Chasen's demise was the result of aging clientele, perceived un-hipness and
arterially incorrect food.
— Steven Smith in the Los Angeles Times
Bob Hope rode a horse through the front door one evening. Ronald Reagan
proposed to Nancy in a booth there.
Orson Welles threw a flaming pot of Sterno at John Houseman when Welles
fired Houseman as a partner. Elizabeth Taylor threw a plate of food at
Richard Burton and stormed out of the restaurant in a huff. George Burns
initiated a food fight there. The owners and personnel at Chasen's knew they had
to put up with such antics from Hollywood's rich and famous if they
were to stay popular with them.
One night, Humphrey Bogart and the diminutive Peter Lorre got so drunk
they somehow managed to hijack the restaurant's huge safe (it had wheels) and
roll it out into the middle of Beverly Boulevard, where they abandoned it. It
took six people to roll the safe back into the building and into place.
When Shirley Temple was still a child star, she longed for a cocktail just
like the ones she saw that her mother and father were enjoying. It was Chasen's bartender who combined
ginger ale, grenadine syrup and fruit to make the young actress feel
comfortable. The drink was named after her.
And in 1962, Elizabeth Taylor had Chasen's famous chili sent to the set
in Rome where she was filming the movie Cleopatra. In fact, the special
chili was sent to any Chasen's regular who was hospitalized at Los
Angeles's Cedars-Sinai hospital, so they didn't have to eat hospital food.
Beginnings as a Barbecue Joint
Chasen's opened on December 13, 1936. In its first incarnation, it had six
tables and an eight-seat counter. Chili was twenty-five cents a bowl. A cocktail
set one back thirty-five cents.
The original restaurant was called "Chasen's Southern Pit." Vaudeville
performer Dave Chasen opened the place with his wife Maude at the recommendation
of famed director Frank Capra. Capra is said to have loaned the Chasens his
silverware for the first months of the place's operation. New Yorker magazine
editor Harold Ross provided funds for the new place, which quickly became a
favorite among Hollywood's actors, producers and directors.
Sources for this piece were silent as to what date Chasen's was built up into
the star-studded hangout it became. By the 1940s, it had become a handsome
restaurant with a special room for the stars, another dining room in the rear,
and a cocktail lounge. The atmosphere was exciting, yet not boistrous. Elegant
furnishings, plenty of photos on the walls, luxurious appointments and, most
importantly, a staff of consummate professionals gave the place the elegance and
class that its celebrity clientele demanded.
In its heyday, Chasen's offered a barber shop and a sauna. Mega-stars like
Reagan, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Clark Gable and Howard Hughes
"owned" booths complete with name-plates. Behind a hinged photo of Jackie
Gleason that hung on the dining room wall was a discreet little hole through
the wall that opened on the bar to facilitate faster orders. Milton Berle gave
his 90th birthday party there. Even Hollywood's new guard (John Travolta, Mel
Gibson) put in appearances in later years.
Reagan wasn't the only U.S. president to dine there. John F. Kennedy (a Chasen's partner prevailed on Kennedy's father, Joseph Kennedy to secure good Scotch whiskey for the restaurant during World War II),
Richard M. Nixon, Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and other
U.S. leaders ate there — some regularly. Reagan brought Margaret Thatcher
is a scan of the menu at Chasen's for August 9, 1956. By that time, the famous
chili wasn't on the menu, but was available to regulars nonetheless. But one
must understand, beside the chili, the place was never famous for the food. In
fact, many said it wasn't very good. However, this was a place for the stars to
see and be seen. It was a classy place, requiring all to make a reservation.
Coats and ties were required wear.
Today's Hollywood crowd is fickle. The survivors of the old Hollywood "studio
system" who so depended on Chasen's as a networking place (and playground) are old and dropping
like flies. Proper attire has been replaced by the grunge look.
One newspaper writer said that the old Martini and steak meal has become
overtaken by "bottled water and tuna tacos." When celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck
opened Spago it was yet another blow to the aging Chasen's. Who wants to dress
up anymore and mingle with the geriatric set when one can go down the street to
places like Viper Room and see Johnny Depp?
Neal Gabler, a Hollywood historian, said, "in the old days, the industry was
interested in the classics, there was a great deal more charm. Today, I think
everything appeals to raw emotions and it's a reflection of the times we live
in." That, he said, is apparent even in the movies themselves. "If you don't
blow up five buildings and kill 30 people in the first 40 feet of film, you're
Dave Chasen passed away in 1973. Maude Chasen remained a delightful,
table-hopping host until about 1990.
Chasen's closed in 1994. Another incarnation of Chasen's, owned by a Chasen
grandson, lasted in Beverly Hills on Canyon Drive until 2000.
The original Chasen's location is now the site of an upscale grocery store,
inside a gleaming new retail complex. The paintings, photographs, and even
furniture and fixtures from Chasen's were auctioned off. Ronald Reagan's booth
is now at the Reagan Presidential Library. Frank Sinatra's booth is owned by a
comedian who lives in Hollywood.
The writer's familiarity with the subject.