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Santa Monica’s Late Great Celebrity Dive Abides

In “Dive” Leslie Pariseau explores the bars at far edge of popular nightlife. Up now: Chez Jay, the bygone celebrity haunt that remains an idiosyncratic relic of old Hollywood.

On a recent Wednesday at 4 p.m., every one of the 12 bar stools at Chez Jay is occupied. An oscillating fan in one corner pushes the warm Santa Monica air an inch or two further than it might otherwise go on its own. Burt Bacharach plays over the jukebox. And a cranky, yet adequately agreeable bartender informs two New Yorkers that happy hour includes draft beers, wine and appetizers—notably calamari steak—for $6.50. He slides a bowl of peanuts over and says, “Throw the shells on the floor when you’re done.” The New Yorkers are delighted.

Along this stretch of Ocean Avenue that has not yet been demolished in the name of progress, Chez Jay has been hosting raucous evenings and under-the-radar celebrity dinners since 1959. Formerly a café that the late owner Jay Fiondella allegedly bought in a $1 deal (literally, he paid a single dollar), Chez Jay opened with a spectacle—complete with showgirls and a small circus elephant—that would foretell years of quirk to come. The photo evidence hangs on the wall.

Down the bar, a man in a vest, blazer and Panama hat talks intensely with his less sartorially aware drinking partner, occasionally taking a breath to gaze at the television or sip his beer. At the corner of the bar, two Las Vegas natives plop down, remove nearly matching wide-brimmed hats and order the house wine. “Have you had the calamari steak before?” they ask the New Yorkers. On cue, the calamari steak arrives. Recognizing their neighbors as Chez Jay neophytes, they happily, tipsily hold forth on the history and lore of their adopted California dive.

“One of the peanuts went to space!” (True: Fiondella convinced Alan Shepard the commander of the Apollo 14 mission, to take one of Jay’s famous gourmet peanuts with him to the moon in 1971. He brought it back with a signed affidavit attesting to its voyage, which now hangs in the back by the bathrooms.) “On opening night, the elephant stepped on the bar, which is why it’s still lopsided!” (Almost true: The elephant, snacking on the bar’s famous peanuts, thrust his trunk onto the laminate counter leaving a still visible dent.) “Once, Steve McQueen put the space peanut in his mouth!” (Possibly true: Fiondella used to carry the astro-nut around. One night he showed it to McQueen who confiscated it and popped it into his mouth. Fiondella was said to have wrestled it back before McQueen could swallow it.)

Inside Chez Jay

Essential to Los Angeles’s mystique is this conscious proximity to celebrity, the knowledge that at any moment, so-and-so could walk through the door and grab a barstool. And there are plenty of clubby, velvet-rope-bound places where, on any given night, this is quite likely. But the appeal of Chez Jay was never about the exclusivity, though there was a sense of decorum that Fiondella espoused when hosting celebrities in the pre-internet era, when tabloids ruled LA media. His rules: no photographers, no autograph-seekers and no talking to the press. In the bar-biography It Happened at Chez Jay, Fiondella says, “I never openly talked to Hedda Hopper, or Louella Parsons, or Harrison Carrol,” who were all major gossip columnists of their day that relied on publicity-seeking owners or hosts for their tips. And though Fiondella is no longer alive—and the definition of celebrity has been stretched to make room for all sorts of strange talents—the rules remain the same.

What distinguishes Chez Jay is its enduring connection to a breed of old-fashioned LA that exists in increasingly rare pockets in an increasingly expensive, exclusive city. Chez Jay was a place where Santa Monica beach bums, Hollywood locals and all the bodacious glamour of Hollywood could rub up against one another in the same room. United by a pilgrimage along sprawling highways and grimy boulevards yawning with palm trees, these people were all just Angelenos at Chez Jay. Table Ten, a sequestered, battered looking nook in the back of the bar, has hosted all of the celebrities whose photos hang on the walls: Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Cher, Jim Morrison, The Beach Boys, Marlon Brando, Natalie Wood, Joe DiMaggio, Liz Taylor, Warren Beatty, Diana Ross, Lana Turner, Henry Kissinger and Madonna, among dozens of others. But it was and is regularly occupied by anyone with the ability to pick up a phone, dial Chez Jay’s number and make a reservation.

As the late-afternoon sun begins to flood into the bar, a red-striped circus textile shades a row of booths. The bar, too. A ship wheel, nautical ropes, hot air balloon paraphernalia and a decaying yellowfin tuna that General S. Patton caught off the coast of Catalina complete the atmosphere. But the energy contained between the seaweed green walls is only just beginning to buzz. The Las Vegans are replaced by two men who don’t know each other, but strike up a friendly conversation anyway. Four European backpackers, who are understood to be four European backpackers as soon as they walk in, are glanced at then ignored by the general population. On cue, the bartender offers another bowl of peanuts. “You can throw the shells on the floor when you’re done,” he says.

Tip: Chez Jay is also a restaurant where lobster, steak, clams and all of the calamari steak can be had for half the cost and 100-percent more joy than most joints in Santa Monica and Venice. If you’re going for dinner, make a reservation. Order the calamari steak. Chez Jay | 1657 Ocean Avenue | 310-395-1741

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