I had the oddest experience on Thursday. I left Joe Allen sober. Before you start wondering what seismic shift in the universe must have happened to bring this about, I ought to tell you it was only 6pm. Plus I had a slight cold and two hours of Jeff Goldblum to get through. And he is a biyatch when you’ve had a few because he looks even taller and is twice as scary.
I go to Joe Allen because its sort of what I do, and what I have always done. It’s where my parents used to take us, and where me and my siblings celebrated several of our birthdays, because they always did good birthday cakes. I have been known to cross counties for one of their brownies. It’s where you go before a show or – more appropriately – after a show, where people crane their necks to see if the bastard actor they saw IN the show is walking in. They pretend to not be impressed, and return to their caesar salads with a frisson of smug glee. London is bereft of decent dining after 11pm, so when Joe Allen opened in the 1970s it must have knocked everyone’s showbiz socks off. It’s a stage away from a stage, unashamedly showbiz and unashamedly brash. It looks like someone’s idea of what the West End theatre world is. I enjoy the fact it’s fabulously dated, with it’s stripped back to brick, New York style walls crammed with more theatre posters than Danny La Rue’s bedroom. Most of these posters are from 1974, many of which feature that doyenne of 1970s and 1980s Broadway, Bernadette Peters. Of course, like everywhere, it hasn’t been the same since the smoking ban. It used to be compulsory to light up in Joe Allen (fag or no fag) because acting is the last industry where smoking is mandatory. It’s against the law not to smoke in rehearsal rooms. I have not touched a cancer stick since 2004 but I still miss smoking in Joe Allen, so much so that I left with several of their ashtrays in the 1990s. My attachment to the potato skins (with sour cream; always ordered “off-menu”) is partly gastric, partly clubby and hugely emotional.
Joe Allen has stood proud and unchanging in the face of dietary concerns and restaurant fashion, a bastion of carbohydrate excess in Exeter Street. Whilst not having a Proustian madeleine moment with the potato skins of my childhood, I can look at the rest of the unchanged menu – still filled with the same ribs, steaks, large potato fries and corn muffins with no nod to the low-GI- obsessed, fad-driven, green juice gulping legions of actors who sit in there pretending to wait for casting directors. Eight years ago, when I was still scooping up non-roles in the shallow end of the acting pool, the cast I was in had a birthday. Deciding on what to do, I suggested Joe Allen. I got a RADA-trained withering glance, and the unpleasant retort: “But it’s SO showbiz!” They weren’t even interested. I thought that as they seemed so much more intent on aggressively nurturing their careers than I did, they could do a lot worse than spend several evenings at Joe Allen trying to drag theatre producers into the toilet cubicles for sex acts. After all, that was how half of them ended up in that play in the first place. But apparently not. They wanted to go that ugliest of all ugly private members bars, Teatro, drink Chablis with Soho media boys, and toy with a disgusting club sandwich before throwing up in a taxi all the way home.
Joe Allen is not a venue for those uptight, chin-stroking, miserable, prudish actoooors,who I spent most of my youth avoiding, very often slightly sadistic woman-haters, who do very very serious dramas, sniff and sneer at the out of towners (whilst pretending they’re not really from Guildford) and who look like they’ve never been laid properly. Oh, no – this is more for the seriously glitzy actors – the blowsy but loveable Vaudevillians, the stage door Johnnies and West End Wendys. They have more heart. In Joe Allen you’re more likely to see teeth and tits that black polo necks. This is what stops it from being pretentious. You see, they are not pretending to be bottle blonde West End Wendys getting smashed on a Tuesday night while recounting anecdotes about John Barrowman that cannot be repeated in front of children; they actually are. They have no delusions about it, and neither do we. They are not pretending not to look at the door to be resolutely unimpressed by whoever is coming in; they wallow in it. The actors who come in for dinner wallow in being recognised too, so it’s all gravy. The West End Wendys don’t have prejudices towards the out of towners; they couldn’t care less what town you’re from frankly, as long as you join in with the singing.
