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TOM LEONARD: Stars’ haunt that had mischief on the menu

Princess Margaret chain-smoked at a back table, Ava Gardner joined the pianist for an impromptu duet and Elizabeth Taylor packed her guest Rock Hudson off to the nearest gay haunt for a ‘boys’ night’.

Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole would drunkenly bellow songs into the early hours, but Sean Connery got shown the door for refusing to order food with his alcohol.

That said, the menu was hardly what drew the stars to Joe Allen, the restaurant for London’s Theatreland.

Sex Pistol Sid Vicious and girlfriend Nancy Spungen touched tongues for this notorious 1977 photo at one of its tables

Princess Margaret visited Joe Allen, the restaurant for London¿s Theatreland. Pictured: Princess Margaret smoking a cigarette whilst visiting Yugoslavia in 1970

Princess Margaret visited Joe Allen, the restaurant for London’s Theatreland. Pictured: Princess Margaret smoking a cigarette whilst visiting Yugoslavia in 1970

For 43 years, the Covent Garden institution has effectively been the staff canteen for the West End, and actors in general, a place where they could expect not to be bothered, and where the staff could be trusted.

Sex Pistol Sid Vicious and girlfriend Nancy Spungen touched tongues for a notorious 1977 photo at one of its tables, but they were the exception. The myriad other famous performers — from Judi Dench and Ian McKellen to Barbara Windsor and Rod Stewart — who have dined at Joe Allen go there not to be noticed.

Now, after decades feeding and watering the stars, the latter are showing their affection for Joe’s in return. Friends of the restaurant, which has been closed since March due to Covid, have been taking part in a series of online ‘virtual cabaret’ shows to raise money for both Joe Allen and Acting For Others, an umbrella for 14 theatre charities as they struggle through a crisis that has brought the West End to its knees.

Tonight, the last of three virtual cabaret evenings, An Evening At Joe’s, will feature Dame Judi, Sir Ian and Jennifer Saunders among the cast.

Judi Dench is among a series of famous guests to visit the Joe Allen restaurant

Judi Dench is among a series of famous guests to visit the Joe Allen restaurant

Tonight, the last of three virtual cabaret evenings, An Evening At Joe¿s, will feature Dame Judi, Sir Ian (pictured) and Jennifer Saunders among the cast.

Tonight, the last of three virtual cabaret evenings, An Evening At Joe’s, will feature Dame Judi, Sir Ian (pictured) and Jennifer Saunders among the cast.

Jennifer Saunders will feature tonight in the 'virtual' cabaret evenings to raise money

Jennifer Saunders will feature tonight in the ‘virtual’ cabaret evenings to raise money 

A ‘virtual’ evening at Joe’s may prove rather more sedate than the real thing.

In the heyday of showbusiness drinking, says general manager Cathy Winn, who has worked at Joe Allen for 30 years, an ambulance would turn up outside most Friday nights as someone or other would have had a heart attack at their table.

The biggest celebrity boozers of them all — Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris — could always be relied on to pitch up late and inebriated.

‘They used to drive me mad. At the end of the night, they’d always come in p***-drunk and want to sing badly around the piano until the early hours,’ Cathy recalls.

But most guests were far more discreet — although not always courteous. A keen theatregoer, Princess Margaret once invited Derek Jacobi (himself a Joe Allen regular) to dine with her and some ballet world friends.

The biggest celebrity boozers of them all ¿ Peter O¿Toole and Richard Harris ¿ could always be relied on to pitch up late and inebriated. Pictured: Peter O'Toole, who died at the age of 81 in 2013 - just one year after he announced his retirement

The biggest celebrity boozers of them all — Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris — could always be relied on to pitch up late and inebriated. Pictured: Peter O’Toole, who died at the age of 81 in 2013 – just one year after he announced his retirement

‘There were eight of us and I sat next to her,’ he recalled. ‘She smoked continuously, not even putting out her cigarette when the soup arrived, but instead leaning it up against the ashtray.

‘We got on terribly well, talking about her mum and her sister, and she really made me feel like I was a friend . . . until she got a cigarette out and I picked up a lighter and she snatched it out of my hand and gave it to a ballet dancer called David Wall.’ She told the astonished actor: ‘You don’t light my cigarette, dear. Oh no, you’re not that close.’

The restaurant, where Graham Norton was once a waiter, was not only styled on a classic American bar, with show posters lining bare brick walls and red and white checked tablecloths, but an almost exact replica of the original Joe Allen in Manhattan.

Allen and his business partner, fellow American Richard Polo, came to Britain 12 years after opening the New York restaurant, finding cheap basement premises in a former orchid warehouse. The restaurant moved to a new home in 2017 after Robert De Niro announced plans (later scrapped) to redevelop the entire block as a boutique hotel.

