Kiefer Sutherland walks into a bar, accompanied by a friend. A block from the ocean in Santa Monica, the haunt is dark and tiny, with 10 tables, red-and-white checkered tablecloths, a framed photo of a shirtless JFK on the wall, and a decidedly nautical theme punctuated by a captain’s wheel in the front of the house and a giant clamshell outside.
Sutherland and his pal take their seats on two of the 12 barstools. For an hour and a half, they chat and drink, unbothered by gawkers. Eventually, Sutherland summons the bartender, Eric “Calvin” Gerleman.
“Calvin, me and my friend are having a discussion,” Sutherland says, to the best of Gerleman’s recollection. “He thinks you look like Sting, but I don’t see it.”
“You know what?” Gerleman replies. “I was having a talk with my friend at the other end of the bar, and he thinks you look like Donald Sutherland, but I don’t see it.”
Chortling, Kiefer lets rip with a warm-hearted “Fuck you!” and retreats to his tumbler.
So it goes — and has gone for nearly 60 years — at Chez Jay, Santa Monica’s most star-studded nocturnal hangout, spanning the Rat Pack, the Brat Pack and beyond. (“The good-looking Jonas brother” — Nick, it turns out — recently popped in, says longtime regular Terence Later.)
“It’s kind of the Forrest Gump of restaurants,” explains Gerleman, who has tended bar at Chez Jay for nearly 20 years. “You would not believe all the people who’ve walked in here.”
Only you wouldn’t know that unless you knew that, as Jay’s has long enforced a strict no-photographs policy, with the paparazzi dutifully making themselves scarce.
“It’s almost like Camp David,” says one notable regular, Roger Clinton, whose half-brother knows a thing or two about that Maryland retreat. “The biggest names in the industry, they’re all at Chez Jay. You’re safe going in, you’re safe while you’re there and you’re safe when you come out. It’s just a night out, and it’s a great feeling.”
But occasionally, legends escape the haggard hull — and some happen to be true. Alan Shepard brought one of the bar’s peanuts to outer space and back; dubbed the “Astro-nut,” it now sits in a co-owner’s safe deposit box. Lee Marvin once rode in through the front door on a motorcycle. Staying at his brother-in-law’s beachfront pad, President John F. Kennedy used to send a car to pick up a gorgeous blonde patron out back. (Her name was Marilyn Monroe.) The Beach Boys escaped the sun there. David E. Kelley and Michelle Pfeiffer had their first date there. (It was the latter who suggested that her husband set Goliath’s bar scenes in Chez Jay.) The Murray brothers, Bill and Brian, had their mail delivered there. Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Quentin Tarantino massaged scripts in a back room, where Henry Kissinger and various political bigwigs often held court. The Pentagon Papers are said to have been handed over to The New York Times at Chez Jay, as RAND Corporation once served as Chez Jay’s landlord — and Chez Jay has always been RAND’s auxiliary office, lunchroom and bar.
Chez Jay’s fabled Table 10 isn’t much to look at. Its red booth ripped, it occupies a cramped room back by the lavatories. But, sweet Jesus, if tables could talk. Later recalls that, back when Table 10 used to have a sliding closure, the restaurant’s late matriarch, Alice Fiondella, “heard something going on that didn’t sound like dining.” She proceeded to pull the sliding door off its track and got a gander at Warren Beatty and a female cohabitant, both stark naked.
“Alice looked at him and said, ‘Warren, you know this is not what this room was intended for,’” Later recalls Fiondella saying.
But Chez Jay isn’t just a haven for celebrities — and the luminaries would just as soon blend right in with the crusty regulars. “It’s a big mix, everyone from 20-year-old hipsters to 60- and 70-year-old people who come in and say they were here on opening day in ’59,” Gerleman says. “This is the only place I’ve ever worked where VIPs want to be treated like normal people.”
“You can go there and just be a normal person, and then you have to go back to the doggone world of entertainment,” Clinton says.
If Wes Anderson were to invent Jay Fiondella, he’d catch flak for being too fantastical. The Chez Jay founder was Steve Zissou, Max Fischer, the Tenenbaums and every tenant in the Grand Budapest Hotel all squished into one.
Fiondella, who died at the age of 82 in 2008, was a sailor, an actor, a competitive hot-air balloonist, a deep-sea treasure hunter, a desert archaeologist, a chick magnet and, above all, the proprietor of “a classy joint,” which, according to his daughter and current Chez Jay co-owner, Anita Fiondella Eck, is how he always described the restaurant he named after Chez Joey, from his close friend Frank Sinatra’s film Pal Joey. (Gerleman says there are credible rumors that Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World was based on Jay.)
With affordable, succulent steak and seafood, Chez Jay’s chow is way too good to limit its classification to that of “dive bar.” But to aficionados of such spaces, it’s the Platonic ideal. There’s a bucket of sawdust by the door that gets strewn around the floor, and when a 60-something regular strolls in for a brunch beer on Saturday, the bartender instinctively pours her “a tiny Heinie” (i.e., a schooner of Heineken). The playlist starts with Ol’ Blue Eyes and ends with the Ford administration, while a porthole or two is all there are for windows. And the coffee’s the way it is for a reason.
“Back in the day, the joke around Jay’s was we had terrible coffee,” Gerleman says. “Someone asked Jay why that was and he said, ‘I only got 10 tables; I don’t want people sticking around after their dinner.’”
Still, quips Later, “There are probably people who haven’t seen the outside of Chez Jay in about 50 years.”
A Santa Monica lifer who listed his age as “timeless” in a recent candidate profile for a failed City Council run, Later was a skater who left home at the age of 13. After rolling through RAND’s grand parking garages, he and his young friends would turn up hungry at Chez Jay’s front door. Fiondella and his mother, Alice, decided it wasn’t appropriate for a bar to be feeding a crew of disheveled teens at the front door, so Alice fed them out back.
“She was a saint to so many people,” Later says of Alice, who was fatally struck by a car while crossing the street in front of the restaurant in 1991.
Surrounded by gleaming glass dwellings and the steel observation decks of Tongva Park, Chez Jay sticks out like a gnarled stump in a stand of pristine redwoods. But as the testimony of Later and others attests, the Ocean Boulevard landmark serves a rather familiar purpose — that of community center, albeit one with several tap handles — for a building situated next to a public park.
“A bumblebee shouldn’t fly,” but it does, Gerleman observes. “Jay’s should not be around for 50 years, but it is. I have people come in that are third-generation — their grandparents went on their first date there, their parents went on their first date there, and they went on their first date there. And now they’re engaged.”
1657 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica; (310) 395-1741, chezjays.com.
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