The unchanging menu has turned out to be Joe Allen’s winning ticket; by removing itself from any competition in the arena of so-called fashionable fabulousness it can be itself – and that is, I am relieved to say, better than ever. I had heard horrid reports. Several people had said it wasn’t what it was, that their steaks were tough, the staff dismissive, the service sub-standard, the food overpriced. I saw Craig Revel-Horwood negotiating a steak last time I was there and he looked well miffed; like he wanted to put it in the dance-off. Part of the bad reports from Joe Allen broke me a little, not only because I draw comfort from those aspects of London life which are impervious to change. So, I was half dreading my experience, when I rocked up there last Thursday, grappling through the door with my London Library bag and my Italian grammar exercises.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that I’d booked a table in Italian, but it didn’t throw the door luvvie, who was so polite and kind and showed me to my table. Service was attentive and the best I have received in London for two or three years. I had a ten minute wait for my friend and ordered a small carafe of Chianti (enough for two glasses. £8.50. You can’t find that anywhere else in a good restaurant) and the only disturbance to me trying to translate the “Corriere della Sera” was the lady on the table next to me arranging her smear test loudly over the phone. The place was fairly full with pre-theatre goers, as it offers a competitive pre-theatre menu up to 6.45pm, a cut-off time they stick to religiously. The dining space is wide and divided into two – cheerfully lightly air-conditionned on this hot day – and all tables cunningly allow visual access to the bookings desk at the door, in honest recognition that what everybody really loves doing here is wolfing down a sirloin while watching that successful fifty-something, brutally blow-dried television actor arrive carrying an expensive overcoat and a third wife for a bash at the dover sole.
I don’t need to tell you how wonderfully gay-friendly it is, obviously. Last time I was here two men were sitting on two separate tables on opposite sides of the restaurants wearing leather skirts and we spent the evening wondering which of them would go up to the other one to swap fashion notes. When they eventually did, they left the restaurant together. This kind of thing has been accepted in theatrical circles long before the rest of the world caught up, of course, and it’s been usual for that sort of thing to go on here for years. Many years ago, after an evening at the theatre with a friend of mine, he said to me “Come on, let’s go to Joe’s….” and after mildly protesting that I had to be up in the morning for work, he twisted my weak arm. I had assumed he was going to be bringing me HERE, but he actually took me to Madame Jo-Jos, where you have a very different kind of evening. And they don’t give you a steak. At least at Joe Allen you can have a hearty meal, a good bread basket, a bottle of Chianti – all the while accompanied by the tinkling of the resident piano player – and then pick someone up for a spot of consensual S&M.
My friend arrived and we ordered what we always order (rare sirloin, fries which are more like very very good 1970s wedges, buttered spinach with garlic and a tomato and onion salad) and it was the best steak I have had in a long time – probably since the last time I was there. Soft as butter inside and perfectly cooked. The potatoes were excellent, although nearly so hot as to blow your head off. Craig Revel-in-yer-Wormwood would have given our dinner a “10”. We even got service with a smile, proving that this New Yorkist London restaurant has learned its best trick from the city that inspired it; most London restaurants have waiters bristling with resentment, underlined with a smidge of class resentment. In America (and in New York in particular)where waiting is a respected profession, this is not the case.
I nearly forgot to go to the theatre. This is quite understandable because being in Joe Allens is like being in the theatre; the restaurant cocoons you below street level in a strange pre-Blackberry, pre-internet theatrical alternative universe. If the waiters waltzed in pirouetting their way through a Mack & Mabel medley you wouldn’t be shocked. You just want to wallow forever in the bread baskets and the chitchat. We ordered a swift double espresso, in my struggle to stay awake during a play when I was coming down with a cold, and headed off to the play. I was delighted that the restaurant had exceeded my expectations, and yet another small section of my transient city life has proved slightly resistible to change. Each time you return to a much-loved place is a revisit to the evenings and moments you had there before, and in that way a restaurant experience can be so much more than the sum of its pan-fried parts. I had feared that this entry would be a disappointed and sad one. I am delighted that it is not.
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