One of New York’s greats

Featured image
A line cook checks his phone. Photo: JH.

Monday, February 15, 2021.  An uninteresting (blah) mid-winter weather in New York right now. No Sun, cold but not biting. No snow although some “Icy” is forecast for tomorrow. You stay indoors because why bother with outside unless you have to.

Today we’re running a tribute to Joe Allen, the New York/Los Angeles restaurateur who died two Sundays ago on the 7th, at the age of 87. I was a happy client of his restaurants, particularly Orso out in West Hollywood. Like Sette Mezzo in New York, the “world” passed through those modest doors and it was always Very Good Service, Excellent Menu, and you were in the thick of it. Fun. Satisfying.

I interviewed him once back in the late 1980s out there. It was about his turning his Orso out there in West Hollywood over to his daughter who was going to do her restaurant. This was about 45 years ago. He was a nice looking guy, a “nice” face, no problems, no issues, and quietly gracious. I knew nothing about his background/life  except that this manner was almost laid-back. I was impressed; he was very successful in his business and “so-what” — his so-what.

Jesse Kornbluth knew him. I only learned this when I started reading his interview of Joe Allen that he did for Architectural Digest in 1995Jesse tells us what this man was like, to be around, to live a life. He was a good man who had a good life. And interesting too, in that New York way …

Joe Allen (1934 – 2021)
He called himself “a fifth-rate Broadway icon.”

Not so. He was one of New York’s greats.

Joe Allen, who died the other day at 87, got the Great Man send-off in the paper of record: a long and admiring obituary and a follow-up of testimonials from Broadway stars. If his name is unfamiliar to you — that is, if you didn’t have dinner at one of his restaurants before or after a theater evening — you might wonder why. He was taciturn to the point of self-erasure. He didn’t court the press. His restaurants were about quality meals, not flash.

Elaine Kaufman — even in Des Moines, they recognize the name. She was a large woman, with large opinions, sometimes expressed at volume. The food at her restaurant was nothing special and sometimes worse, and your bill didn’t always have a one-to-one relationship with the prices on the menu. If she didn’t know you, you might find yourself at a table in the Siberian room even though the main room was empty. But Woody Allen was there every night — he used her restaurant in his movies — and the location was uptown and convenient for writers and stars who basked in the glow of their celebrity, so “Elaine’s” says something to you that “Joe Allen” doesn’t.

Bar Centrale, which had no sign and steps that weren’t friendly to anyone who worried about the consequences of a shattered hip, was a beloved destination for my friends and me. It wasn’t really a restaurant; picture a miniature speakeasy that served a little food. I often saw Joe there. I always nodded. And he always nodded, perfunctorily. Clearly he didn’t remember — and why should he? — that I profiled him for Architectural Digest in forever ago 1995.

I loved Joe. Loved interviewing him. Loved writing about him. I think that shows in the piece. Here it is.

There’s a trapeze in the living room, a relic of an abandoned exercise regime. The stove, which dates from 1970, has been used so rarely it looks like a showroom model. Most of the pictures are of dogs long gone to their reward. On the blackboard in the bath where guests once scribbled clever sayings, there’s nothing but an unbroken expanse of slate.

“This place is a shrine to me,” explains Joe Allen, who opened the restaurant that bears his name on the first floor of this building three decades ago. “I’ve turned the business over to my daughter and her husband and pretty much moved to Miami and Tuscany. The only reason the apartment is still here is that if she didn’t keep it, I’d never visit and she’d have to be a landlord.”

Printed words lack the punch of Allen’s delivery. He’s thin and laconic, with a jeweler’s eyes, and hands that look right at home wrapped around a drink — he’s Humphrey Bogart as “Monsieur Rick” in “Casablanca.” Rick, you will recall, also lived above his joint. And although Joe Allen, like Rick, has a knack for the pithy jab, he’s also, again like Rick, really a sentimental softy who can’t quite hide his fundamental sweetness.

Outside and in (when there was an in) …

So when Allen tells the story of his entry into the restaurant business, he emphasizes his lack of ambition. In his twenties, he says, he was spending the bulk of his time at P. J. Clarke’s, the template of old-fashioned New York drinking institutions. His tab escalated. The owner suggested their relationship might improve if Allen moved to the other side of the bar.

