I've just been to Joe Allen's with my little sister. I've been going there since the late 1970's, and it''s amazing how it looks exactly the same after all these years. Hasn't changed one iota. Very New York, like something from a Woody Allen film- in the good days, when he was making the likes of "Manhatten", "Stardust Memories" and "Annie Hall". Think speakeasy basement, bare red brick, theatrical posters, signed black and white actor's photographs (Dirk, Larry and Ralph), red checked tablecloths and an upright honky-tonk piano. Similar in a way to P. J. Clarke's on Lexington.
Of course it's a seriously luvvie haunt (or, at least, it's supposed to be) as it's one of the only restaurants in Covent Garden which stays open late and is convenient for an after-theatre or post-opera supper. My sister happened to eat there about two weeks ago, and spotted Andre Agassi swanning around on the stairs wearing a snow-white fur coat.
The trouble with Joe Allen's is that everyone there looks like a famous actor, film director or a "somebody", even if they're not. We were squeezed next to a large party, seemingly hosted by a little old man with a white beard and black-rimmed glasses who hopped from table to table, seemed to know everybody and called out "darling!" at every opportunity. He looked (and acted) suspiciously like Dickie Attenborough. The man sitting next to him was the dead spit of Richard Eyre, and the little old woman to his right, I could have sworn, was that scary second half of the 70's husband and wife duo, "The Crankies", forty years on. Anybody who remembers "Crackerjack" on Friday afternoons will know what I mean.
But oh how wrong I was. At the end of the evening "Dickie" stood up and addressed the restaurant. It turned out that he was hosting a local office party in honour of somebody called Kevin. Kevin was retiring from the business after thirty years of loyal service.
Now about the food. Joe Allen's serves American food, of the East Coast variety. Think Black Bean soup, pan-fried tuna, "candied" sweet poatoes and barbequed spare ribs. This time round, the food was actually quite, even rather, good. Since a recent visit to The Boundary, one of my favourite first courses is Ham Hock Terrine, and the Joe Allen version tasted juicy. It was served with a piquant Mustard sauce. The main course was pork belly, served with crunchy cabbage which hit the right spot. Wine was red and raw and served in a carafe, which is no bad thing in a place such as this.
Service was smiley, quick and to the point. Another improvement, as the last time I ate at Joe Allen's, (albeit very, very late) we had a grumpy mama of a waitress who plonked the black bean soup down on the table as if it was gruel, and made it very clear that she couldn't wait to get shot of us. But Joe Allen's is Joe Allen's, and somehow it doesn't really matter if the joint can be very hit or miss. London wouldn't be London without it, even if it looks like it really should be in New York.
Joe Allen, 13 Exeter Street, London WC2 E 7DT (020 7836 651)