By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
When my brother and I sat down at Chez Jay in Santa Monica, Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” was playing – appropriately, as the song was about Marilyn Monroe, who dined here many times. So did Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger, and politicians both famous and forgotten.
The cultural importance is so evident that Chez Jay was designated a city landmark and spared from a redevelopment project that will transform the surrounding neighborhood.
The low cinder-block building doesn’t look like a movie star hangout, which is perhaps why it became one; attention seekers went elsewhere, while owner Jay Fiondella guarded his customers’ privacy with a strict no-camera policy. This is still in place, as I found when I started to photograph the interior. A white-haired man in a Hawaiian shirt darted from his post by the bar to tell me that no faces could be in the shot. This was Michael Anderson, the manager and an inexhaustible trove of information about the place. After some negotiation he said it was acceptable to shoot one face – his – so I snapped one before ordering dinner.
You’d know if anybody was taking pictures inside because they’d need a flash – the small room is lit romantically and indirectly. After our eyes adjusted we could see the parade of classics on the menu – little has changed since Chez Jay opened in 1961. Our server, Edgar, wasn’t born then, but did a good job of explaining items so unfashionable that they have become arcane. He confirmed another archaism, the wine by the glass list that lists only the grape – Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, et cetera. He didn’t know the brands or country of origin of any of these offhand, though he said he would check if we were interested. The by-the-bottle list has more information, but connoisseurs may want to bring their own and pay corkage.
A relish tray with raw vegetables arrived with bread, followed by our starters, a cup of clam chowder and a salad with house-made sherry vinaigrette. The slightly sweet dressing over varied greens was good, but we wished Edgar had mentioned that green goddess dressing, which doesn’t appear on the menu, was also available. We had no complaints on the chowder, which was buttery and full flavored; I often deploy pepper to zip up bland chowders, but this one was great straight from the kitchen.
For main courses I selected sand dabs almandine fried in egg batter, while my brother chose a pepper steak. Sand dabs are a local specialty with memories for me – as a teenager I fished the bay for them and always caught a few but never enough to feed the family. They’re a delicate little fish usually served bone-in because they’re a pain to disassemble, but the ones at Chez Jay were fileted. This isn’t seafood to get fancy with – sauté, a dash of lemon butter, and serve – and Chez Jay followed that reliable formula.
The fish came with green beans with red onions and choice of potato or rice pilaf, and I chose the starch that was most interesting – scalloped potatoes with bananas. This idea was reportedly dreamed up by an actor who was Fiondella’s roommate, a fellow named Leonard Nimoy, and it’s worth trying once – how often do you get to enjoy a side dish from the planet Vulcan? I found it an amusing novelty, while my brother vowed to recreate it at home.
My brother’s pepper steak had that tried and true companion for a chunk of meat – baked potato with sour cream, chives, and bacon bits. The steak was a New York rather than the ribeye I prefer but nicely cooked to the medium rare requested, and the black pepper, chive, and bacon bits on top were warmly spicy – this is a pepper sauce for people who like pepper. We paired it with a Pinot Nor and Zinfandel from the mystery list. We liked the zin enough that we wanted to know what type it was, but since it was a busy night we didn’t want to send Edgar on an extra trip.
To finish, we shared a sticky toffee pudding that is made by a local company for Chez Jay. This is the second one that I have liked in as many weeks, which makes me wonder if my tastes are changing or if I have finally found people who know how to make it: light and not over-sweet.
Dinner for two with four glasses of wine and one dessert ran $84, remarkably reasonable for a good meal in a landmark place. Even if you knew or cared nothing for the history of Chez Jay you could have a fine time, and if you have any appreciation for classic atmosphere, you have to love it.
Chez Jay is at 1657 Ocean Ave. in Santa Monica – open daily for dinner 5:30 – 10:30 p.m., midweek lunch 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m., weekend brunch 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. Valet parking, wheelchairs OK, full bar, corkage $20. Menu at chezjays.com. 310-395-1741.