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.
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,
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
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
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.