Matchbook Memories: Joe Allen: New York loses a legendary restaurateur, and Orlando loses a great friend

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I was rifling through my stashes of restaurant matchbooks, the pocketable souvenirs I’ve saved over the years, even though I’m not a smoker, and came across one for Joe Allen, the theater district restaurant. It seemed coincidental given that Joe Allen, the owner, died last week at the age of 87.

The stretch of 46th Street west of eighth Avenue has been known as Restaurant Row for decades, but Joe Allen was one of the first to move in to the rundown neighborhood and offer dining and drinking options to theatergoers and the people who worked on the shows, actors, playwrights, stagehands alike.

Joe Allen, which is currently closed because of the pandemic, is a small, cramped space a couple of steps below street level. Its gimmick was that its wall were lined with the posters of Broadway shows, but unlike those in other restaurants, Allen hung only the posters of bona fide flops.

The food was decent – a burger was the best thing on the menu. A higher grade of food could be found at Orso, an Italian restaurant Allen opened next door. He also had a venue upstairs from the two restaurants called Bar Centrale.

But it was the Joe Allen brand that people knew most, and that’s why Allen opened outposts in London and Paris, both of which I visited. It shouldn’t be surprising that the foreign versions didn’t have the same frisson. You weren’t as likely to spot famous actors as you almost certainly would in New York, whether you want to or not. I recall stopping in for a nightcap after seeing “The Glass Menagerie,” which starred a very good Jessica Lange and a miscast Christian Slater. It was Slater who came in, standing inside the front door as if waiting to be recognized, but meeting mostly averted glances.

Another time, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Jim Parsons and their partners were at the next table having a preshow dinner.

I don’t remember what show that Rick and I were off to see that night, but I do remember our dinner companions. They were John and Rita Lowndes. It was May, and we were all in New York to observe the tryouts for Orlando Shakes’ fall production of “West Side Story,” and of course to see as many shows as we could.

Lowndes copyJohn and Rita were frequent dinner companions in Orlando. Each year, for the gala of the theater company, which they founded, Rita would nudge me to offer a restaurant dining experience with me, ostensibly to help write a review, as a silent auction item. And every year, without fail, Rita would make sure that hers was the highest bid.

And so the four of us would gather at the restaurant and pretend we were putting together a review. But actually, we were just enjoying each other’s company.

John Lowndes died Friday morning at the age of 90. I will miss those dinners and John’s good-natured conversation. I never once saw John in a bad mood; he always greeted me warmly and was eager to have a conversation. It didn’t matter the topic, John always had something learned to say.

I don’t think I ever met Joe Allen, who unlike John was famously taciturn, though I believe he gave up his regular seat at his restaurant’s bar to me one night as the place was filling up. But Allen made a difference in New York’s dining scene, at least in Midtown.

John Lowndes changed his community, too. His generosity to local causes and support of the arts, beyond the Loch Haven theater facility that bears his name, have helped make Orlando a world class city. He was a successful businessman, brilliant attorney, loving husband, proud father and grandfather, and just one heck of a nice man.

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