london 1620

Joe Allen

Covent Garden, WC2E

We don’t really need reminding that Covid-19 has ravaged the restaurant scene, with lockdowns, dented consumer confidence, staff shortages and impatient landlords forcing closures. However, just when we thought certain restaurants were gone forever, some have miraculously been brought back to life. Corbin and King’s Bellanger in Islington was going to be sold off but then, inspired by the desire for more casual neighbourhood dining, they cancelled the sale and re-opened it in the summer of 2020. The Ledbury is reportedly re-opening soon despite chef Brett Graham stating it would close for good in June 2020. Vasco and Piero’s has risen from the ashes at a new site on D’Arblay Street. And Langan’s Brasserie has been resurrected under new ownership, opening to somewhat ‘mixed’ reviews.

Enter stage left Joe Allen. The sister restaurant of the New York original has been a Covent Garden institution since 1977 but was forced to close in March 2020. In October 2021 it emerged from its induced coma with a new lease of life, perhaps a lick of paint here and there, and the same FOH management team raring to go, but now with chef Gary Lee (formerly of The Ivy) at the helm and hospitality supremo Russell Norman overseeing Joe’s Bar at the front.

Within the main, split-level restaurant, it’s all lamps and tablecloths with a backdrop of lively piano music and conversation – yes, people finally talking face to face rather than on Zoom. Befitting its Theatreland location, the walls are adorned with framed posters of past shows, there’s a rogues gallery of stage and screen stars in the corridor to the loos and a picture of James Dean in the gents.

Joe Allen 2.0 is a bold, fun, life-affirming place

On the first visit to the restaurant, service was notably upbeat and chipper, though that perhaps wasn’t so surprising as a well-known restaurant critic and Masterchef guest judge (who shall remain nameless) was holding court just two tables away (apparently off duty but their smiley patronage was itself an endorsement). On returning to the bar several times since, service has been consistently good.

Chef Gary Lee has maintained the casual brasserie approach through an American lens, with some revisions to the menu.

A beetroot, orange and dandelion salad with crumbled feta (£9.75) combined contrasting flavours and textures, the earthiness of the beetroot off-set by the occasional burst of citric acid. Meanwhile, “Mr Allen’s steak tartare” (£11.50) was classically prepared and faultless.

Perhaps I expected more of my New York Strip, already steeply priced at £37.50. The beef was cooked to the correct cuisson with a juicy line of rendered fat, and a satisfying béarnaise that hadn’t solidified under the heat lamps on the pass, but the portion of “fat chips” seemed somewhat parsimonious. The dish lacked oomph and pizzazz, which was a shame for the main event. I’d quite forgotten it until going through photos on my phone to write this. My dining companion seemed to fare better with the Cajun spiced rubbed chicken breast (£19.50) with a flavourful black eye bean salsa, plantain chips and chicken gravy.

As for desserts, I tried the “Broken Apple Pie” with Bakewell ice cream (£9) purely in the interests of science but probably wouldn’t have it again: this was rather heavy-going and overly sweet, though I’d happily have the Bakewell ice cream with those delicious frangipane notes all by itself. A standard issue New York cheesecake with raspberries (£9.50) was decent and free from cloying stodginess.

the “Love It or Hate It” bar snack is truly inspired

Joe’s Bar, which you walk through to go to the restaurant, is a destination in its own right. The wooden bar, rustic stools, exposed brick walls and low lighting are reminiscent of Cheers, and on return visits I’ve half-expected to see regulars Norm and Cliff propping the bar, though they would have to eschew their love of beer for the expertly-made cocktails instead. Aside from mainstay Martinis and Negronis, it’s pleasing to see somewhere put a Death In The Afternoon on the menu and a Jerry Thomas Manhattan, honouring the author of The Bar-Tender’s Guide, published in 1862. Despite several return visits just to the bar, I’ve never been lucky enough to see Russell there. Presumably he’s very busy over at Brutto (how he manages both at the same time I don’t know). Nevertheless, the bar staff have clearly been trained well and are knowledgeable about drinks, passing my ‘Martini test’ on each visit.

As for bar snackage, the “Love It or Hate It” is truly inspired. These bread sticks coated in Marmite and melting cheese may divide the crowd but in this case, if you don’t like these, then you are plainly wrong. The umami hit of both the cheese and yeast extract go beautifully with a gin Martini.

Joe Allen is not exactly a gastro-palace but it’s not trying to be anyway. Covent Garden is saturated with informal brasseries, all providing pre or post theatre refuelling stops to varying degrees of quality, but this one stands out. It always has. Joe Allen 2.0 is a bold, fun, life-affirming place and exactly what we need after the hell of the last two years.

Joe Allen
Food & Drink56
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2 Burleigh Street
Covent Garden

January 2022


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