Chez Jay’s 60th Anniversary Party celebrates an Old Hollywood landmark that’s stood the test of time
By Hannah Kahn
As the sunset over the Santa Monica Pier painted the sky with hues of a spring bloom, the glow of Chez Jay’s colorful Christmas lights illuminated the interior of the intimate restaurant across the street. Something tells me ‘tis the season here all year round.
It was only five o’clock, but there was already a festive energy in the air. On the sidewalk, a red carpet pointed me towards Chez Jay’s entrance, like the yellow brick road leading Dorothy to Oz. A first-timer at this local landmark, I donned a circle skirt and cardigan to fit the night’s 1950s theme honoring the 60th anniversary of this Old Hollywood hideaway.
Chez Jay is a classic establishment known for its celebrity clientele and its low-key ambiance. “It’s like a time capsule,” said Chris Anderson, one of the owners of Chez Jay. The historic haunt’s anniversary party was “kind of commending all the people that worked here for the last 60 years,” he said. “It’s changed people’s lives.”
Four years after Walt Disney unveiled Disneyland, Jay Fiondella brought a different sort of magic to Southern California with his restaurant Chez Jay. Fiondella embodied a real-life Adventureland, traveling the globe on his many expeditions. Choked up with emotion, Anita Fiondella told me that her father was “the original most interesting man in the world.” In addition to his role as a restaurant owner, Fiondella was a balloonist, a deep-sea adventurer and an actor. “He was really bigger than life,” his daughter said.
Fiondella was a restaurateur ringmaster, ushering in local patrons — and animals —to his beachside sanctuary. He famously had an elephant on display at the grand opening of Chez Jay in 1959, giving “the elephant in the room” a whole new meaning. And to this day, peanut shells are strewn across the floor of the joint. Astronaut Alan Shepard even took one of Fiondella’s peanuts to the moon.
Inside the dark dining room, a black-and-white portrait of Marilyn Monroe greeted me as I walked in, the actress seductively eyeing the bar to her right. Nautical décor flanked the narrow space: red-and-white-striped sails suspended over the booths; lanterns and twisted rope lined the walls; and a large fish hung above bottles of liquor at the bar. Outside, a giant clam shell hugged the side of the building. For one night only, the parking lot housed Venice Paparazzi’s high-tech photo booth, featuring fun props to commemorate the occasion. There was live jazz music playing in The Backyard, Chez Jay’s new outdoor space that opened this summer.
While I chose to dress as a modern-day Mrs. Maisel, other patrons paid tribute to the ‘50s with poodle skirts and leather jackets. One woman transformed into Holly Golightly from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” complete with pearls, a tiara and black gloves. Jim Pierce, who frequents Chez Jay three to five times a week, wore dark sunglasses and a white T-shirt tucked into jeans (I told him he looked like a T-Bird straight out of “Grease,” and he proudly asserted that someone had called him Kenickie earlier in the night). Even the dinner menu dressed up in theme for the evening: my filet mignon was only $5.95, the original 1959 price of the dish.
Over the course of six decades, Chez Jay has developed the reputation of attracting celebrity guests who have sought refuge in the restaurant’s paparazzi-free privacy. Jeff Oliver has been working behind the bar at Chez Jay for almost 20 years and has been a patron for even longer. With a dry sense of humor and a voice like molasses, Oliver shared one of his star-studded memories from the late ‘80s: “I was here one night. Sean Penn knocked on the door. It was almost closing. I wasn’t working. Sean Penn came in, says, ‘Can I get a drink? I got some friends.’ He went back out, came back with Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson.”
Michael T. Anderson, Chris’s father, has been the owner of Chez Jay for 40 years. He said, “Everybody came in here.” A few of his favorite celebrity sightings? “Julie Andrews, Michelle Pfeiffer and David E. Kelley.”
But underneath the rich Hollywood history decorating the restaurant lies the very foundation that has kept the restaurant alive for so long: the sense of family among regulars and employees alike. Jan Janotta has been coming to Chez Jay for over 20 years because of the people. “Why go to a corporate restaurant that nobody’s ever going to remember you next week, next year, but you walk in here, and it’s like family,” Janotta said. For Guillermo “Chef Memo” Garcia, his workplace of 27 years has become a family business spanning three generations. “This is my second house,” he said. Garcia’s father worked at Chez Jay in 1978, and now his two kids do as well.
Jim Pierce volunteered to help out with the 60th anniversary celebration because of his deep connection to the Chez Jay community. “If you go to any other bar these days, everybody’s on their phone,” Pierce said. “At Chez Jay’s, you actually talk to people. You meet people, and over time you become friends with those people. When there’s a common bond, that’s family.”
Before I knew it, it was already 10 o’clock. I hugged my new friends Chris and Memo goodbye and walked away, knowing I’d be back soon enough. Just as Dorothy discovers at the end of “The Wizard of Oz,” there’s no place like home — but if you’re lucky, Oz can become your second home, too.