Norman of Polpo fame (and a Joe Allen alumnus) to oversee Joe's Bar, and Gary Lee, former executive chef of the Ivy, to run the kitchen. "We needed a charge. We needed to put ourselves back up on that pinnacle, and thankfully Gary and Russell came on board so that we can drive it forward," says Healy, who originally began discussions with Norman pre-Covid about an entirely different project.

"When we first started to talk, I was coming to the end of my tolerance for Polpo and what that had turned into," says Norman. "I used to come into Joe's and if Tim and Lawrence were there, I'd say hello, and we started to talk about a project just down the road, a separate business, which would be connected to Joe Allen, something like Joe's Bar, but a bigger space and part of the basement area of the Strand Palace Hotel.

"I got really excited about the prospect of opening a really cool New York-style, slightly clandestine tavern, not quite a speakeasy, but somewhere you want to go and hang out and have a couple of cocktails, maybe some good solid American bar food. We were talking in detail and looking at the plans and architect's drawings, and then of course Covid happened."

Although those plans have been shelved, the intention is for the relaunched bar, with its dark walnut counter, mirrored back bar, leather banquettes and bentwood bar stools, to be a destination in its own right. A full bar licence means customers can come just for a drink and don't have to eat.

"It's perhaps less prevalent in London than in New York, where you get many, many restaurants where they have a bar scene which is almost separate from the restaurant's scene. But we're absolutely committed to making it happen, that sense of making it a destination. We've worked on changing the lighting in the bar so it's a darker room than the restaurant and it's got a much more sexy vibe and feel to it," says Norman. The drinks list includes many of the classic cocktails familiar to Norman from his time as a barman at the original Joe Allen in New York back in the 1990s. They include the Jerry Thomas Manhattan, bone-dry gin martinis, negronis and the Joe Allen Margarita.

"When I was a bartender with Yves Muzart, who was in charge of the bar for many, many decades, he had the original Joe Allen cocktail list, hand-drawn with little diagrams for glasses and so on. Richard Polo put it together when he was a bartender in New York. Those cocktails were made in exactly the same way for decades and decades, and that's how I was trained. And this is what we do here: we respect tradition and present the best version. You don't need to twist a traditional recipe; if you can ensure that you're going to be making and presenting the best version of that recipe, then that's the pinnacle."

New York strip, fat chips, watercress, Béarnaise sauce
New York strip, fat chips, watercress, Béarnaise sauce

Norman says that, although he will be making the 15-minute walk across from his newly opened restaurant Trattoria Brutto in Holborn regularly, customers shouldn't expect to see him behind the bar too often. "The bartenders here are fantastic, the cocktail list is exactly where we needed to be, but Joe Allen is a restaurant that is about people as well as being about food and cocktails. So I'll be coming here on a busy evening when it's under control over at Brutto, and saying hello to some of the regulars, and maybe getting behind the bar and mixing some cocktails."

Lee has developed snacks to accompany Norman's drinks including Love It Or Hate It (Parmesan and Marmite cheese straws) and truffled cheese toasties, but his main concern is the restaurant menu that honours Joe Allen's history with classics such as Mr Allen's steak tartare, Big Apple hot dog and New York cheesecake. It's not a document set in stone, though. Lee is anticipating seasonal changes every six to eight weeks once the kitchen has bedded in. As Healy points out: "Why bring someone in who is special and then say, by the way, you can't do that? You say, there are the keys to the kitchen and let them get on with it."

"One of the things that bought me over was the vision of the guys," says Lee, who says that moving on from the Ivy has been on the cards for a long time. "They'll definitely let me do what I need to do, but I still pass it through them anyway. What's great about them first and foremost is that everyone loves to eat, we all like our food. We talk food constantly all the time, which is fantastic. And they're very supportive. If I come up with something, we taste it and if we like it, we say let's do something with it. It's as simple as that."

Crusted cod fillet with shrimp gumbo, chorizo, braised coco beans, sherry, tomato
Crusted cod fillet with shrimp gumbo, chorizo, braised coco beans, sherry, tomato

As well as introducing new dishes such as a starter of crispy duck with watermelon, cress and cashews and a main Cajun spice-rubbed chicken with black-eye bean salsa, plantain crisps and chicken gravy, Lee has been revisiting the recipes for some of the classics, including the famous baby back ribs.

