- Known As
- John S. Butler
- October 8, 2012
A longtime favorite of luminaries and locals alike, Chez Jay opened in 1959 when actor Jay Fiondella purchased the nautically themed Dawn Café from its struggling owner for one dollar. The restaurant was named in homage to the supper club “Chez Joey” in the Frank Sinatra film Pal Joey. Later, the establishment was frequented by Sinatra and other members of his famous “Rat Pack,” as well as Marilyn Monroe and a variety of sports figures, artists, writers and politicians.
The one-story building was constructed in 1947 by architect John S. Butler for owner Tom Kabbash as a six-unit apartment building with a restaurant space at 1657 Ocean Avenue. Very few exterior changes were made when Chez Jay occupied the space in 1959 and it remains an excellent example of the nautical motif so appropriate for seaside Santa Monica.
While by some standards the Chez Jay building could be considered a “dive” or even “seedy,” it encapsulates a remarkable legacy that lives on for today’s customers, as well as in film and TV appearances, including a regular role in the Amazon series Goliath. Most of Chez Jay’s historical significance comes from the stories of famous and infamous patrons and their social interactions.
A flamboyant and charismatic character, Fiondella came to Hollywood from the East Coast to seek fame as an actor. While he never achieved great success as a performer, his many exploits kept him in the spotlight. Chez Jay’s grand opening was a spectacle befitting a Hollywood premiere, complete with show girls and a rented circus elephant that ate from Chez Jay’s signature baskets of free peanuts. The animal left a lasting impression on the place when its trunk accidently put a dent in the bar that is still visible today.
In the early days, Fiondella hosted weekly jazz sessions where Chet Baker and other noted musicians performed. While Fiondella welcomed everyone to his establishment, Chez Jay became primarily known as a hangout and safe haven for celebrities. This was largely due to its strict no-photography policy, which protected stars from fans and paparazzi.
There seems to be no end to Chez Jay legends and lore: It is said that Lee Marvin drove his motorcycle through the front door to order a drink. Daniel Ellsberg, who worked at the nearby Rand Corporation, passed the “Pentagon Papers” to a New York Times reporter at Table 10, also the spot where Warren Beatty entertained his many girlfriends.
Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards had their first date at the restaurant. And astronaut Alan Shepard smuggled a Chez Jay peanut into space and back. The “Astro-Nut,” as it came to be known, now resides in the restaurant’s vault. Even Chez Jay’s architecture has some notoriety attached: Its portholes were recovered from a pre-war gambling ship that was seized in Santa Monica Bay.
When Chez Jay was threatened by the City’s development of the adjacent Tongva Park, the public came out in force to successfully rally around its preservation. At a packed Landmarks Commission meeting in October 2012, dozens of protestors asked the Commission to designate Chez Jay a historic landmark, thus protecting it from demolition. Among those who endured hours of discussion to lend support was John Savage. Those who wrote letters supporting the designation included actors Renee Zellweger and Kiefer Sutherland.
The landmark designation was granted in 2012, but as it turned out, the City was able to reconcile the preservation of Chez Jay with its vision to create a family-friendly restaurant space to complement Tongva Park. In August of 2017, with the City’s encouragement, Chez Jay opened a 600-square-foot patio café called the Backyard, complete with a fire pit, Adirondack chairs and an updated menu.
Although Fiondella died in 2008, Chez Jay is still operated under the management of his family, serving as a vestige of Old Hollywood in Santa Monica.