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A Considerable Town

Hamburger Hamlet, a West Hollywood Institution, Closes for Good

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Thu, Dec 29, 2011 at 12:07 PM
click to enlarge Dean Martin used to drink here. - NANETTE GONZALES
  • Nanette Gonzales
  • Dean Martin used to drink here.

They ran out of beer the last night the Hamburger Hamlet in West Hollywood was open. They ran out of a lot of things in the final hours on Dec. 19, after 51 years in business.

The original Hamlet, a rarity at which African-Americans were hired as waitstaff in the still-segregated '60s, stood just a few doors down from the Whisky A Go Go. But this one, nestled above Sunset Boulevard where Doheny splits from the Sunset Strip, is the one most commonly referred to as "the original." Sure, there's one in Pasadena, and one off the 405 in Sherman Oaks, and a new 24-hour one at the Viejas Casino in San Diego County.

But this was the Hamburger Hamlet -- 51 years has a habit of changing the definitive article into the definite article. It was one of the few places where Old Hollywood gathered with any frequency. Most famously, Dean Martin ate and drank here freely -- until word got out and the Hamlet had to shield him from those who would disturb his pickled decline.

One woman, who had been coming to this Hamlet for 37 years, mourns to the people at the table next to her, "I've been trying to get them to sell me one of these chairs, but they won't do it! They're sending them to Miami. I think."

But no one really knows where the guts of a historic landmark go when it closes. "In storage," management says, rather ominously.

The reasons for the closing are taken from the usual palette of misery: The City of West Hollywood began charging valet fees where none were charged before. The landlord, eager to ease the restaurant into its new life, increased the rent. Then there's the flagging demographic, the majority of which has seen Halley's Comet twice. The dishes have run out here, too: no more Hamlet Lobster Bisque, no more Hamlet's Meatloaf, no more Marilyn Burger.

So there in the scarlet-rimmed Tap Room at the back of the Hamlet, with its plush booths and rolling chairs appointed in red leather, or something like it, I get the last hamburger they will ever serve. It's a Classic Cheeseburger, which I order medium rare, with tomato, onion, iceberg lettuce, pickle and Thousand Island dressing. Served with garlic fries and the largest Roy Rogers and Shirley Temples imaginable, it's just moist enough to feel substantial without feeling greasy. It holds its body without crumbling into a morass of bun and greens drowning in sauces.

Alric, our phenomenal waiter, is crisp and attentive and anticipates everything except, perhaps, his next move. Will he work at another Hamburger Hamlet? "I've been doing this for about 10 years -- I think it's time to do something new. I'm going to be a recording engineer."

The human mind adapts to change with startling ease. Social and nonchalant like nothing's ever going to change, people keep going, even as traditions are swept away. This landmark's demise is one of those moments in L.A.'s cultural consciousness that passes unnoticed by everyone except the diehards and the old-timers.

Being there at the closing of the Hamlet, as everyone there eats those last hamburgers and drinks those final martinis, is a bit like riding on Custer's horse, Comanche, just after Little Bighorn, or shaking the hand of the final veteran of World War I.

There's a last time for everything.

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