An icon of the West End
A female lawyer dressed as a brown paper parcel, a stirring rendition of ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound of Music and a nine-foot inflatable goat.
Not the ingredients of a joke, but a surreal moment – one of many – in the colourful history of Covent Garden restaurant Joe Allen.
“They just marched through the restaurant at about 10 o’clock at night and nobody batted an eyelid,” says general manager Cathy Winn, who has been at the restaurant for 27 years. “I’m not sure what the goat had to do with anything!”
It’s merely a notch on the bedpost of this speakeasy-style institution, which has been seducing the leading lights of theatreland and beyond for four decades.
During its Eighties and Nineties heyday, this unassuming diner became known as the ‘West End canteen’, attracting countless starry names and flamboyant personalities.
The rollcall is dazzling: Judi Dench, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Princess Margaret – the list goes on and on and on.
It was the green room for a generation; a restaurant with a late licence and a laissez-faire attitude, where the inconsistent food was consigned to the role of understudy.
“It has a special place in my congested heart,” wrote restaurant critic Jay Rayner, who played piano at the extravagant 40th birthday celebrations earlier this year.
“I once sat at the same table as both Lionel Blair and Una Stubbs. Les Dawson stopped by to say hello. I lived the dream at Joe’s.”
It’s only now that a fraction of the stories from those heady days are beginning to emerge. Discretion has been the name of the game (staff were banned from taking photographs and talking about customers), so the A-list could really let their hair down.
“There was nowhere to go with these stories apart from telling each other,” says Cathy, sipping coffee in a back room of the restaurant, walls plastered with framed photographs.
“I remember seeing all the Mills at one point. There was Sir John Mills, Hayley Mills and Crispian, and he was borrowing rizzlers off me to have a few rollies outside.
“I remember seeing Julie Andrews in the main room and Stephen Sondheim in here. Tom Jones went off partying with one of our waiters … Rock Hudson went trotting off to Heaven [the famous gay nightclub in Villiers Street] with Jimmy.”
Despite the A-list cast who used Joe Allen as their stage, it is Jimmy Hardwick’s name that keeps cropping up. After playing piano on the opening night of the restaurant in January 1977, he became a permanent fixture, tinkling the ivories six nights a week until his death in 2014.
His passing marked the end of an era. Although two members of kitchen staff have been on the books for 30 years, Jimmy was the last man standing of the original team.
A black-and-white picture exists of the original team, of which, Cathy says, 75 per cent are no longer alive.
“We got decimated in the Eighties with Aids,” she says. “It was horrible; we were doing 15 funerals in a year. It hit our industry so enormously and we lost a lot of good people.”
Jimmy’s funeral was one of only four occasions when the restaurant has been closed to the public. Christopher Biggins’s civil partnership was another.
Legend has it that the restaurant opened as a response to the American cast of A Chorus Line complaining that everything was closed when they finished their Drury Lane show.
Barely a week after opening, they had danced down the bar. The stage was set. The actors followed. The rest, as they say, is history.
“From then on it was like a club,” says Cathy. “It was about being seen and socialising.”
Critics and actors would share the same space, their star quality illuminating the dimly lit room – and a “horrendous tapioca pudding” became an unlikely in-joke.
“People would send it to each other,” says Cathy. “If you had been in a play and a critic thought it was s***, they would send you tapioca pudding. They were flying around.”
The lunchtime crowd was made up of Fleet Street’s finest, while in the evening the actors filed in after their respective shows.
Walls, if they could, wouldn’t talk. They would gossip furiously or belt out showtunes; the latter particularly fitting given that Trevor Nunn and Cameron Mackintosh signed a deal for Les Mis here. It became, unknowingly, a place of calm before a storm. The Blair government would meet here, Jeffrey Archer dined here two days before his prison spell for perjury and Stephen Fry was spotted at the restaurant just 24 hours before he famously walked out on a West End play and fled to Bruges.
Great Train Robber Tommy Wisbey was a regular before his death last year and on one occasion, Cathy recalls, a notorious London mobster turned up announced.
“I remember one Christmas turning around and ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser was at the front door,” she recalls. “He got a table even though we were fully booked; I wasn’t going to argue.”
Each year a club in honour of Kenneth Williams – with each member dressed as the Carry On star – dines at the restaurant, and the Anthony Newley Society also makes an annual appearance.
Tom Cruise is the only famous name to have left Cathy starstruck – “Even though I’m not a fan, he’s got piercing blue eyes and he just throws you off slightly” – but it seems that American actress Elaine Stritch left the biggest impression.
“She used to come in a lot back in the day and she behaved appallingly,” says Cathy. “She used to have diabetes and her favourite thing was to jack up at the table and see everyone’s reaction. She knew it was naughty.”
Restaurateurs Lawrence Hartley and Tim Healy took over the restaurant in 2011 – after Richard Polo decided to sell up – and a perfect blend of the sublime and ridiculous meant they were reluctant to change the formula.
Tweaks were made: the structure of the business, the style of service and the food. What didn’t alter was the old-school philosophy and the very heart of an iconic independent restaurant. The menu – which this year includes a £19.77 option as a nod to their opening date – has plenty of their trademark dishes and some new, lighter options too.
“People come here for the atmosphere and I think now they do actually come here for the food,” says Lawrence.
Mercifully, the tapioca pudding is nowhere to be seen. Instead, Oscar-winning actor Robert de Niro is a name that leaves a rather bitter taste for many.
The Hollywood star’s plans to build his Wellington Hotel on the site means the restaurant is set for a move – to a new premises within walking distance – sparking outrage among many loyal customers.
Owners Tim and Lawrence seem largely unruffled; the latter says it’s simply the start of a new era. “We’re moving home and with that comes the soul of the family,” he says.
Can we expect cream-coloured ponies and crisp apple strudles? Maybe not. But riding a wave of nostalgia and drinking from a potent cocktail of myth and legend, Joe Allen will forever remain one of Londoners’ favourite things.
Joe Allen’s new place will open in August 2017 on Burleigh Street.