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Hollywood Stars at Chasen’s – Dining with Groucho Marx, Sal Mineo and Ramon Novarro

Hollywood Stars at Chasen’s – Dining with Groucho Marx, Sal Mineo and Ramon Novarro

West Hollywood’s Chasen’s was a glamorous world – “Celebrity chefs” will never replace stylish hosts and personalities like Dave Chasen, Vincent Sardi or Mike Romanoff.

Chasen’s hat check girl helps famous comedian Groucho Marx with his coat.

I had dinner at Chasen’s many times. First, with my parents and then later on when I became a writer/producer. Dinner with Groucho Marx, who was a regular diner, was like a celebrity event.

Sal Mineo appeared in the San Francisco production of PS YOUR CAT IS DEAD; Ramon Novarro in his later years.

Another great evening was with Sal Mineo, who was starring in the San Francisco production of PS YOUR CAT IS DEAD I had produced. He had received excellent reviews, which was a big plus for his career then.

  • Sal was rehearsing for our Los Angeles production of “Cat” at the Westside Playhouse. Tragically, he was the victim of a robbery-murder outside his apartment in West Hollywood days before the play was to open. I saw Sal on the day he died at rehearsals. It was such a terrible loss.

I also had dinner with silent film star Ramon Navarro at Chasen’s, whom I met when sailing to Australia on the RMS Canberra.

  • Like Sal, he also suffered a tragic end of being murdered in his Laurel Canyon home.

The “chefs” were in the kitchen. Not greeting you at the front door! No credit cards were honored! Credit was by house accounts only not based on credit scores but on celebrity scores.

chasen's west hollywood

Now the once-famous eatery is a supermarket catering to the newly rich and what Dave Chasen would call the déclassé.

Ava Gardner and Mark Evans depart from Chasen’s – a far cry from Dave’s first restaurant, which featured only chile and spareribs.

Vincent Minnelli and Judy Garland, with the Oscar Levants.    Mrs. Levant looks at Mrs. Minnelli…  No credit card?

American Social History:  CHASEN’S – The famous Hollywood restaurant lasted into the 1990s, and no credit cards were honored.   Chasen’s was a glamorous world – “Celebrity chefs” will never replace stylish hosts and personalities like Dave Chasen, Vincent Sardi, or Mike Romanoff.   Thank the Gods, these “chefs” are in the kitchen and not at the front door greeting you!

Dining out at Chasen’s in 1951: George Alpert, maitre d’hotel, serves famous cracked crab as the risibilities of William Holden; his wife Brenda Marshall; Jane Wyman and her agent, Lou Wasserman, are tricked by the wit of Dave Chasen.

(Left) Alfred Hitchcock the bar; Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dimaggio in a corner booth. After 59 years as a prime celebrity hangout, the legendary Chasen’s finally closed its doors on April 1, 1995. The original building was eventually torn down and replaced by a Bristol Farms market.

At one time Chasen’s was the most famous celebrity restaurant in town, the Spago of its day, renowned for its long list of movie stars and other celebrity diners. Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, W.C. Fields, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Jack Benny, Howard Hughes, Marilyn Monroe, William Powell, Joan Crawford, Alfred Hitchcock, John Kennedy, Groucho Marx, Jackie Gleason, James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, Alan Ladd, and F. Scott Fitzgerald were all regulars at Chasen’s, along with most of the Hollywood elite.

Burt Lancaster, writer Cy Bartlett, director Frank Capra hit Chasen’s sauna with Mr. Chasen.

At one time, the restaurant even included a sauna and a full-time barber! And its tales of Old Hollywood are legendary. Humphrey Bogart & Peter Lorre once got drunk together at Chasen’s bar and made off with the restaurant’s immense safe, which they rolled out the door and abandoned in the middle of Beverly Boulevard. Bing Crosby took the entire Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team to Chasen’s for dinner in 1949.

“Suddenly Last Summer” premiere party at Chasen’s Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Lawrence Harvey

Jimmy Stewart had his bachelor party at Chasen’s in 1949, complete with two midgets dressed in diapers. Orson Welles fired John Houseman at Chasen’s and threw a flaming can of Sterno at his former partner.

Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher “hiding out” at Chasen’s.

As the legendary restaurant aged, newer, flashier restaurants stole some of its star clientele, but Chasen’s was still going strong in the ’90s. It was said to be Ronald Reagan’s favorite restaurant (he proposed to Nancy in Booth No. 2, and brought former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher there as his guest four decades later).

