By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
When the big night finally arrived, the prospect seemed promising. As our car traveled through the glut of fast-food outlets, tee-shirt shops and graffiti-scarred Third World businesses that lines the mean streets of modern-day Hollywood, Chasen's searchlight shafts scanned the heavens, beckoning us back to a more genteel place and time in Tinseltown's past. And when the car finally pulled up in front of the tasteful, colonial-style brick building--if George Washington had run a swanky nightclub instead of the country, it probably would have looked like this--it was almost as if we had arrived in movieland mecca. Lights! Cameras! Valet parking!
For an instant, I felt like I'd been transported back into one of those old opening-night newsreels American Movie Classics uses to fill odd time spots in its cable schedule. Or at least I did during the nanosecond before the gaggle of paparazzi training their lenses on our approaching car realized we weren't National Enquirer photo ops.
"Now how could they know we weren't famous before we even got out of the car?" someone in the front seat wondered.
I suspected I knew the answer to that one. During a sightseeing trip earlier in the day, I'd tossed a guidebook to stars' graves up behind the back-seat window. But before I had a chance to remove the offensive literature from public view, one of my mortified dining comrades jerked me out of the car because I was holding up traffic.
Once we were seated inside, I felt we'd entered another dimension. Somehow, something wasn't right, and it took a moment of staring at our hazy-looking fellow diners before anyone realized why. Thanks to an all-pink lighting scheme that's more kind to the wrinkles than it is to the eye, the whole restaurant was bathed in an unfocused rosy fog. Imagine spending an entire evening peering through the lens used to shoot Doris Day's close-ups and you begin to get the picture.
As soon as menus were unceremoniously shoved into our hands, we began to get the picture ourselves--and it was anything but rosy. The $9.25 French onion soup, the $17.50 shrimp cocktail, the $28 butterfly steak and the other exorbitant prices--those we'd expected as a not-so-small price to pay for what was, for us, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. What we hadn't anticipated was service that was so uncaring, brusque and inept, it wouldn't have cut the mustard at a third-rate Denny's. In short, the attention we got was so poor that it would have been laughable had it not come attached to a check that clocked in at the mid-three-figure range.
When one of my cohorts asked the superannuated waiter how Chasen's prepared its famous hobo steak, she made the big mistake of referring to the dish as a "carpetbagger steak." Although the two terms are pretty much synonymous for any stuffed steak, the waiter pretended to be baffled by the request, and acted as if she'd tried to order a corn dog. Not until she realized her "error" and identified the steak by its "proper" name did the exasperated server deign to answer her question--and then in a manner that might charitably be described as condescending.
After taking our orders, he finally barged off--and not a minute too soon, according to those unfortunate enough to be downwind of his denture breath. "Look at the bright side," quipped the companion to my left. "In two weeks, this clown is permanently out of work. He'll never serve lunch in this town again."
"He won't need to," retorted our resident Dorothy Parker. "That guy probably makes more money waiting tables than any of us do."
As we silently mulled the inequities of life over slices of cheese toast, another party of diners entered the room. All heads in the restaurant momentarily swiveled, then automatically pivoted back after realizing that the stylishly skeletal matron blowing air kisses to the maitre d' was a nobody. Or at least no one of note to anyone at our table. The doting captain apparently believed otherwise, and instantly whisked her party into one of the preferred rooms near the bar. Surmised one cohort, "Just another one of the well-preserved hair-spray babes from Encino, out on one last night at Chasen's." As it turns out, that pretty much summed up the evening's entire clientele. After taking a variety of circuitous routes on multiple trips to the rest room, no one in our party spotted anyone famous. And judging from heavy foot traffic and rubbernecking, we weren't the only ones scouting the room.
Resigned to a starless night, we turned our attention to dinner--or, more precisely, those portions that were actually ferried to our table before our waiter and his staff disappeared into the knotty-pine woodwork. A $6 baked potato had turned to an unappetizing clot of lukewarm starch before a busperson finally showed up with butter and sour cream requested ten minutes earlier. There was another lengthy wait when someone requested a wine list, followed by a corresponding lag before the waiter returned for the order. We were halfway through our meal before the bottle actually made it to the table. And so it went. We had long since finished dinner and were waiting for a check when one member of our group, a longtime restaurant reviewer, revealed a trick she guaranteed would bring our waiter running. "Stand up like we're ready to walk out," she commanded. Out of nowhere, the waiter materialized with a check for $365. After we'd handed him $400 but before we could make a move for the door, he blocked our way. Eyeing what he presumably believed to be a meager tip, he was visibly offended. "Wasn't everything all right?" he asked in an accusatory manner.