“When in doubt, eat at Joe Allen, you will fit in here forever, they take care of you, it’s divine” – Joanna Lumley.
Call me cynical, but a celebrity endorsement usually has me running for the hills. Nonetheless, I was looking forward to visiting Joe Allen, which has been synonymous with Covent Garden and theatreland for as long as I can remember. Located on Burleigh Street, Joe Allen’s unassuming facade means that I’ve walked past it countless times but never registered its presence. But then, I suspect that remaining low key is exactly what it wants.
You feel at home as soon as you step inside and receive a welcome of genuine warmth. Its surroundings are quite traditional – a combination of wood panelling and exposed brickwork – and your eyes are drawn immediately to the theatre memorabilia adoring the walls. Joe Allen was founded in 1977 by a group of actors, producers and directors looking to woo the West End’s latest productions – and has been known ever since as the ‘West End’s Canteen’.
We owe that showbizzy group a vote of thanks, because Joe Allen’s food is divine. Lisa and I nearly opted for the set menu – a very reasonable £16.95 for two courses or £18.95 for three courses – and only decided against it because there were a couple of dishes on the à la carte menu that we couldn’t resist. [Note to parents: Joe Allen also offers a great kids’ menu].
It’s safe to say that we enjoyed every mouthful of every course, starting with the Gordal picante olives (large,luscious and fiery) that we nibbled on whilst catching up on several months’ worth of news. We were also impressed by the wine, a 2017 Spanish Sauvignon Blanc: pleasant on its own, it complemented our food beautifully.
To the starters, and I chose the Smoked Salmon Delmonico, intrigued to see how the fish, egg, gherkin, sour cream and herbs would come together: I’ve never thought of salmon and boiled egg as natural bedfellows. I needn’t have worried. Not only was this the finest portion of smoked salmon I’ve ever been served in a restaurant, the crumbled egg served as the perfect foil.
Lisa pronounced herself equally pleased with her Seared Tuna Loin. Matched with Japanese horseradish, avocado and cucumber salsa, it looked as pretty as it tasted and we were both very content indeed by the time we’d polished off these starters – not to mention keenly anticipating our main courses.
I’d chosen the Lobster Brioche Roll with a little apprehension, having recently been very disappointed with the same choice at a well-known national chain. I needn’t have worried. Every element of the dish was perfect, from the deliciously soft bread to the large, succulent pieces of lobster to the spicy mayonnaise and the delectably crispy salted fries. So good was it that I was unable to speak for the duration of its consumption: unheard of.
Lisa, in the meantime, was tucking into her Grilled Swordfish with Crushed New Potatoes and Salsa Verde with the same zest with which I was attacking my Lobster Brioche. Let’s just say that for two friends who hadn’t seen each other for a number of months, we had (temporarily) very little to say to each other.
A blissful state of affairs…and by now, Joe Allen had completely won our hearts – although, sadly, had left us with no room for dessert (next time, definitely). It may be in the heart of theatreland, but this American restaurant is completely unpretentious, whilst being everything that you look for in a fine dining experience.
We can’t wait to return and I shudder when recalling the many distinctly mediocre meals that I’ve eaten at other Covent Garden establishments. Joanna Lumley: I should never have doubted you.