Maude Chasen at Chasen’s Restaurant (photographer Wallace Seawell seated at the far right).

I went to Chasens several times. With my parents, my uncle was an executive at MGM, and then in the 1970s with my producing partner, Arthur Whitelaw, and his good friend Groucho Marx. It was a memorable evening and Groucho was in great form.


Major Hollywood stars such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Gregory Peck, and Kirk Douglas were still regulars, as were George Burns and Jimmy Stewart just before they died, along with newer celebrities in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, such as Sharon Stone, Quentin Tarantino, Jack Nicholson, John Travolta and Warren Beatty. Disco diva Donna Summer wrote her hit song “She Works Hard For the Money” after hearing the line from a ladies’ room attendant at Chasen’s.

Like Spago, it had its special tables. The stars were seated in the small room to the right of the entrance. The rest ended up in the back room.

Opened in 1937 by owner Dave Chasen (at the suggestion of director Frank Capra), it was just a humble shack named “Chasen’s Southern Pit ” (because of a barbecue pit in the back); its chili quickly became popular with the show biz crowd, and Chasen’s rapidly grew into Hollywood’s premier restaurant.

Chasen’s stuck with the American/Continental fare that brought it a success, serving it in a warm, clubby atmosphere of heavy wood paneling and red leather booths.

They still served the chili that made them famous (although it wasn’t listed on the menu anymore), as well as their hobo steak and deviled beef bones.

In fact, when Elizabeth Taylor was making “Cleopatra ” in Rome, she had their chili flown out to her.

The menu – no credit cards, please. A meal at Chasen’s could also take a sizable bite out of your wallet: about $90 for dinner for two – and about $60 for lunch. To be a culinary star in the 21st century, restaurants must have a star chef.

In the mid 20th century, it was not the chef, but the restaurant that was the celebrity.  Los Angeles had many restaurants where movie personalities, the stars, producers, directors, publicists, and hangers-on of the industry spent their time.

Paul R. Williams was associated with the interior design and architecture of two of the most famous of these celebrity watering holes—Perino’s and Chasen’s.

From Chasen’s to the White House: Don De Fore, Brenda Marshall, William Holden, Nancy Reagan, and Ronald Reagan.

While Perino’s was known as the glamorous society restaurant, Chasen’s was where old Hollywood dined. Dave Chasen came to Los Angeles to perform in a Frank Capra movie after a successful career in vaudeville and on Broadway.  He never made it in the movies, but his chili and barbecued spareribs were an instant success.

Journalist and JFK speechwriter Vincent X. Flaherty dined out with the men who dined the stars: Mike Romanoff (Romanoff’s), Charlie Morrison (The Mocambo), and Dave Chasen (Chasen’s).

Opening in 1936 at the corner of Doheny and Beverly Boulevards, the original Chasen’s bar and eight tables was a glorified hamburger joint attracting beautiful young starlets. Alfred Hitchcock, Groucho Marx, Grace Kelly, Greta Garbo, and J. Edgar Hoover ate there regularly, not necessarily for the food, but to spend time in a relaxed environment off-limits to photographers and the press. “Put something else on the menu,” the film director Capra complained to him one day, “we’re all getting tired of eating chili and ribs!” (Los Angeles Times, April 14, 1968) A good listener and businessman, Chasen expanded his menu and renovated his restaurant.

Top hatters Bert Lahr, Herbert Marshall, Robert Benchley, David Niven & Dave Chasen celebrate.

In a series of renovations for the original Chasen’s, Paul R. Williams added paneling, plush fabrics, knotty pine, and stuffed leather booths, giving the restaurant a clubby feeling. Maude Chasen’s design philosophy was “People like privacy but they also like the idea of being in on the action.” Under her watchful eye, Williams strove to “keep Chasen’s looking the same… adding rooms but having them look the same and be comfortable.” (Los Angeles Times, January 9, 1967) Together they succeeded in creating a restaurant of “comfortable elegance” where even the most casual of Hollywood personalities didn’t mind wearing a necktie.

Dining at Chasen’s.

After Chasen died in 1973, Maude Chasen continued until the original Chasen’s closed on April 1, 1995.  Its demise resulted from an aging clientele, its perceived un-hipness, and “arterially incorrect” food – maybe because no credit cards were accepted. Now Chasen’s is a supermarket.

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