After a somewhat extended break, during which far too much delicious but expensive grub has been consumed, it's time to revisit the Best Burger in London survey. This time round, Joe Allen, Covent Garden's well established luvvie-magnet American bar.
It's probably fifteen years since I first went to Joe Allen and in that time almost exactly nothing has changed in this Exeter Street perennial. It's always buzzing, no matter what time you go (long lunchers and theatregoers more than take care of any potential afternoon deadzone), but the helpful front of house team will usually find room for a small table and, with a bar that was probably shipped in straight from New York, there are certainly worse places to wait if they can't. The walls are plastered with movie posters, framed prints of silver screen heroes and, for reasons I have yet to fathom, seventies sports stars. They all add to the timeless charm of the place.
As indeed does the menu. Although properly printed daily it's hard to recall any significant deviations from the familiar fare. Expect Caesar salads, smoked salmon and eggs Benedict to start, steaks, chilli and calves liver to follow. Having said that, kidneys cropped up among the starters on Saturday and the fact that I haven't had them at Joe Allen before surely means I was seeing them on the menu for the first time. Jolly good they were too, in a sporty onion 'diavalo' sauce. Evie plumped for the smoked salmon, which was fine, as was her main, a well filled vegetable pie that at least demonstrated some thought had gone into the vegetarian offering, even if there was very little choice.
There is no burger on the menu at Joe Allen, although why this should be the case is a mystery to me. That they will make you one if you ask them nicely seems to be the worst kept secret in London. Sure enough, there was no "I'll check with the chef" when I asked. Instead, I was offered a cheese and bacon if I wanted it and even asked how I wanted it cooked. Maybe its absence from the menu is down to the fact that the kitchen don't have much of a clue how to present it. The burger arrived slightly forlornly on its own on a small plate with a tiny pile of gherkins and onions for me to add in if I wanted to. Decent handcut chips were ordered and served separately. The burger itself was very good: decent quality beef in a thick patty, a generous smothering of tasty cheddar on top not quite making up for a slight lack of seasoning. The rest was ok, nothing more. Apart from the DIY presentation, the bun was a bit ordinary and there was little if anything in the way of sauce or garnish.
By the time we left, having somehow managed to nudge £50 a head (with booze) the pianist was well into his second bottle and punters had started joining him for duets. The acoustics are such that only those within a few feet can hear what's going on. Maybe not such a bad thing.
People don't really go to Joe Allen for the food - "secret" burgers and the excellent egg dishes aside - but for whatever reason (the chance to spot minor celebs, perhaps, or maybe just the very London buzz of the other happy punters) people certainly do go to Joe Allen. And for as long as it stays so gloriously constant, they probably always will.
Joe Allen, 13 Exeter Street, WC2E 7DT 020 7836 0651