13 Exeter St, London, WC2E 7TD www.joeallen.co.uk
Way back in 1977 my younger self went to the opening of what was, I think, the second McDonalds in the UK. We marvelled at the magic of mince in a bun, little realising that we were witnessing an alien takeover, something that would go on to render thousands, if not millions, of innocent people obese and stupid.
About the only other place you could buy a burger back then, if you dismissed Wimpy bars as indeed you mostly did, was Joe Allen which had just opened in Covent Garden. A copy of the New York Joe Allen, right down to being below ground, it had the same vibe of show off actors, sly agents, gawping punters, waiters who wanted to be actors and chefs who wanted to go home early.
By the time I ate there in the late 80s it was an institution. Every night the place was loud and buzzy and Bonnie Langford would be table hopping and everyone would be referring to famous actors by adding’y’ to their Christian names to show what intimate terms they were on with them.
It was American food, still something of an oxymoron in many people’s eyes then just as it is now. The Caesar Salad was famous and the burgers, for reasons never I think explained, were not actually on the menu. You had to ask for them. The bare brick walls were laden with pictures of thespians through the ages and you kept an eye on the door to see which living, or at least still ambulatory, legend might stumble down the stairs next.
So going back was worrying, would it be the same? Well I’m glad to say it was, although the reassuring fug of cigarette smoke has sadly gone. This was lunchtime so most actors were probably’still a-bed’ (Henry V Act 4, Scene 3) but there was still the same cheery mix of variously aged people and the buzz of happy conversation. I took a Swedish journalist with me and she but a youthful 24, and untouched by peer pressure on Twitter (she doesn’t even have an account), liked the atmosphere in a way I think her British contemporaries probably would not.
The main menu features a lot of classics: smoked salmon with sour cream, chopped liver and pickles, mac n cheese, lobster, chili con carne, crab cakes etc. The set menu though, a reasonable £19, seems to be where chef has a bit of input (grilled haloumi) and I’d give that a go next time.
She had a salad of beetroot, goats cheese and candied walnuts, because Americans will put sugar on everything if they possibly can. She liked it, while remarking it was exactly what it was and with no surprises.
I was a bit surprised by my crab and avocado salad because I expected the avocado to still be in its skin. It wasn’t; it had been chopped, topped with good, sweet crab meat and then formed into an island to sit in a small lake of’Bloody Mary dressing’. This was a mistake, over acidic like a poorly balanced vinaigrette and far too much of it but it was easily avoided.
She then had the burger and it came proudly and properly adorned with only lettuce, tomato and cheese in the bun, which I am sad to say might have been brioche. It wasn’t a greasy pile of dog food, as so many burgers seem to be these days, it actually looked edible and classic.
My friend ate it with her knife and fork, which even I know is an odd thing to do, but she was happy and said she enjoyed it immensely. The meat was cooked right through though, because of Health & Safety rules I suppose. This is a shame because that removes some of the flavour and moisture, but I don’t think it was the kitchen’s fault, just the local council’s.
Perhaps proving that, my sirloin was very properly cooked – medium rare as asked for. Not a bad bit of steak, the cheapest cut on the menu, good charring on the outside and enough fat to add flavour. A tussle of watercress leaves on the side to mop up the juice, a small pot of decent BÃƒÂ©arnaise sauce and lots of chips that were thin and crispy. Thin and crispy chips were a revelation in the 1970s to Englanders brought up on the local chippy variety and I still like them today. Thrice cooked is not necessarily three times better.
Cheese cake for me, nicely salty with a base of chocolate biscuit, and a goo-ily good chocolate brownie for her. Both fine, nothing to write an ode to, but just what we expected.
And that’s the thing. You either get Joe Allen’s or you don’t. It’s not trying to be anything hip or pimp itself on social media, it is a genuinely social place where old friends meet, deals are discussed and the odd tourist in the know slips in to feel like a real Londoner.
The food is joyfully predictable and fairly priced and it’s still one of the few affordable places in London to see an actor off-duty. It’s had a good run to full houses all these years and I personally hope the show goes on forever.