With that new view of the restaurant, Allen says, he accidentally found his calling . Later he discovered a “less obvious” location on West Forty-sixth Street; with the blessing of his former employer, he “plagiarized Clarke’s ambiance as best I could” and in 1965 opened a brick-walled restaurant with an equally basic menu.

The early days were the golden days. “People from shows came in, hung out at the bar and drank until they fell. Then people started smoking dope, and the bar business went into a serious decline. Then people got sensible about drugs, but they didn’t start drinking again – if we only had beer and wine and vodka, we wouldn’t disappoint many people.”

Cultural fluctuations and the ever­changing fortunes of Broadway may have affected his bottom line, but they made hardly a dent in Allen’s routine. As soon as he moved to the apartment in 1970 he began awakening at a reasonable hour and wandering down to the bar, where he would sit and plan other restaurant ventures. In this purposeful, subliminal and altogether enjoyable way, he opened branches of Joe Allen in Los Angeles, Paris and London.

He has long had a love affair with Tuscany, and in 1983 he opened the first of what are now a series of Italian restaurants. “I wanted a name that was phonetic,” he explains. “And I thought of Orso, a dog who belonged to a gondolier and lived in an alley near the Gritti Palace in Venice. A lady left two hundred dollars with the concierge every year to take care of his medical bills. I also befriended him — as much as one could. Around the time we were opening our first Italian place Orso died, so…”

Allen has given more thought to his restaurants than to his homes. Since he has declared himself “a fifth-rate Broadway icon” and stepped out of his children’s way, he spends much of his time in Miami, a city that, he believes, discourages serious decorating. But when he thinks of home, it’s invariably his New York apartment.

The motif — posters of failed plays.

It says a great deal about Joe Allen that when he decided to hire a decorator, he chose DD Allen, his second wife, from whom he is amicably separated. “He said, ‘I’m going away for three months; here’s X dollars, and there’s not a penny more,’” she says. In his absence, she painted the brick walls, dyed an unattractive Oriental carpet black, knocked through to the next building to make a dressing room, and set a bar into the dining room he was never going to use. When he saw it, he said he was thrilled. She knew that was more than good manners: ”I’ve known Joe so long that I can recognize a tiny rise in emotion others might miss.”

Allen’s sense of decoration in the restaurants is equally restrained. At Joe Allen, the motif is ultra-low-budget: posters of failed plays. “It started as a joke, with posters for ‘Kelly’ and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ which starred Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain and which David Merrick called ‘my Bay of Pigs.’ The rule was that the show had to cost more than half a million dollars and close in less than a week. Now they cost much more — and the poster is here the minute the curtain goes down.”

At Orso, where audiences go for pre-theater dinner and actors and directors show up after their night’s work, the theme is photographs of favorite bars and bartenders . Allen gives thumbnail sketches: “Here ‘s Mario at the D’ Inghilterra, and the bar at the Gritti Palace, and the Bar Centrale in my adopted town of San Casciano lei Bagni, and here’s Harry’s . . . and this is the paving stone outside the Gritti where Orso is buried.”

If you’re getting the idea that Joe Allen has an enduring affection for bars, you’re warm. “I hate to think what the world would be like without alcohol — it would suck,” he says. “I didn’t drink for thirteen years, and I didn’t have one day of fun.” He’s considerably less enthusiastic about Broadway: “I see a lot of theater, but I’ve only invested in one play, ‘The Boys in the Band,’ and that was because it was written by a friend, Mart Crowley, and directed by the late Bob Moore. For more than a year I got a check each month for eight hundred dollars. One month it didn’t come, and I thought, Hey, where’s my check? I was never tempted to invest again. My view is, I got away with it once, leave it alone.”

But just when you might conclude that Joe Allen is the most confirmed cynic who ever became successful, he recalls his first trips to the city as a four-year-old living in Queens. “I can remember coming across the bridge to see ‘Snow White’ and knowing, This is different,” he says, his eyes shining. “We passed the Sutton Theater, and there was no double feature. And then on V-J Day, I remember coming out of ‘Oklahoma!’ and there were all those people in Times Square.”

Now there are fewer plays. And a “stupid” smoking ban in restaurants. No matter. As Joe Allen sums up his life in New York, he is, at sixty­ two, as enthusiastic as a teenager. “I come downstairs in the morning, and breakfast is whatever they’re cooking for lunch,” he says. “Having an apartment over the restaurant is wonderful. You never have to hail a taxi. And that’s worth everything.”

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