The Last Bite: Serving Omelettes to Theatre Stars at London’s Original West End Restaurant
“After a performance, the audience who’d been at the theatre would come in here to eat as well as the star of show. You never knew who was coming or what was going to happen.”
Welcome back to The Last Bite, our column documenting the survival of traditional food establishments in a ramen-slurping, matcha latte-sipping, novelty cafe-obsessed world. As cities develop and dining habits change, can the dive bars and defiantly untrendy restaurants keep up?
Here, we talk to longstanding bartenders, chefs, market stall holders, and restaurant owners to find out what the future may hold. For this instalment, we visit Joe Allen, one of the first restaurants in London's West End, and talk to original waiter Jon Spiteri.
Locating Joe Allen among the side streets of London's Covent Garden feels like being let in on a closely guarded secret. Distinguishable only by its red awning and a sign that directs you down a set of stairs, the American-style diner is easy to miss.
But once you descend and enter Joe Allen's cavernous basement dining room, the story of a West End institution opens up. Established in 1977, the restaurant's walls are still decorated with posters for old theatre shows and framed pictures of the stars who have eaten at its tables over the years.
"Look at these! White paper tablecloths! It was gingham tablecloths and a green awning outside. I've only just noticed it's a red one now."
Sitting opposite me, decked out in a checkered three-piece suit, is restaurant consultant Jon Spiteri, who was one of the original Joe Allen waiters back in the day.
"There was a big buzz that there was going to be a big American-style restaurant coming. I was working at Parson's [now closed] in the Fulham Road at the time, but I knew I wanted to be here," remembers Spiteri. "There was a guy called Max who ran the place. He was a short man with a ruby set in his front tooth. He was like a character from a musical!"
He continues: "We were all stood there with our white apron and white shirts. But it was empty. You've got to remember at that time, there was nothing around here. There was the fruit and veg market by the station and nothing else."
But that didn't last for long.
Spiteri says with a smile: "Slowly, people who had been to Joe Allen's in New York came and it started to build. When it got busy, it was extraordinary. It was a factory of food. It was mad, crazy, there so many people around, and so much entertainment. There were so many lively theatre people. It was fantastic."
The dining room in which we're now sitting is empty, save for a few waiters milling around the bar, but it's the kind of space that feels heavy with anticipation for long lunches and late nights around the piano.
"We had wild cocktails here, like a Bloody Bullshot. It's a Bloody Mary with beef consommé! It sounds gaggy, doesn't it?" says Spiteri with a laugh. "Things like a Singapore Sling and really classic cocktails which were before the cocktail boom in the 80s."
He continues: "Jimmy Hardwick would be on the piano and there were always musical people here so they'd sing with Jimmy. You never knew who was coming or what was going to happen. After a performance, the audience who'd been at the theatre would come in here to eat as well as the star of show."
And it wasn't just the booze, celeb spotting, and late-night singsongs that drew people to Joe Allen. The restaurant's classic Caesar salad ("I'd never come across a Caesar salad before and it came served in these great big wooden bowls with raw egg and Parmesan. What a salad!") and the off-menu Joe Allen burger are still served today. But it's the omelette menu for which Spiteri mourns the loss.
"Rowley Leigh was the egg chef when the place opened and at lunchtime, there was an omelette menu," he explains. "There were about 25 different omelettes, like the Monte Cristo which I think had ham in and was served with a muffin and jam on the side."
He continues: "He'd stand there with a stack of frying pans, making these omelettes to order. He'd do it on a very small pan with hot butter and he'd have four going at the same time but each one was perfectly turned and soft and yellow and beautiful."
"It was a great start in life for everyone, working in a restaurant like this. You knew how it should be done."
And Spiteri should know. After leaving Joe Allen, he went to work with London institutions like Quo Vadis and St. John to name but a few. I ask how the London restaurant scene has changed in the years since.
"That's a huge question. For starters, rents are now ridiculous and people can't open these massive restaurants," he says, gesturing to the vast room. "But luck does have so much to do with it, as well as regular clientele and loyal customers."
He continues: "Wages have also gone up and to run a place like this, you have a receptionist, a maître d', and there used to be a coat check. This was a long time ago (and I don't want to get sued in case I'm wrong) but I earned something like £15 a week. But you could make a lot from tips. So, after work we'd go clubbing all night then the unlucky ones would work the next morning. Or we'd go in the next evening and do it all again."
Spiteri also laments the demise of the long lunch. He tells me: "In the 70s and 80s, people would go for lunch and then they wouldn't go back to work. People don't drink as much now and that was a big revenue for restaurants. I remember staying for lunch and dinner in a restaurant and not moving. But people don't do that anymore—and rightly so in terms of the world!"
I think of the limp salad in my bag for an al desko lunch later.
He adds: "The way people eat has changed so much. There are more of them eating out but they're spending less. I don't know how places like Joe Allen will fare in the future."
Despite the restaurant celebrating its 40th birthday at the end of the month, the future of Joe Allen is in doubt more now than ever. Last year, actor Robert de Niro was reportedly in talks to close the place to make way for a hotel. But Spiteri remains hopeful.
"Restaurants are more about just the food and in places like Joe Allen that come with expectation, you're still not disappointed. I like the big restaurant—you feel excited by it," he says. "All my fondest memories are of sitting in restaurants. There's something so phenomenal about eating and talking. The things that get talked about around a table don't get talked about anywhere else."
Here's to many more years of sitting and eating and talking. Even without the gingham tablecloth.