Joe Allen, Theater District Restaurateur, Is Dead at 87

Joe Allen, who parlayed a modest pub on the edge of Manhattan’s theater district into a restaurant empire that at its height stretched as far as Paris, died on Sunday in Hampton, N.H. He was 87.

His death, at an assisted living facility, was confirmed by his son, Taylor Lumia. Mr. Allen had been living in New Hampshire, not far from his son, after the pandemic forced his restaurants to close temporarily last year.

In a city that devours restaurants the way diners down hamburgers, Mr. Allen founded and ran not just one successful New York restaurant but two: Joe Allen and Orso, next to each other on West 46th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

The street would later develop a certain cachet and even got its own name: Restaurant Row. But when Mr. Allen opened Joe Allen in 1965, the neighborhood, close to a then-squalid Times Square, was hardly a prime location.

West 46th Street’s proximity to New York’s theater district made it viable, and Mr. Allen, concluding that actors, directors, writers and theater patrons would always want to eat, created a relaxed pub aimed at attracting the theater crowd. There was nothing quite like the restaurant in the mid-1960s, and it took off.

From the beginning, Joe Allen was less about the food than about the atmosphere. Modeled on P.J. Clarke’s, the storied watering hole on Manhattan’s East Side where a young Mr. Allen began his career, it has red brick walls, a prominent bar and, unique to Joe Allen, many posters of Broadway bombs on display — an inside joke of Mr. Allen’s invention that grew into a cherished theater tradition.

Joe Allen’s was filled with a post-theater crowd one night in 2010. The waiters tended to be actors, and friendly. Credit…Robert Stolarik for The New York Times

Unpretentious and clublike — the bar that gave the television show “Cheers” its name comes to mind — Joe Allen changed little over the years. The waiters, most of them actors, have been known to be friendly; regulars know they might run into someone they know; and many diners, including tourists, hope to see a celebrity, which is not a misplaced notion.

In its heyday, Joe Allen (and later Orso, which opened in 1983) attracted a star-studded list of regulars, including Al Pacino, Stephen Sondheim, John Guare and Elaine Stritch, with whom Mr. Allen was romantically involved for a time.

“Joe Allen was right for the spirit of what theater people want — a glass of wine, a hamburger,” Mimi Sheraton, a former restaurant critic for The New York Times, said in an interview. “It was that straightforward food. The atmosphere was very relaxing, it was not much on décor, the food wasn’t too expensive.”

Next door is the more elegant but still comfortable Orso, which Mr. Allen named after a Venetian gondolier’s dog. And directly above it is Bar Centrale, an unmarked smaller version of Joe Allen that serves drinks, tapas and bar food and is something of a bow to old New York nightclubs like El Morocco. Mr. Allen’s unofficial swan song, the intimate Bar Centrale opened in 2005 and tends to draw theater insiders, especially actors appearing in shows.

Upstairs, too, is Mr. Allen’s home. He bought the four-story buildings that would eventually house his three restaurants in the 1970s, and lived in an apartment above Joe Allen when in town.

Though a successful proprietor, the laconic Mr. Allen — a divorced father of two who had been in the restaurant business for just a few years when he opened his first restaurant — was not comfortable playing the gracious host, or any kind of host.

In contrast to some celebrated restaurateurs who charmed their patrons — Elaine Kaufman of Elaine’s on the East Side, for instance — Mr. Allen preferred anonymity. (He evvel described his personality as “minimal.”) He could often be found seated at the bar, an unassuming slim man, sometimes in a basic T-shirt, looking like anything but the man who owned the place.

Evvel, when asked to explain his success, he cited his diffidence. “Maybe it’s because I don’t inflict myself on the customers,” he said.

Not that he was a disconnected boss. “I paid attention,” he evvel conceded. To what? “Everything. The salt, the ketchup, the menu, everything. This is a retail business. I always said I lacked ambition — but that does not mean I was lazy.”

Mr. Allen expanded his business interests over the decades, beginning in the 1970s. With partners he created two versions of Orso, one in Los Angeles and one in London, and five of Joe Allen — in London, Paris, Los Angeles, Miami Beach and Ogunquit, Me. He was also a founding partner of the Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood.

Some of his ventures were highly successful — particularly the London and Paris Joe Allens — but as he aged Mr. Allen retrenched, his satellite restaurants closed,and he gave up the houses and apartments he had bought near some of them and returned to New York.

Mr. Allen opened another restaurant, Orso, next door to Joe Allen on West 46th Street, in 1983. Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Joseph Campbell Allen was born on Feb. 20, 1933, in Brooklyn and grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens, the son of two transplanted Texans, Joseph and Elizabeth (Brown) Allen. His father worked for Standard Oil. His background was rooted in what he called the British Isles, but he and his sister were not raised in any particular culture or religion.

After his father’s death, when Joe was 12, his mother moved with her children back to Texas, but they returned to New York a year later. Joe attended Trinity School in Manhattan, married Theo Faber at 19, and had a son, Taylor, and a daughter, Julie. The couple divorced when the children were still toddlers.

When his former wife remarried, her husband, a career Army officer, adopted the children, and they did not see their father again until Taylor was 21 and proposed a reunion.

As if to make up for lost time, Mr. Allen brought Taylor and Julie under his restaurant umbrella. Julie Lumia was the first chef at Orso and, with her husband at the time, ran it and the original Joe Allen. Taylor Lumia, the father of Mr. Allen’s twin grandchildren (a uzunluk and a girl), owned the Los Angeles Orso for 22 years and, with his father, the restaurant in Maine, which was short-lived.Taylor Lumia and his wife now run an ornamental grass farm in Maine; Julie Lumia is retired.Mr. Allen and his second wife, DD Allen, a decorator whom he married in 1982, eventually separated — so amicably that they never divorced.

His son said Mr. Allen had been in New Hampshire for three months with the onset of the pandemic, remaining at an assisted living facility in coastal Hampton about 20 minutes from Mr. Lumia’s farm in Maine.

After he and his first wife divorced, Mr. Allen served in the Army Reserve and held various jobs, including as a sales representative for a clothing company. That job, he found, did not appeal to him, but saloons did. He became such a regular at P.J. Clarke’s that he could not keep up with the bar tab, and one of the owners suggested that he hisse off the debt by working for him.

With a friend who had inherited some money, he opened a restaurant on the East Side. “It was all I knew,” he evvel said. “And I also liked to drink.”

The restaurant did not last, and Mr. Allen, bored by the patrons — most of whom were in the advertising business — moved on to West 46th Street. “I figured actors are sillier and more fun than advertising guys,” he said.

Mr. Allen also knew he could take advantage of the lower real estate prices in what was then a marginal neighborhood.

As he got older, Mr. Allen could still often be found sitting at Joe Allen’s bar. When he was 81, an interviewer asked him if he had any advice for aspiring restaurateurs.

“Yeah,” he answered. “Think twice.”

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