When Joe Allen closed its doors in Exeter Street after 40 years at the end of July, despite knowing they were only moving 25m down the road to 2 Burleigh Street, I couldn’t help feeling a little distressed that one of my very favourite restaurants was no more. This Covent Garden institution, known as the ‘West End’s canteen’ to its many theatre land devotees, had been a kind of ‘home’ for about 20 years. Frequently there with my good friend Annie, when we ventured elsewhere for our regular meet ups, we’d always after a couple of times say, ‘Let’s go back to Joe Allen next time.’ It’s our ‘home port’, where we’re most relaxed and comfortable.
It was a day of spontaneity. I made a sudden decision in the morning to head into central London to see the Bloomsbury Art & Design exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery. When I emerged, it was almost lunchtime. I’d planned to grab just a sandwich and coffee somewhere before going home, but then the thought came … I was really close to Joe Allen. It was just a short distance down The Strand and into Burleigh Street; less than 5 minutes. Well, I should at least take a look. Once there, I couldn’t of course resist actually going in. But what would I find? Would it be strange and different or might I really find dear Joe still there in essence if not actually within the same walls.
Happily, it didn’t take me long to realise that while it was a little different it was reassuringly very much the same. Their famous posters and theatre photos hung on the walls; their glorious long, dark wooden bar gleamed across the end of the main dining area; it seemed they had the same tables and chairs too, though I can’t be sure; everything had been carefully transported down the road. It was all the same yet with a sparkling and rather exciting newness to it.
Also the same were the friendly familiar faces giving me the same warm welcome; it was good to see ‘old friends’ – the Joe Allen ‘crew’ who’ve been there for years. Soon a menu was in front of me, a glass of fizz, and I was happy to be back at Joe’s.
Their set menu (lunch and early evening) offers 3 choices each of starters, main courses and desserts at £15.95 for 2 courses, £18.95 for 3. I’ve long thought it one of the best set menus on offer in London. I could have eaten any of it but chose to begin with ‘Buffalo mozzarella with grilled courgettes, kale pesto and toasted hazelnuts’.
It was wonderful. The flavours were fantastic and the mozzarella divine, so soft and creamy in the middle it was almost like burrata. I loved the kale pesto and the nice occasional crunch of the hazelnuts. What a great combination of textures and flavours.
For my main I went for their classic ‘Joe Allen’s beef chilli, sour cream & tortilla chips’.
There were vegetarian pasta or fish alternatives, but I rather fancied the chilli. I like chilli but don’t cook it often – and it was quite cold and autumnal outside, so something warming would be good! The chilli was great: small chunks of meltingly soft beef in a rich chilli sauce.
There were some tempting dessert options on the menu – lemon tart or warm chocolate brownie – but the two courses were enough for me for lunch. I had just an espresso to finish. I realised it had been the first time ever – in all these years! – that I’d eaten there alone but so warm was the welcome, so relaxed the ambience, that I felt quite happy in my solo dining. Joe Allen was obviously still alive and kicking up a storm of great food and hospitality. All fears of ‘change’ were put to rest and I surprised myself by feeling that maybe, perhaps, the ‘new’ Joe Allen was even a little better than the ‘old’.