Joe Allen may have named his New York City restaurant after himself, but he was never one to seek the spotlight, even as the eatery became more renowned than he could have ever imagined.
“He would never brag about himself,” Chita Rivera, Allen’s longtime friend and former girlfriend, told Variety. “In fact, if people would carry on too much about him, he would say, ‘Come on now. Let’s not get too emotional.’”
Emotional is what Rivera and the theater community have been this week after news surfaced that Allen died on Sunday at age 87.
“I miss him already,” said Rivera, who dated Allen in the ‘70s while she was in “Chicago.” “I love him. I still love him. I carry him with me always. And all of us whoever were touched by Joe feel the same way.”
Allen opened the restaurant at 326 W. 46th Street, between 8th and 9th avenues, in 1964. At the time, the area was a gritty neighborhood and not the tourist magnet that it is today. The restaurant quickly became a hangout for Broadway stars and struggling artists hoping for their big break.
Marsha Mason quickly became a regular at Joe Allen as a young actress in the late 1960s. “Joe was always there saying hi to everybody, quietly always,” Mason recalled.
Allen was remembered for that quietness. He was so unassuming, one would never guess he was the owner of the restaurant. Maybe his Labrador retriever Alice following him around was the only hint that he was someone important.
“I don’t recall exactly when I met Joe because he’s such a part of my life,” Rivera said. “He was so gorgeous, blonde and he kept himself so healthy. He always had his dog Alice with him. It was the sweetest thing you’d ever seen.”
Allen had an affection for Broadway and for anyone and everyone who made theaters come alive every night. Joel Grey was one of the restaurant’s first regular customers when he began stopping after his performances in “Cabaret” in 1966.
“I would go there afterwards for a beer. We became buddies,” Grey said. “He loved the theater so much. He knew everything about it. He knew all the backstage people, all the actors. Everybody trusted him. He as such a supporter and talked about it in great detail.”
Grey was often accompanied by his “Cabaret” co-star Liza Minnelli. “Joe’s was the only place to go if you were on Broadway,” Minnelli told Variety in a statement. “Everybody who wanted to see anybody went there. And Joe was great and enormous fun, always polite and mysterious.”
Allen famously had a tradition of hanging posters from failed shows on the eatery’s walls. None of Mason’s shows were added to the collection, but she laughed, “I would love to be up on that wall.”
Allen began expanding his business to Los Angeles, Paris London, Miami and Ogunquit, Maine in the 1970s. In New York, there’s also Bar Centrale upstairs from Joe Allen and Italian restaurant Orso next door. A Los Angeles outpost of Orso on Third Street, run by Allen’s son Taylor Lumia, was a Hollywood favorite for 20 years before closing its doors in 2009.
Allen was born in Brooklyn in 1933. He grew up in Manhattan. In addition to son Taylor, he is survived by a daughter Julie, both from his marriage to first wife Theo Faber, and two grandchildren.
“What a lot of people didn’t know was that Joe had the greatest sense of humor,” Rivera said. “He was the smartest guy. He had the most intelligent and the most talented friends. He had ears that would listen to everything. He took care of you. And besides that he wrote the most beautiful love letters a girl could ever want, gorgeous letters I’ve saved. You’d never think that because people think he’s stone-faced. No, he had a beautiful smile.”