Now, after decades feeding and watering the stars, the latter are showing their affection for Joe¿s in return. Friends of the restaurant, which has been closed since March due to Covid, have been taking part in a series of online ¿virtual cabaret¿ to raise money. Pictured: The interior of the Joe Allen restaurant

Now, after decades feeding and watering the stars, the latter are showing their affection for Joe’s in return. Friends of the restaurant, which has been closed since March due to Covid, have been taking part in a series of online ‘virtual cabaret’ to raise money. Pictured: The interior of the Joe Allen restaurant

Ingrid Bergman, right, known for her role in Casablanca,  has visited Joe's restaurant

Ingrid Bergman, right, known for her role in Casablanca,  has visited Joe’s restaurant 

The brasserie had an appropriately showbizzy start when the Broadway cast of A Chorus Line, who were in town, high-kicked all the way down the bar singing A Singular Sensation.

In the early days, the British outpost — down a side street and identifiable by a small brass plate — had a ‘speakeasy’ feel: to obtain an all-important late licence, the restaurant hired a talented pianist. Jimmy Hardwick played there six nights a week for 37 years. An early Joe’s tradition, enthusiastically adopted by Porridge actor and regular Christopher Biggins, was to order the worst thing on the menu — a famously disgusting tapioca pudding — and have it sent to other diners.

General manager Cathy can reel off an endless list of stars who have patronised Joe’s through the years, ranging from acting royalty such as Ingrid Bergman, Maggie Smith, Joan Collins, Julie Andrews and Liza Minnelli, through younger British actors such as Damian Lewis, Keira Knightley, Rosamund Pike and on to the casts of EastEnders and Coronation Street.

The drugs and drink-plagued singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse was one of the more tragic patrons. ‘She did spend a lot of time going to the lavatory,’ says Cathy. ‘She was a very lovely girl.’

While staff would try to protect stars from being bothered by fans — Barbara Windsor was particularly vulnerable, says Cathy, because ‘people just think they can go and chat to her’ — only Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman were once accorded the privilege of having a waiter stationed next to their table all evening to ensure they weren’t disturbed.

Julie Andrews has visited Joe Allen, the restaurant which has seen many famous guests over the years

Julie Andrews has visited Joe Allen, the restaurant which has seen many famous guests over the years

While staff would try to protect stars from being bothered by fans ¿ Barbara Windsor (pictured) was particularly vulnerable, says Cathy, because ¿people just think they can go and chat to her

While staff would try to protect stars from being bothered by fans — Barbara Windsor (pictured) was particularly vulnerable, says Cathy, because ‘people just think they can go and chat to her

Needless to say, there has been the occasional difficult customer since 1977. ‘It was before my time, but Kenneth Williams used to come in with his mum every Sunday. Apparently, they were very, very difficult — very challenging,’ she says. ‘Nothing was ever right.’

The American actress Elaine Stritch was ‘outrageously behaved’ whenever she popped in, says Cathy. Stritch, an alcoholic who could down a bottle of gin in one sitting, would wait until she had particularly shockable-looking diners nearby before getting out a hypodermic syringe — she was a diabetic — and injecting herself with insulin at the table, ‘cackling away manically’.

Kevin Spacey could also be a tricky customer who, Cathy observed, had no time for anyone he didn’t consider to be important or useful to him.

However, ‘the rudest, most horrible man’ she ever encountered was — no surprise — Harvey Weinstein. The now disgraced film producer would come up for lunch from the Savoy, where he stayed when visiting London, in a huge limo.

He’d turn up even after being told they were fully booked, march over to sit at an empty table and refuse to budge from it. ‘One time he came in with some of his lackeys and all these actors came to his table and left crying. One after the other,’ recalls Cathy.

Harvey Weinstein (pictured) was 'the rudest, most horrible man'. He¿d turn up even after being told they were fully booked, march over to sit at an empty table and refuse to budge from it (file photo)

Harvey Weinstein (pictured) was ‘the rudest, most horrible man’. He’d turn up even after being told they were fully booked, march over to sit at an empty table and refuse to budge from it (file photo)

There was usually a fierce pecking order in who sat where, with the tables lining the restaurant¿s back wall being particularly prized. Pictured: A waiter setting tables at the Joe Allen restaurant

There was usually a fierce pecking order in who sat where, with the tables lining the restaurant’s back wall being particularly prized. Pictured: A waiter setting tables at the Joe Allen restaurant

There was usually a fierce pecking order in who sat where, with the tables lining the restaurant’s back wall being particularly prized. No one wanted to sit anywhere near the theatre critics who ventured in.

A quiet, often empty overflow room, dubbed Siberia, was reserved for those not in the know — and Barry Manilow, who insisted on dining there as he hated being looked at.

Not that actors, a convivial bunch, will stay where they’re seated. Cathy says she would have a nightmare trying to track people down for their bills ‘as they’d just wander off and join another table and then get utterly sloshed and forget they hadn’t paid’.

Although actors descended on Joe Allen from 10pm, after their shows had finished, it was also patronised by hardened criminals. Great Train Robber Tommy Wisbey and gangster ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser were regulars.

Cathy remembers one Christmas the restaurant was packed, and she was about to turn away a new arrival when she saw it was Fraser. ‘I was like: “Oh no, you can have a table. No problem at all. This way please.” ’

Just one of the spicier ingredients in the Joe Allen brew.

n An Evening At Joe’s will take place tonight from 8pm to 9pm via YouTube. The show will be available to watch after transmission on the Joe Allen website.

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