PHOTO: Director Bartlett Sher (and me) at Joe Allen Restaurant in Manhattan

Many years ago, while filling salt and pepper shakers after a busy graveyard shift in a corporate-owned fun-themer restaurant near the college I was attending, I was having one of those show business chats with a budding actor standing next to me filling ketchup bottles. We were talking about a mutual theatre pal who had just moved to New York, and immediately landed a job at Joe Allen. Ketchup was treating this news as if our friend had just won the Tony Award. I naively asked, “What’s Joe Allen?” Ketchup roared with laughter and then proceeded to tell me all about the successful proprietor who started an empire on West 46th Street in the country of Manhattan. By the end of our side-work, I not only knew who Joe Allen was, I wanted to be Joe Allen. “Joe Allen sounds cool,” I said, “when I move to New York I will get a job at Joe Allen, too.” And with another overly dramatic laugh Ketchup said, “Oh, honey, you’re not pretty enough to work for Joe Allen.”

The person who opens restaurants and bars is often referred to as a restaurateur. This puts them in in the same category as Joe Allen, who passed away Sunday. It puts them in the same category…but not in the same league.

Call me cynical, but I have learned the hard way that to make it in the restaurant business you have to have more than a straightforward menu, prominent bar, efficient (and attractive) service, prime location (that you own, and not lease), plenty of foot traffic outside your door, and the hard-boiled-I-don’t-give-a-damn-play-it-again-Sam demeanor that sits alone at the end of your bar — you have to have a name like Joe Allen. And if you do you should have the good sense to put it up on the awning that hangs outside your establishment. And when customers— not consumers— walk through your door there should be a coat-check to the left and a bartender to the right, and a dining room in between. With booths and tables and a private room in the back for Al Pacino to sit alone in. And the joint should have brick walls covered with posters of Broadway flops. And the Producers of some of those flops should be sitting at your tables thinking of new flops. And every time a customer eats there, something magical should happen. Like when you and your fancy New York friends are meeting some mutual theatre pals from California, and one of them used to babysit a famous theatre director…who hardly ever had a flop. And the famous director shows up late to give his former baby sitter a hug. And instead of dashing off he sits next to you and talks your ear off. Or maybe it was you that talked his ear off? Who remembers? No one…because it was probably a dream. Either that or the drinks were just that good, served by actors who know the difference between working for a sole-proprietor who respects their dream to one day be in a hit play, versus a corporation who doesn’t care.

Years later, long after my conversation with Ketchup, I would finally walk into Joe Allen in Manhattan, and every server there looked like they’d just walked out of Ford…the modeling agency, not the automobile. And I instantly thought, “I’m totally pretty enough to work here.”

Thank you Joe Allen for having two first names. Rest in peace.

February 12, 2021

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