Jon Stebbins, author

It Happened At Chez Jay  /  10 Tables, 12 Barstools 

The dining room of Chez Jay
Photo courtesy of Chez Jay

10 Tables, 12 Barstools
(An excerpt from the book by Jon Stebbins and Jay Fiondella)

It doesn’t look like much but the things it has see n. This dark, funky, sawdusted, peanut - shelled place is a universe within itself. Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Liz Taylor, Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Michelle Pfeifer, Steve McQueen, Peter Sellers, Julia Roberts, Henry Kissinger, Cher, Joe DiMaggio, Diana Ross, Robert Redford, Judy Garland, Kevin Spacey, Lana Turner, Madonna, Johnny Carson. There are only two things all of these names have in common, immense fame and dinner at Jay’s. This is not to imply that Chez Jay’s caters only to big names. Actually the place attracts a cliental that is astonishingly diverse. People on the way up, people on the way down, people right where they want to be. From out of work writers to superstars, from legends to nobodies, tourists to regulars, families, couples and singles, there’s a table or a barstool for anyone who shows up.

“One of the reasons I get so many stars in here is because they know I don’t talk to reporters,” says Jay Fiondella, a man whose legend is equal to that of his ‘last of it’s kind’ restaurant. “I never openly talked to Hedda Hopper, or Louella Parsons, or Harrison Carrol,” a trio of Hollywood gossip icons whose columns depended upon loose lips. Jay also created a celebrity friendly atmosphere by banning cameras and autograph seekers from his establishment. “I always tried to respect people’s privacy,” and the glint in Jay’s eye hints at four decades of Hollywood Babylon-esque incidents that he has filed away under his impressive pile of silver hair. “I can finally talk about some of this stuff now that everybody’s dead,” he teases. “Back in those days Louella would call, ‘was so and so there last night Jay?’ I’d say, ‘I don’t know dear…it’s so dark in here you don’t know what you’re eating or who you’re eating.’”

Despite the veteran owner’s protective tendencies some customers found their way into hot water just the same. “Tell tale peanut shells have gotten a few cheating husbands in trouble,“ says Jay remembering an alibi apparently gone very wrong. One night one such customer was heard screaming, “Your fucking peanut shells cost me a million dollars in alimony!” A Chez Jay’s regular who seemed to constantly be in trouble was actor Robert Mitchum. From paternity suits, to marijuana busts, to public punch-outs, Mitchum was the quintessential tabloid target of his era. When Jay teased his friend that he was always in the paper for something bad, Mitchum shot back, “I don’t give a fiddler’s fuck, as long as they spell my name right!” Jay adopted the late actor’s “just spell my name right” philosophy from that day forward.

People have been walking across Jay’s peanut shell strewn floor for over forty years. It’s been a sometimes-surreal stream of personalities and lifestyles spanning cultural shifts from pedal pushers to pierced tongues. “You’d have to have seen it to believe it,” Jay reflects. “It’s rarely dull.” The thing that sets Chez Jay’s apart from so many other L.A. settings, successful or not, is its entirely unpretentious aura. In a town where image is more than everything this self-described “hole in the wall” never tries to be anything other than just that. Unlike other celebrity hangouts from the past like the Brown Derby, or the present such as Spago, Chez Jay’s is as inclusive as it is secret. Everyone who’s anyone knows about it, and a whole lot of nobodies who are no one know about it too. It’s the best little worst kept secret in L.A. If you can understand that then you’ll understand Chez Jay’s, an acquired taste that is a pleasure to acquire. When you mention it to a regular they get this twinkle in their eye that’s a kind of secret karmic handshake.

I experienced Chez Jay’s for the first time on a lazy summer afternoon several years ago. There were a few regulars at the bar, reading newspapers, watching a ballgame, enjoying a cocktail as the sea air filtered through an open front door. I sat at a small wooden table and ordered a BLT and a beer. To my recollection it was the perfect lunch. Chez Jay’s has a knack for making the simple things good, and the good things better. The sandwich was a revelation on wheat, properly toasted, tomato cold, and bacon hot. The beer was chilly, not icy; the service was friendly, but not too. As I sat and scanned the forty-year patina dripping from the memorabilia plastered walls I thought about some of the stories I’d heard about this place.

One night Lee Marvin drove his motorcycle right through the front door and ordered a drink. This is where Peter Lawford met certain female friends before whisking them away to his Santa Monica Gold Coast mansion where a young President Kennedy was often waiting. Astronaut Alan Shepard took a peanut from Jay’s to the moon and back, only to have actor Steve McQueen try to eat it. A certain “Material Girl” living in Malibu would routinely think Chez Jay’s when tracking down her wayward husband Sean. Michelle Pfeiffer and her husband David E. Kelley came here on their very first date. Actor Richard Harris often serenaded startled Chez Jay’s diners with inebriated renditions of his classic hit MacArthur Park. Director Quentin Tarantino rehearsed his actors in the back room while Matt Damon and Ben Affleck swapped script ideas in the front. Patrons swear the ghost of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson still haunts his favorite bar. Warren Beatty found the inspiration for his steamy under the table scene from “Shampoo” during a real incident at Table Ten. The infamous Pentagon Papers were leaked to the press at that same table. And Frank Sinatra’s fedora crested image hovers above it, watching the action like a swinging sentry...after all, he named the joint.

In the 1957 film adaptation of the Rodgers and Hart musical “Pal Joey”, Frank Sinatra’s character Joey Evans ran a joint called “Chez Joey”. Jay loved Sinatra and decided to let his restaurant’s moniker stand as a tongue in cheek tribute to the man, the chairman. He named his place “Chez Jay” and it stuck. With a set up like that it was inevitable that Frank Sinatra and Jay Fiondella would cross paths and they did. Public relations maestro Peter Malatesta formally introduced Jay to Frank who already knew about his joint. From its earliest days elements of the Rat Pack visited Chez Jay’s and even Frank himself came by. In 1967 Jay ballooned his way onto the television sets of America riding through the clouds with Frank’s daughter Nancy in her acclaimed “Movin’ With Nancy” special. Of course Frank was there. Jay became friends with Jilly Rizzo and visited his legendary establishment whenever he partied his way to New York. Frank was there too. But it wasn’t until Jay handed Frank a sack of Chez Jay’s gourmet peanuts while attending an L.A. Dodgers game that the friendship was sealed. After that Frank regularly complained about the house nuts at Chavez Ravine and began asking for his fellow Italian friend who he nicknamed “Peanuts”.

Jay “Peanuts” Fiondella had some wonderful experiences in the presence of Francis Albert Sinatra. He watched him work his magic in Las Vegas from the front row and afterward partied heartily with Frank’s crew into the not so wee hours. He was honored to be Frank’s personal guest at the elegant Ronald Reagan inauguration festivities in 1980 remembering to slip a spare bag of peanuts into his tux just in case. But the highlights of his good times with Sinatra are those warm, clear, quiet nights at Frank’s Palm Springs compound. “I found myself relaxing at this wonderful place, having a drink or six, with Frank and maybe two or three other people,” remembers Jay. “Just sitting, talking, laughing.” The evening would inevitably wind its way to the piano, to the songs, and to the voice. “To be there, five feet away, with a couple of friends, and listen to Frank sing just for himself and for us,” says Jay with a reflective pause, ”that was one of the greatest experiences of my life.” Jay’s focus drifts for just a second as the cherished memory of a Sinatra song flickers through his mind’s eye. He inhales slowly as if breathing in the fleeting sweetness of his treasured memory. His focus then returns to me. “That was a very good time,” he tells me with a little smile. And I’m sure it was... a very good year. Jon Stebbins © 2003