In a continuing series looking at Hollywood restaurants where some of the scenes in my ‘Garden of Allah’ novels take place:
A tour of restaurants during Hollywood’s golden age wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Chasen’s. Few restaurants during that time reached Chasen’s across-the-board appeal: everybody loved Chasen’s, and everybody especially loved its chili.
It originally opened on December 13th, 1936 as Chasen’s Southern Barbecue Pit by vaudevillian Dave Chasen (at the advice of his friend, director Frank Capra (You Can’t Take It With You, 1939)) and Chasen’s partner Joe Cook who had been advanced $3000 by New Yorker editor Harold Ross. “Pit” was the operative word back then as it was really not much more than a shack comprised of six tables, an eight-stool counter and a six-stool bar. They dispensed chili at 25 cents a bowl and a couple of BBQ ribs for 35 cents. And the word got out, but fast.
Regulars included Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, W.C. Fields, James Cagney, Clark Gable, writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), Buddy Ebsen, and Pat O’Brien, and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath, 1940). Bill Grady–director of casting at MGM–had his own table, as did Ronald Colman, Leslie Howard & Cary Grant.
Within a year the place evolved from chili parlor to full-fledged restaurant with 35 items and waiters in black and white. One night Shirley Temple visited with her parents and got upset because she wanted a drink just like her parents. And thus was born the non-alcoholic cocktail: the Shirley Temple (two parts ginger ale, one part orange juice, and a splash of grenadine, garnished with a maraschino cherry.)
As newer generations took the reins of Hollywood, trendier restaurants like Spago drew the ‘in’ crowd and stole some of Chasen’s clientele, but its A-list stayed faithful: Gregory Peck, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, James Stewart, Don Rickles, Milton Berle, and Kirk Douglas were still regulars. It also probably helped that in later years the place was extended to add a sauna and a barber in the back. Talk about your original one stop shop: go in for some chili and come out with a haircut.
Surrounded as he was on all sides by the rich and famous, it’s no great surprise that Dave Chasen befriended his regular guests. One of them was billionaire aviator/movie producer/lethario/anything-he-put-his-mind/wallet-to: Howard Hughes. Of all of Chasen’s regulars, Howard Hughes was the simplest: he typically dined on tomato juice, butterflied steak and salad. In case you’re wondering, Orson Welles was the biggest (he ordered double orders of everything), Sinatra was the smallest (he ordered half orders.)
In 1939 Howard bought Transcontinental and Western Air (the precursor to TWA) and asked Dave Chasen to make his new airline the first to serve passengers hot food–on good china and linens, no less–instead of the usual boxed sandwiches. Classy!
Then later, in 1946, Hughes introduced the new ‘Constellation’ aircraft and personally piloted the first flight from New York to Los Angeles. Aboard were a Hollywood who’s who–Cary Grant, Lana Turner, Alfred Hitchcock, Edward G. Robinson, Paulette Goddard, Virginia Mayo, Veronica Lake, William Powell, Celeste Holm, Burgess Meredith, and mobster Bugsy Seigel, by then a fixture on the Hollywood scene. Also aboard was Dave Chasen offering a buffet beginning with beluga caviar and Dom Perignon and ending with baked Alaska. About ten minutes before landing, the plane dropped 20,000 feet because of inclement weather and flailing winds. When Hughes asked for a drink, his passengers grew even more alarmed because Hughes was a teetotaler. Dave brought out an 85 year old bottle of vodka and watched in horror as Hughes poured it onto a piece of cloth and used it to wipe the condensation from the windshield. Hello…? He could have just said “Gimme some Smirnoff.”
Chasen also came to the rescue in 1942 when Katherine Hepburn locked herself up in a villa at the Garden of Allah with writers Garson Kanin, his brother Michael and Ring Lardner Jnr to knock out the script for Woman of the Year. Hepburn had just had a success with The Philadelphia Story and wanted a strong follow up but time was short because Garson had been drafted and was set to report for duty in only five days time. So they all locked themselves–along with a couple of secretaries–into one of the Garden of Allah villas for five days while they sweated blood on the script and depended on Dave Chasen’s food to get them through. Maybe it was the chili but the resulting script went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Michael and Ring; was brought for a record breaking $111,000; and kick-started the Hepburn-Tracy series of films.
Man oh man, that must have been some great chili! In fact it must have been truly something special because in 1962 Chasen’s became even more famous when Elizabeth Taylor had several orders of Chasen’s famous chili flown to the set of Cleopatra while filming in Rome.
But even the world’s most famous chili couldn’t hold back the inevitable march of time. The restaurant closed in April 1995 and the location is now a Bristol Farms grocery store. (Oh well, at least it isn’t a parking lot.) And if your mouth is now watering and you’re dying to try some of the chili that Liz Taylor had someone fly 6000 miles to get, don’t worry–you’ll find the recipe for it in the book by Betty Goodwin: Chasen’s: where Hollywood dined because Chasen’s was indeed where all of Hollywood dined.