Joe Allen, Theater District Restaurateur, Is Dead at 87

“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 once 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.

Once, 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 once 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.”

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