Posted by: acooksca | 05/27/2009

Chez Jay of Santa Monica

Through a battered wood front door you enter a joint unchanged for 50 years.  Regulars, huddled over the bar, turn to see who stepped from the busy street into this cozy, dark place. A line of small dining tables with red and white Chez Jay 2checked tablecloths crowd the center of the saw-dust covered floor. Vinyl banquets of four-tops squeeze in along the wall. There isn’t much room to remain a stranger here for long. It is one convivial party of  unpretentious drinkers/diners bringing the 1960’s to life, complete with an ageing starlet and her fun-seeking friends at the back table the night we were there.

Santa Monica has a history of allowing celebrities a life hidden from paparazzi. Cary Grant, J.F.K., Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe and Eleanor Roosevelt would use the Miramar Hotel overlooking the sea on Wilshire Boulevard as a long-term retreat. The famous and non-famous could meet and mingle at Chez Jay, a cramped dive on Ocean Avenue, near the Santa Monica Pier.

Chez Jay looks unchanged since when it was built in 1959. “Why mess with perfection?” was the justification given by owner and founder Jay Fiondella. He kept his place celebrity-friendly…no cameras, no autographs, just stiff drinks and good food. His bar hosted his friends: Frank Sinatra and Cher, Clint Eastwood and Marlon Brando whose faded pictures hang on the walls. It still attracts a cast of beach bums, agents, local mis-fits and celebrities.

Jay was a real L.A. character. When he came to L.A. to be in show business, he roomed with Leonard Nimoy. His smooth manner and handsome face appeared in over 50 films and TV shows. He maintained a reputation as an adventurer, going on treasure hunting missions and piloting his hot-air balloon. In 1970, Jay was selected by Cosmopolitan Magazine as Bachelor of the Month.

The Marrinans, 1969

The Marrinans, 1969

I was told about Chez Jay by my good friend, Eileen Marrinan, who first came here in the late 1960’s as a teenager and still remembers one special dish. Eileen’s father, John, had been transferred to Los Angeles from New York in the fall of 1967. In those days of expense account lunches he was brought here by a business associate. “Are you crazy? I’m not going to eat at a beach bum bar” John said when he saw Chez Jay. But he did and soon after he announced to his wife and three daughters that he was taking them to dinner at a great restaurant down the Coast Highway.  “So we got dressed up (everyone did in those days).” says Eileen. “We always went to really nice places. When we got to Chez Jay I can remember being disappointed. I thought how could this junky looking place have great food? Why is Dad taking us here?”

From their table Eileen glimpsed the flash of movement in the shoe-box sized kitchen. Jay had hired a French Chef who was preparing mid-century classics such as Beef Bourguignon, and giving some dishes his own Californian twist. “What are the la jahla potatoes?” she asked the waiter. “That’s pronounced la hoy-ya. La Jolla potatoes are potatoes au gratin mashed with bananas.” They ordered them and they loved them. The food was terrific.

Jay was a bon vivant who would pop in and out when he wasn’t on an adventure or on “the set”. He would leave the place in the hands of a sweet, gentle older women called Alice… his mother. Chez Jay became a Marrinan family favorite in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and they looked forward to being greeted by name by Alice. The girls always ordered La Jolla potatoes.

Although the French Chef has been gone for years, nothing on the menu feels any more modern than the decor. Today, people come here for a respite from fusion food, micro greens and menus items explained with multiple adjectives. Good steaks and seafood come with simple side dishes of rice, baked potato or the La Jolla potatoes (still considered a signature of Chez Jay).

Unfortunately, a recent dinner at Chez Jay was not enhanced by the currant rendition of La Jolla potatoes…mashed and thinned with milk to a runny porridge consistency, with a few slices of non-sweet plantains added and no cheese to “au gratin”. Eileen and her sister, Terri, both remember a more tasty preparation. But the steaks and seafood were good and the atmosphere was classic and rare. It put me in the mood to get together with Eileen, reminisce about her childhood dinners at Chez Jay, and make our own recipe for La Jolla Style Potatoes (see the recipe below).

Jay Fiondella still owned Chez Jay when he passed away in November 2008 at the age of 82.

Image: The Marrinans in 1969: from left to right, back row: Eileen, Terri. center row: Marian, Jeanne, John. Natasha is in the front

Resources:

Restaurant web site:  http://www.chezjays.com/index.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Monica,_California

http://www.fairmont.com/santamonica/

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