GOOD NIGHT, SWEET CHASEN'S
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?
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.
"It's a little late to be worried about that," answered one of the women in the party as we took our leave.
Eager to salvage something from the evening, I asked the bartender for a book of matches. Barely acknowledging me, he grunted something, then turned around. Wondering if he'd actually heard me, I watched in astonishment as he filled a red Chasen's doggy bag with napkins, swizzle sticks and matches. Could it be he was related to the kindhearted barkeep in the Shirley Temple story? He turned around, started carrying the bag toward me--and suddenly handed it to a taut-faced matron I'd seen earlier. As she fawned over the bag, he grunted again, then tossed the matches in my direction. Handling the bittersweet souvenir like a rare artifact, I slunk out of Chasen's.
Flash forward one week. After returning to Phoenix, I receive a call from this newspaper's art director, who wants to use the matchbook cover as a visual element in this story's layout. Can I take the matches to the photographer's studio?
No problem, I answer, and I deliver the matches to the photographer. But before I even leave the studio, the matches have mysteriously disappeared from the counter. Baffled, the photographer assures me that they'll turn up.
The next day, I receive the bad news. Apologizing profusely, the photographer announces that he's figured out what happened to the matches. Based on certain evidence distributed across the backyard, it appears his dog has eaten the irreplaceable keepsake.
Somehow, I am not surprised. For the second time in a week, I felt thoroughly chasened.
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