Marilyn Lewis, Hamburger Hamlet co-founder who is credited with creating the gourmet burger, dies at 87

If you like to customize your hamburger order — hold the bun, extra Sriracha and pimento cheese, please — you might have Marilyn Lewis to thank.

Considered by many to be the creator of the gourmet, customizable hamburger, Lewis launched the iconic Hamburger Hamlet restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in 1950 along with her actor husband, Harry, and then expanded it into a nationwide chain known for upscale burger toppings, long before it became the trendy thing to do.

Lewis — instantly recognizable for her show-stopping head of flaming red hair — died Wednesday at the age of 87, according to her son, Adam Lewis.

“It would be a wild understatement to call her a ‘woman before her time,’ ” her son told The Times. “She was extraordinarily creative, and her instincts were perfect. People who didn’t know better thought my father was the one who ran the show. But she was the woman behind the curtain.”

At heart, Lewis was an entrepreneur.

Years after launching the Hamburger Hamlet, she stepped away from day-to-day business operations to get back to her true love, fashion. She designed a clothing line that would be carried around the world — called Cardinali — and helped dress fashion icon Marlo Thomas on the groundbreaking TV show “That Girl.” In 1968, the Los Angeles Times named her a Times Woman of the Year.

In her “retirement” years, she helped her husband run another family restaurant, Kate Mantilini in Beverly Hills, along with their two sons, David and Adam. The restaurant is now closed but gained immortality as the backdrop for a scene in 1995’s “Heat,” when Robert De Niro and Al Pacino shared the movie screen for the first time.

Born Marilyn Friedman on Oct. 6, 1929, in Cleveland, she started a modeling agency in her hometown — at 16. When she came of age, she headed west and had designs on a fashion and modeling career — that is, until she crossed paths with a handsome young actor.

Harry Lewis was playing the milkman in “Street Scene” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Marilyn made it her business to make his acquaintance. Lewis had been working steadily at the time as a contract actor for Warner Bros., performing alongside the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, most notably in the 1948 film noir “Key Largo.”

But on their very first date, Lewis confessed that he had a different dream: a restaurant, one that catered to actors after a long day on the set and served up homey fare. That night, the couple began scouting possible locations. The two launched their first restaurant on the corner of Hilldale Avenue and Sunset Boulevard in 1950 before they were even married.

It was an overnight success.

Ronald Reagan was known to stop by, in addition to Elizabeth Taylor, Sammy Davis Jr. and Tony Curtis — all friends from Lewis’ days in Hollywood. But the Hamburger Hamlet also catered to families looking for a menu that would make the kids happy, and it held appeal for mom and dad, too.

The big draws were the customizable burgers and an eclectic mix of comfort food. But there was also a diet menu and something for the super-healthy — it was called a Sunflower Sandwich, served on multi-grain bread and topped off with sprouts.

“No one had heard of such things,” Adam Lewis said, but the customers loved them.

“It was always like that,” Adam Lewis said. “She would come up with an idea, my dad would be skeptical, and then of course she would be right,” he said.

Harry and Marilyn Lewis ultimately sold the Hamburger Hamlet chain for about $30 million.

The popularity of the operation relied in part on Marilyn’s exacting nature and her insistence on precisely duplicating the dining experience from one restaurant to the next, from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. It helped pave the way for similar concept restaurants that would follow, such as California Pizza Kitchen and Cheesecake Factory.

The couple’s colorful relationship was central to Lewis’ memoir, “ ‘Marilyn, Are You Sure You Can Cook?’ He Asked.” The unusual title referred to Harry’s fleeting skepticism before signing the first Hamburger Hamlet lease.

Harry Lewis died in 2013 at the age of 93. Marilyn Lewis is survived by her two sons, and five grandchildren: Kris, Benjamin, Brendan, Alexia and Rebecca.

rene.lynch@latimes.com

Twitter: @renelynch

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