Joe Allen in London's Theatreland has been drawing in theatregoers and actors from the stage door for 37 years, but now this slightly weary grande dame is ready for her second act under the care of Lawrence Hartley and Tim Healy. Amanda Afiya talks to them about their plans
But since Joe Allen's opening 37 years ago, the restaurant scene has certainly had its ups and downs. Joe Allen launched in the year of the Queen's Silver Jubilee, witnessing the Winter of Discontent and a country hammered by two recessions, albeit 20 years apart. It also observed the emergence of many new restaurants, bringing style, glamour and gourmet to the streets. Once one of London's most celebrated restaurants, Joe Allen slowly and quietly slipped into the background of the capital's competitive marketplace as diners rushed to explore other new kids on the block.
Cue South-west London-based restaurateurs Lawrence Hartley and Tim Healy who, together with Carluccio's co-founder Stephen Gee (and two silent partners), undertook a very quiet transfer of shares a year ago and acquired Joe Allen and its neighbouring and fellow underground restaurant Orso. Their plan: to breathe love and life back into the old girl.
"We see ourselves as the curators of a piece of Theatreland history," says Hartley, who was once maÁ®tre d' at the Ivy and now owns and runs French neighbourhood restaurant Brula in St Margarets, Twickenham.
"There's nowhere in London with a crowd quite like ours at Joe Allen - on any night you might spot actors, politicians, a theatre critic penning his copy. I used to come here with my father. I have since brought my own children here and we want to introduce Joe's to the next generation. Our challenge has been to identify and make small changes to improve Joe's without losing the essence of what makes it such a special place."
If Joe Allen is special to Hartley, it certainly has a place in Healy's heart. The son of the late American actor David Healy, Tim Healy has an emotional attachment to the place, having visited it in his teens while his dad was treading the boards in the West End. "I used to meet Dad after work and we'd come here and have a burger and a drink. I would have dinner with Julia McKenzie, Anton Rogers and Bob Hoskins, because that's who he used to hang out with. It was the actors' haven, the place to go. He would be over the moon to know that, with Lawrence, I own it now."
While Hartley's background in the industry is relatively conventional - starting out at London's Mandeville hotel, Coconut Grove (with Karen Jones) followed by Café Rouge and then the Ivy - Healy's was far more complex. The grandson of the founder of Ham Polo Club, Healy's background is firmly rooted in the equine world. He started playing polo at nine, and by the age of 14 had turned professional.
After he left school, he moved to Argentina, and spent the next 10 years to-ing and fro-ing from South America, playing and buying horses over there and selling them over here. He mixed with wealthy restaurateurs on and off the pitch, and became friendly with people like Brian Stein, owner of PJ's in Fulham.
By now living in Patagonia, where his brother was running a farm in San Martin de Los Andes, Healy would find himself hanging around with the cook after the early morning rides. "I really started to get into the cooking and the grilling, the empanadas and the asados - the Argentine ways. On my afternoons, before I would play polo, I would work with the chef in the big house and he would show me all these Argentine dishes. I started to get a love for it."
A run of injuries in his 20s led to his polo career being curtailed and Healy suggested to his wife, who was a chef working for Mrs Ong at Emporio Armani Caffé in London, that cooking was something he would like to pursue. His wife suggested he throw himself in at the deep end and promptly fixed up stages at St John, among others.
It was around this time that Healy started to frequent Brula. "My wife Camilla suggested that it would be lovely to have a restaurant like Brula, but Italian, because my wife is Italian and she is an Italian chef." A Cena opened in Richmond in 2001.
Hartley and Healy had been talking about opening a restaurant together for about three years prior to their takeover of Joe Allen. But as South-west London restaurateurs, they just weren't getting the opportunity to look at prime London locations. "Being independent restaurateurs, we were struggling to find London sites - we got the scraps because all the big boys have people looking full-time," explains Hartley.
But when Healy got a call from a contact, who is now a silent partner in the business, saying there was going to be a secret sale of Joe Allen masterminded by Gee and did he and Hartley want to be involved, the answer was "absolutely".
Well before the Exeter Street diner was on the table, Hartley and Healy knew they wanted to do Americana. Being the son of an American and spending time in Argentina had in fluenced Healy's desire to base something around the grill, while Hartley felt that the USA's melting pot of cuisines lent itself to blending the French and Italian styles of Brula and A Cena. "So mac 'n' cheese could quite easily be found 'a l'ancienne' in my restaurant with a bit of pork, or at Tim's restaurant with some wild mushrooms as a starter," says Hartley. "For us, Americana seemed quite logical."
But, of course, taking over the 36-year-old business from the founders Joe Allen and Richard Polo a year ago wasn't going to be a licence to print money - there were hurdles to overcome. "Our initial strategy was slowly catchy," says Hartley. "We wanted to suck it up and see what it was all about," interjects Healy. "We wanted to observe it and see what we could do that was best for the business. It was in trouble, there's no getting away from it."
The easy wins, say the restaurateurs, were labour, food and drink costs. They were straightforward to address on paper, but the reality of sorting the issues out was something altogether different. "You were inheriting people who had been in the business for decades, who had worked in a certain way and been paid in a certain way," says Hartley. "Dealing with each issue one by one was a dirty job - it was hand-to-hand combat."