"I didn't want to take away from what all the regular customers knew, so we kept everything the same, but how we cook them is slightly different. There are techniques that we're doing in order to make sure that the rib is incredibly tender. They're smoked, then they have a dry rub for 12 hours, and then we steam them. We chill them and then we fry them to create that seal around the meat, and then we resteam again and finish them with a glaze. From the reports that we're getting back from customers, everyone seems to find them absolutely amazing."

Even the off-menu ‘not-so-secret burger', a Joe Allen staple in London since day one, has been ever so slightly tweaked. "It's an 8oz hand-pressed burger served with lettuce, red onion and pickled cucumber in a toasted brioche bun. I used to nip into Joe's years ago and have a burger at the end of the night and I always liked it, so I haven't really changed it, just the ratio of fat to meat which is 70% meat and 30% fat. We use the rib meat trim, which gives it a distinct flavour and is moist and flavourful, but otherwise it's exactly the same."

With its approachable menu of familiar American classics and strong visual style (exposed brickwork, wooden flooring, theatre posters, white tablecloths and mismatched wooden chairs), Joe Allen is a recognisable and accessible brand that is demonstrably replicable, potentially even a familiar name on the high street.

From left: honey-glazed pecan pie and caramel ice-cream; mint chocolate ice-cream; and peanut butter and jelly ice-cream sandwich with peanut brittle
From left: honey-glazed pecan pie and caramel ice-cream; mint chocolate ice-cream; and peanut butter and jelly ice-cream sandwich with peanut brittle

Healy, though, is not so sure. "Covid has knocked us for six, like everyone else, so let's see how it goes. At the moment we're just concentrating on here. I'm not saying there won't be another one, but if we're going to do that, it would be more like a collection. We've got no interest in doing a chain of 300 of them."

Joe's London gang of four

Lawrence Hartley

A Westminster Catering College graduate, Hartley helped launch the Café Rouge group. He was maître d' at the Ivy for Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, and opened Brula in Twickenham in 1998.

Tim Healy

Healy began his career in the kitchen at St John and went on to open Italian restaurant A Cena in Twickenham in 2001 with his wife Camilla. In 2009, they opened A Cena food stores comprised of three shops: A Cena on the Hill Deli, Richmond Hill Butchers, and Richmond Hill Bakery.

Gary Lee

Lee's career included the Dorchester Hotel, Lola's in Islington and Le Caprice under Mark Hix before being appointed head chef at pan-Asian restaurant Bam-Bou. After five years he moved to the Ivy as head chef and was promoted to executive chef. He was opening chef at the Ivy in Dubai and co-authored The Ivy Now cookbook.

Russell Norman

Norman originally worked at Joe Allen in 1989 as a waiter, progressing to bartender, maître d' and then manager over a 10-year period. He was operations director of Caprice Holdings, looking after the Ivy, Scott's and J Sheekey, before founding Polpo, on Beak Street, in 2009, with 16 further openings including Polpetto, Mishkin's and Da Polpo and Spuntino. He opened Trattoria Brutto earlier this year.

Burgers, Bacall and box-office bombs

The original Joe Allen restaurant opened in May 1965 on 326 West 46th Street in New York's then unfashionable area of Far West Midtown.

It was named after its co-owner, the restaurateur Joe Allen, who died earlier this year aged 87. He opened the restaurant with business partner Richard Polo. Allen, a former barman, has been credited with establishing what is now known as Restaurant Row on West 46th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues, which is also home to Allen's two other New York restaurants, Orso and Bar Centrale.

The opening Joe Allen menu offered the now famous burger for 75 cents and attracted Broadway performers and other celebrities, including film actress Lauren Bacall, who backed the Paris opening of Joe Allen in 1972.

The restaurant's ‘flop wall' features posters from failed Broadway productions, a tradition started by the cast of the musical Kelly the year the restaurant opened. They donated a poster after the show opened and closed on the same night, making it one of the biggest ever flops in Broadway history.

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