Annie and I have been going regularly to Joe Allen for years and years … maybe fifteen? At least ten. About once a month. Sometimes we’ve been tempted away by Top Table offers and have enjoyed good meals at places like L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Cantina del Ponte or The Cinnamon Club, but we only have to miss our ‘regular’ trip to Joe Allen once or twice before we say, ‘Shall we go back to Joe Allen this time?’
There’s something really special about the place. It’s not the food as such, as all the above examples are at least as good, if not better. But food at Joe Allen is reliably good; it’s rare to be disappointed. We always go for their Early Evening menu and while we’re always warned we may have to give the table up after two hours, I can only remember once – at a busy Christmas time – being moved on … to the bar … although the restaurant is always full. At the moment there is a Summer Special and a similar menu is available any time of the evening from Sundays to Wednesday: two courses, 1/4 litre house wine or glass of prosecco and coffee (and their coffee is very good – one of the few places I can rely on an evening decaffeinated actually not keeping me awake at night) for £19.50. There are always meat, fish and vegetarian options. Usually I go for fish as they do it so well, wonderful pan-fried black sea bream or something similar. I broke custom last night and went for some very good burritos while Annie enjoyed her swordfish. They used to always offer their signature Caesar Salad on the starter choices and now it’s there only occasionally – but when it is it’s a special treat. I have never enjoyed a Caesar Salad salad anywhere as much as theirs; it is a benchmark Caesar Salad. It’s an elegant Caesar Salad: perfectly crisp lettuce tossed in a sublime dressing.
So what is the attraction, apart from good food? An atmosphere that transports you to somewhere with an edge of glamour and a low buzz of excitement. It’s in a dark basement, more like a cafe than a smart restaurant with its rather ordinary wooden tables and chairs and paper serviettes, but it’s definitely a sophisticated kind of informality. And it seems to draw you down into a comfortable cocoon making it an ideal place for two women to talk long into the evening.
I’m sure part of its attraction is the book editor in me as it’s been a favourite haunt of publishers for most of its history; the walls are covered in old photos of the famous and posters. And it’s not unusual to see a famous face – last night an actress at the next table, a couple of months ago a TV newsreader. The waiters are always friendly and efficient, but – as Annie and I discussed last night – there’s always a very slight air of disdain; that somehow this isn’t where they are meant to be, though while they are here they’ll do their best for you -and they do. It’s often where out-of-work actors work and Monty Don once waited there in his youth.
I don’t think I’ve ever been there on my own but the Single Gourmet Traveller wouldn’t have any hesitation in heading there alone, especially early evening if I’d been in London and wanted to eat before heading home. I love it there … and one of the things I love is that it never changes. From its discreet entrance in Exeter Street that can so easily be missed, and down the dark steps into the basement, you can be sure of what you’ll find. And I hope to be going back there regularly for many years to come.
Also see the head chef, Marc Brown’s Top Ten Cookery Books