Unsurprisingly, the staff were on their guard. Hartley and Healy had to convince the 100-strong team that they were going to work with them; that they only wanted to take the business forward. Quick fixes included the lowering of prices at Italian restaurant Orso and improving the frontage so that customers could find it more easily. The awning outside Joe Allen was changed from green to a vibrant "livery" red, a cocktail menu was introduced and uniforms were smartened up. The wine list, which previously boasted 100 suppliers, was streamlined and simplified.
And then there was the food.
"We inherited a head chef and sous chef, who are no longer with us," says Hartley, adding that, in his opinion, they were over- promoted too quickly. "When we took over, we could see on TripAdvisor that the place was getting hammered."
"There was no historical information - nothing," says Healy. "Year to date figures either couldn't be found or couldn't be relied upon."
Their resolve was to appoint executive chef Jason Wilde, whose CV includes periods with the Company of Cooks and Daphne's. "He's very amiable and very organised. He brought the skills lacking back into the kitchen and put the back-end systems in place."
The issues in the kitchen hadn't gone unnoticed. "One bite of the food and I'm struck by something: people are not here for the food," wrote Lisa Markwell in The Independent in February last year (prior to Wilde's appointment). "While diners elsewhere are posting Instagram pictures of plates and tweeting their verdicts, inside Joe Allen, the food is almost a side-order," she added, although she did concede it showed "flashes of promise".
For fellow food critic Jay Rayner, who first visited the restaurant in 1977 not long after it opened and dated there in his teens, Joe Allen's importance to the London dining scene cannot be overstated. "All of London's modern, dirty-food clichés? They were here first," he wrote in The Observer in June, referring to the restaurant's "secret" burger (always available but never on the menu), chicken wings and ribs. "It has a warmth and a glow, a sweet, unforced shtick that few others can match. The crowds need to return. Joe Allen deserves them," he wrote.
While Hartley says Joe Allen is about buzz, service and food in equal doses, he does want the food to elevate itself. He is on version three of a four-part plan to improve its culinary offering. "We want to change the equilibrium a little bit. Ultimately, we're not putting on Michelin-starred food - we need to manage food expectations - but it still needs to be of a very high standard. We're slowly getting there."
Healy adds: "Years ago, if you had great atmosphere and the food was average, you'd be as happy as Larry. But now the food needs to be slightly better than average with great atmosphere. With so many sites, people are bound to make comparisons: price comparisons, Hawksmoor do their cocktails this way, Pitt Cue another - it's inevitable.
"What we do have is personality right at the very top. I'm not talking about me and Lawrence, but Cathy Winn, our general manager who has been here since 1990, Stewart Moss and Debbie Fellows, both restaurant managers. Cathy is the grande dame of the restaurant world and very well known. She is its future, past and present." And that's not to mention pianist Jimmy Hardwick, who has been tickling the ivories since the doors first opened.
But can Joe Allen realistically return to those heady days? "I don't think it can," says Healy candidly, "London can't." "But it could hit the list," adds Hartley, "it could return to being an iconic London restaurant like the Ivy. For the first 10 years of its life it had no competition and was able to just build up its clientele. Who gets that opportunity now? But it is the loins of London, isn't it? Just look at its graduates."
And that's the thing. As Rayner intimates, for its outstanding service to the London restaurant scene, Joe Allen has earned its second wind.
The next excerpt in its tale will undoubtedly be an intriguing one, because this is a story about two restaurateurs coming up from the suburbs, trying to get a foot in the door of an iconic London restaurant. It documents the fact that Hartley worked for King and King used to work here. "And of course," says Healy, beaming as he admires the celebrity photography and poster-rich, red-brick walls, "my dad's on the bloody wall."
Now if that isn't a script in the making, I don't know what is.
JOE ALLEN - A POTTED HISTORY
New York restaurateur Joe Allen and business partner Richard Polo opened Joe Allen in London in 1977 with the intention of eliciting the discreet feel of PJ Clarke's in New York where Allen used to work.
The menu was similar to Joe Allen in New York: unashamedly American. Two articles in the Evening Standard, which included an obliging review from Fay Maschler, plus a piece in The New York Times helped to build buzz and it quickly became the go-to place for American stars visiting the capital.
The waiters were wannabe actors, producers and directors and the cast and crew of the West End's best theatrical productions would use it as their own canteen.
Joe Allen rapidly became the place to hang out, packed with every film, television, fashion, rock and stage celebrity. Over the years, diners have included Princess Diana, Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Williams, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins, Tony Curtis, Susan Sarandon, Al Pacino, Ava Gardner, Ingrid Bergman and Rock Hudson.
Tim Healy's late actor father David Healy, who had roles in many West End productions including Follies and Show Boat, was a regular. To this day, a picture of David Healy and Bob Hoskins, who appeared together in the stage show Guys and Dolls, adorns the wall.
HARTLEY AND HEALY
St Margarets, Twickenham
Owners: Lawrence Hartley
Seats: 45 plus two private rooms for between eight and 24
Style: Modern French food. It also offers outside catering for private and corporate events and has worked at local venues including Strawberry Hill House, Orleans House Gallery and Marble Hill House
Owners: Tim Healy
Style: Traditional Italian
Covent Garden, London
Owners: Lawrence Hartley, Tim Healy, Stephen Gee
Covent Garden, London
Owners: Lawrence Hartley, Tim Healy, Stephen Gee
Style: Traditional Italian