By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
You've got your Old Hollywood. And then you've got your Incipient Forest Lawn.
Somewhere in between, you've got the stellar feeding trough known as Chasen's restaurant, the 58-year-old Tinseltown phenomenon that will slam its reservation book shut for the final time this Saturday night.
For anyone even remotely acquainted with Hollywood, describing this swanky star sty as a mere restaurant is akin to telling a sports nut that Wrigley Field is just another baseball park.
Or at least that's what the Chasen's publicity mill has quite successfully shoveled down the throats of several generations of movie-magazine readers, most of them eagerly devouring details of an eatery whose privileged clientele (W.C. Fields, John Barrymore, Errol Flynn) could once sleep off a night of heavy drinking in the restaurant's on-premises steam room. During the past few weeks, the nostalgia-happy media have been faithfully regurgitating many of the restaurant's legendary tales. Perhaps some of these stories are even true. Like the one about Jimmy Stewart's bachelor party, when waiters served up two diapered midgets on a silver tray. Or the one about the night Howard Hughes asked to use the house phone and was still chewing the fat at 4 a.m. Then there's the widely reported story of how a sympathetic Chasen's bartender concocted the Shirley Temple "mocktail" to appease the sobbing child star, upset she couldn't have a cocktail like her parents. (It apparently has never occurred to anyone that by late 1936, when former vaudevillian Dave Chasen opened his eight-stool chili parlor, Temple was already pushing 9--a rather advanced age to be pitching a fit over a beverage.)
And who could forget Liz Taylor and her much-publicized Chasen's chili jones? During the height of her fame in the Sixties, when she routinely had tubs of the stuff shipped to movie sets in Rome and Puerto Vallarta, many Photoplay readers could have been excused for thinking that Chasen's was actually some sort of global takeout.
Whatever Chasen's was, it isn't going to be that for long. Just before New Year's, the Los Angeles Times broke the news that the glittering anachronism (the restaurant refused to accept credit cards until well into the Eighties) would finally be shutting its doors on April 1 to make way for a shopping center. An incredibly deep-dish think piece, the lengthy front-page story quoted everyone from an expert on Jewish sociology to a Baywatch starlet in an effort to figure out what the restaurant's passing meant.
To me, the armchair Hollywood historian, it meant just one thing: Book a table, pronto!
This wasn't the first time I've hitched my chuck wagon to a fading Hollywood hangout. Way back in 1976, when the fabled Brown Derby on Vine Street was on its last legs, a friend and I scraped together enough money to lunch at the celestial watering hole where Lucy Ricardo ran into William Holden in a celebrated episode of I Love Lucy. Unlike Lucy, we didn't see any stars. In fact, we didn't see very many other customers, either. However, I did make an interesting discovery when I leaned down to pick up a pen I'd dropped on the floor. Under the table was a dead mouse. It wasn't Mickey.
But from all accounts, the proud--if slightly out of touch--dowager called Chasen's hadn't let herself go to seed like that. Last Monday, Barbara Walters eulogized the institution during the opening of her Oscar-night special; later that evening, the Pulp Fiction gang was scheduled to descend on the place for a postawards gala.
If it was good enough for Quentin Tarantino, it was good enough for me. Throwing caution (and checkbook) to the wind, a like-minded sidekick and I mapped out plans for a trip to Hollywood, reserving a table for the middle of March. As friends in L.A. learned of the trek, our prandial pilgrimage soon threatened to turn into a full-fledged last supper. The original reservation, a table for two, quickly expanded to three, then four and eventually seven. Not wanting to be left with chili all over our faces in the event of a mass no-show, we finally called a halt to our near-weekly telephone tàte-…-tàtes with the restaurant's reservation clerk.
In anticipation of the Old Hollywood odyssey, I dug up the most recent review of Chasen's I could find, a 1991 critique by Los Angeles Times restaurant reviewer Ruth Reichel in which she praised the eatery's "simple food, fine service [and] famous faces." But Chasen's being Chasen's, most of those famous mugs tend to be well-worn. During Reichel's visit, the reviewer spotted a table-hopping George Burns hobnobbing with Ron and Nancy Reagan just three booths down.
When I repeated the tale of this aged-star cluster to one of the world-weary Angelenos who'd be joining us for dinner, the story didn't rate so much as a raised eyebrow on his emotional Richter scale. "Happens all the time at that joint," my friend assured me. He explained how, while celebrating a birthday at the restaurant a while back, a mutual acquaintance heard an oddly familiar voice floating out of the next booth. Turning around, the stunned birthday boy found himself face to face with Frank Sinatra. When he'd regained his composure, the stargazer suddenly realized Ol' Blue Eyes' party also included Bob Newhart. And Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. Be still, my digestive tract! Could our upcoming visit to Chasen's possibly hold a candle to those starry rendezvous?