I had the slightly weird experience early last December of sitting in one of my favourite haunts in central London – Joe Allen in Covent Garden – and seeing the owner of a favourite local restaurant heading across the room to say hello to me. Suddenly Twickenham met Covent Garden. For only days before it had been announced that Richard Polo, who had run Joe Allen for 35 years, had retired and sold the restaurant (plus its sister restaurant, Orso) to west London restaurateurs Lawrence Hartley (of Brula) and Tim Healy (of A Cena); a third partner is Stephen Gee, chairman of Carluccio’s.
Joe Allen is an institution. It’s iconic; loved by a large band faithful followers who have been crossing its entrance for years and years. Annie and I have been meeting there regularly for about 15 years; we love the place. Thus, although I knew both Lawrence and Tim and loved their restaurants, I couldn’t help feeling a slight pang of anxiety: what were they going to do with Joe Allen? Were they going to change it? Would it become unrecognisable? Would I never want to go there again!
Apparently Annie and I weren’t the only ones to worry. Lawrence and Tim have experienced an onslaught of worried questions from other regulars; they’ve been charged with details of what they mustn’t change. Most of us aren’t very good at change; most of us happily settle into our comfort zone and when we have favourite restaurants and other places we don’t want anyone to change anything.
But some change is necessary – and it certainly doesn’t have to be bad! What’s great about what’s happening at Joe Allen is that two experienced, independent restaurateurs who also have an affection for the place are taking a caring attitude to how they bring it into the second decade of the 21st century, without sacrificing what makes us all love it. Thus, they haven’t rushed in and made big changes. That night in December when I saw Lawrence there, he was walking the floor, speaking to customers and talking to them about what they liked and what they thought could be improved.
Lawrence brings a wealth of experience with him. Once Maitre d’ at The Ivy, he now owns a French bistro in south west London, Brula, that a couple of years ago was runner-up in the Observer Food Monthly awards for best restaurant. He remembers how Joe Allen was the place to go when you came to the theatre in London; it has always had a strong theatre and media following and its walls are covered with photos of the famous. And it’s still the only American brasserie in London, he told me today. Tim also brings exceptional experience: he worked at a number of restaurants, including St John, before opening A Cena with his wife Camilla in 2001. It has become one of the best Italian restaurants in London with a great reputation. (I chose it for my recent birthday family lunch and that day Tim was taking one of his regular shifts in the kitchen and appeared in his chef’s whites. I think it says a lot for his love of food that he still makes time to cook.) Tim’s father was an actor and he remembers being brought to Joe Allen as a child when going to the theatre; a photo of his father, David Healy, is now on the wall there. Preserving Joe Allen’s heritage is important to both Tim and Lawrence.
The changes at Joe Allen since the new owners took over has been careful and thoughtful. Most noticeable was the new awning and board outside the entrance. Joe Allen has always had something of a mystery about it: a hard-to-find entrance in Exeter Street (now still quite discreet but more easily found) and a ‘secret’ burger on the menu – i.e. not on the menu but those in the know will ask for it. They’ve reintroduced the original logo onto the menus, reclaiming some of the restaurant’s heritage. A cartoonist has worked with the logo to produce a wonderful design for the back of the waiting staff’s uniform.
They’ve also put up the original blackboard again where the menu was originally displayed. It’s only a couple of weeks ago that they properly introduced the new menu. They’d been slowly making changes and now this new menu is much cleaner and easier to use.
(Not a particularly good photo, I’m afraid, but you can take a good look on the website: www.joeallen.co.uk.) There’s a strong focus on Grills: their steaks are cut from 28-day aged Hereford cattle. You can choose your steak and size – sirloin, rib eye, fillet or rib eye on the bone – and next to it is a list of Sauces, from traditional ones like Bearnaise to Chipotle Hollandaise and an Avocado, Lime & Coriander Salsa. But lovers of Joe Allen classics need not fear, there is still their wonderful Caesar Salad – which I had for my lunch starter – slightly changed but still great. The Chopped Liver with Pickles is there and so too is Black Bean Soup with Coriander. Lawrence told me that experience shows that squid is always a winner on a menu so they’ve introduced Crispy Squid with Anchovy Mayo that was a top seller in its first week. I had the Chilli Con Carne with Guacamole and Sour Cream and Corn Grits for a main. There were slight – and positive – changes to the chilli: it was chunks of meat rather than mince, it was winningly spicy and Lawrence said a little chocolate (Mexican style) had been added to lift it.
There is also still the Set Menu which is available at the same price, £16 for 2 courses; £19.50 for 3 courses, including a glass of house wine, and served any time of day Sunday to Tuesday, and from 12 noon till 7pm Wednesday to Saturday.
There have been other improvements: not stand-out ones but subtle ones that make a difference. They’ve rearranged the furniture around the bar, for instance, so that there’s more room now and people will feel encouraged to have a drink there before sitting down at their table.
Tim showed me the wonderful, gleaming bar top – the original – and it made much more sense to have more space there. They’ve also changed an area to the side of the bar at the back that can now be closed off for private parties and functions.
Many of the old staff – some dating back 25 years! – remain: Cathy the manager, head chef Marc in the kitchen, many of the waiting staff. But new runners have been introduced so that fewer waiters are rushing into the kitchen area and things should move faster.
Joe Allen is changing slowly and with care. Regulars need not fear: this is still Joe Allen as you know … only better! Part of its sale to two independent restaurateurs was about retaining all that’s great about the place. There’s no dreadful big corporation waiting to transform it out of recognition but people who do genuinely want to get it right. It’s quite a challenge, I remarked to both men. Bringing in necessary changes but not alienating all those faithful customers. But I think they’re getting it right and I for one am both relieved – and looking forward to going back soon!