Restaurants aren’t just about food. They are also about having fun. In Paris recently, one of the first places I headed for was not Alain Ducasse or the latest fancy haute cuisine establishment, but La Coupole, because I’ve always had a great time there. Yet the other day in New York, when a friend suggested we eat at Joe Allen after the theater, I was skeptical. Joe Allen? Did anyone go there anymore? I was even more surprised to learn that my friend, who is a theater critic, eats there several times a week, and so do many of his colleagues. I couldn’t have been more taken aback if he’d said they hung out at Sardi’s.
We walked down a few steps into a long, narrow, dimly lit room that has a bustling, crowded bar down one side and tables set with red-checked cloths along the other. A second dining room is to the left; the walls are open-brick and hung with framed posters of Broadway shows–all flops. At the bar and dotted around the room were familiar faces from the theater, neighborhood people, a couple of guys who looked like off-duty cops, some theater critics–and even a smattering of tourists.
When it first opened in 1965, Joe Allen drew in all the important stars, directors, writers and producers of the time, from Lauren Bacall and Tennessee Williams to David Merrick, Neil Simon and Rod Steiger. There is a real Joe Allen, who also has opened branch restaurants in London, Paris, Los Angeles and Miami. “It was a canteen for Broadway,” he said over the telephone from Miami. “Whoever was working came there.”
But like La Coupole, it went into decline. In the early 80′s, Mr. Allen bought the restaurant next door with the intention of expanding into it. Instead, he decided to open Orso, an Italian trattoria. People stopped going to Joe Allen and went to Orso instead. The food was better. “Then I realized we had abandoned the first child for the newborn,” he said.
By the time he turned his attention back to Joe Allen, New York’s smoking laws had gone into effect, which worked in his favor: “It sent a lot of customers back, because you could smoke there.”
Now Joe Allen attracts not only smokers (of which there are probably fewer in one week than on any given night at La Coupole) but Broadway actors such as Brian Dennehy and Stockard Channing, and movie stars, since suddenly it seems to have become de rigueur for them to prove themselves on the boards as well as the screen. Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson are regulars. Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Bette Midler, Carole Burnett, Matthew Broderick, Timothy Hutton, Nicole Kidman and Glenn Close have all been in recently.
A major force in bringing Joe Allen back to where it once was is Angus McIndoe, its manager and maître d’ for the past five years. He’s the Sirio Maccioni of the theater district. But instead of a burly Italian, he is a slight, red-haired Scotsman with a beard, just 30 years old, who comes from Glasgow. Mr. McIndoe started as a waiter in the London branch of Joe Allen in the late 80′s and then worked at Orso. New Yorkers are enchanted by his brogue, which he says Londoners were not. “In England, I felt my personality got in the way. They didn’t want a Scottish accent in London.” Like Mr. Maccioni, he seems to be everywhere at once–the night we walked in, he was at the door before we even had time to check our coats–remembering names and who people are. “Wait five minutes, I’ll have a great table for you.”
He showed us to a table at the back of the restaurant’s front room. “I hope you realize what an honor this is,” whispered my companion, looking amused. “This is where Natasha and Liam always sit. It’s the table.”
As far as the food was concerned, I was not expecting much beyond a decent hamburger. We started off with a carafe of the house wine–$15 a liter–which I approached with some trepidation. It was eminently drinkable (there are also many bottles on the list, which is mostly American, under $25, in addition to an interesting selection of beers). The menu is straightforward and offers the sort of dishes you feel like eating late in the evening. The hamburger and fries are first-rate, and so is the calf’s liver with spinach and mashed potatoes. You can also get simple meatloaf or pot roast, a grilled lamb sandwich, black bean soup or an omelet.
All the salads I tried were fresh and well seasoned, including the Caesar, the chopped Greek, which was made with cucumber, tomatoes, feta cheese, black olives and mint, and the endive and beet with goat cheese, apple and frisée. Asparagus was grilled and topped with chopped tomatoes and a lemon-garlic vinaigrette. I also liked the spicy three-cheese-and-jalapeño quesadilla with tomatillo salsa (big enough for a main course) and the steamed mussels in a wonderful Oriental sesame soy broth made with ginger and leeks. The mixed bruschetta, which changes daily–tomato and basil, smoked salmon, grilled portobello mushrooms–comes on excellent bread from the Sullivan Street Bakery.
I found the sirloin steak a bit fatty, but cooked just right and served with crisp, well-salted fries. Grilled chicken breast with warm French bean salad was juicy but unexciting. Chilean sea bass was very fresh, charred, served under tomato sauce on a bed of spinach. The roasted trout didn’t have a great deal of flavor but was boosted by its wrapping of collard greens and tomato-caper sauce.
Desserts included wonderful marble cake with hot fudge sauce; blueberry and pear cobbler, which had a slightly tough crust but a good filling; and a delicious wedge of banana cream pie. All were served with lashings of fresh whipped cream.
At La Coupole, the oysters, steak tartare and lemon tart I had were delicious, but what made the evening fun was the energy in the room. Joe Allen has a similar buzz–and it’s not just about celebrity. Like La Coupole, what makes it work is the mix. It’s as important as the food.
326 West 46th Street
Noise level: Reasonable
Wine list: Small, inexpensive, mostly American; interesting beers
Credit cards: Mastercard and Visa
Price range: Main lunch and dinner courses $9 to $19.50,
Lunch: Daily noon to 4 P.M., except Wednesday and Saturday 11:30 A.M. to 4 P.M.
Dinner: Sunday to Thursday 4 P.M. to 11:45 P.M., Friday and Saturday to midnight
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor