Obituary: Richard Polo, founder of Joe Allen

Restaurateur whose Joe Allen became a fixture in theatreland    

From the Daily Telegraph, 13th May, 2019

RICHARD POLO, the restaurateur, who has died aged 84, brought transatlantic pizzazz to theatreland in 1977 when he opened a bar and restaurant, Joe Allen, in a former Covent Garden orchid warehouse; with last orders taken at 12:45 am the venue became an unofficial canteen for cast members, recognisable and otherwise, its bare-brick walls covered with signed theatre posters and photographs of the stars.

Joe Allen (also the name of Polo’s New York business partner) followed the formula of an eponymous venue in New York and in its basement gloom diners, hunched over red-check tablecloths, could tuck into such US delights as Caesar salads, buffalo chicken wings, spare ribs with black-eyed peas and corn bread, eggs Benedict, chocolate brownies – or the 40-year in-joke burger that was not on the menu (Polo did not want the restaurant to become known as a burger joint) but was always available to those in the know.

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Richard Polo: Last orders at 12.45am
Picture: Richard Young/REX/Shutterstock

But Joe Allen was never really about the food. Theatregoers hitting the streets after a performance became fond of it as “somewhere that will still be open”, and while Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen staged a famous photoshoot there in 1978, in general stars appreciated its “speakeasy” atmosphere, in which they could relax without the pressure of having to dress up or be seen.

Sir Trevor Nunn courted Imogen Stubbs there; Princess Margaret smoked a cigarette and enjoyed a Caesar salad; Cameron Mackintosh put Cats together over late-night dinners, and Jimmy Hardwick, the resident pianist, was ordered by Rock Hudson to stop playing and take him to the nearby gay club Heaven.

Elaine Stritch shrugged her shoulders when given a rude rhyming nickname by frenetic waiters – many of them out-of-work actors (Graham Norton worked there as a waiter before turning to stand-up comedy), and Sean Connery went quietly when Polo threw him out because he was only drinking, not eating.

Joe Allen made a huge impact on the London restaurant scene. Jeremy King, who went on (with Chris Corbin of Langan’s) to take over the Ivy and then, later, launch the Wolseley, was maître d’ there, as was Russell Norman, one of the men behind the Polpo group. Rowley Leigh was head chef before launching Kensington Place.

Richard Salvatore Polo was born in Connecticut on January 6 1935, the youngest child of parents who hailed from the Amalfi coast south of Naples. “My mother was a good cook, a very great cook,” he recalled. “I had three brothers and a sister and she was always cooking something special for each of us. She was a wonderful baker.”

After serving in the US navy in the mid-1950s, he worked in New York as a barman and eventually manager of Joe Allen, a Broadway meeting place for theatre folk which had been opened in 1965 by a former actor of the same name.

Polo came to Britain in 1975 with a brief to set up a similar establishment. The previous year the old Covent Garden flower market had relocated to south-west London and as a result huge spaces became available. The 9,000 sq ft Exeter Street warehouse that became Joe Allen seemed too vast by far, but it was cheap and, as Polo recalled, “we took a second look, and decided we could put in walls and arches.”

Though best known for Joe Allen, Polo went on to open Orso, a neighbouring Italian restaurant popular with opera goers, and Orsino in Holland Park as well as two artisan bakeries-cum-cafes in Covent Garden and Kensington. He sold Joe Allen and Orso in 2012.

In 1986 he married the designer and businesswoman Tricia Guild, who survives him with a stepdaughter.

Richard Polo, born January 6 1935, died April 25 2019

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