You can still schmooze at Chasen's, darling

Times Staff Writer

WALK the aisles of the Bristol Farms That Used to Be Chasen's, and you have to wonder how Albertson's, the new owner of the chain of 11 gourmet markets, is going to understand the place. Albertson's is based in Boise, Idaho, with 2,500 stores and $35 billion in sales. It's big, but can it cope with the neurotic demands that daily wash through this emporium of the elite?

For 58 years, the West Hollywood store at the intersection of Beverly Boulevard and Doheny Drive was Chasen's, a glamorous restaurant where food and fame came to a crossroads. Chasen's is where Ronald Reagan proposed to Nancy. It's where the big red booths filled with Elizabeth Taylor, Humphrey Bogart, Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, George Burns and Gracie Allen. Stars, even after their luster faded, could come to Chasen's and be treated with the same fanfare as they had in their heyday.

The restaurant closed in 1995 and was resurrected as a grocery store -- excuse me, gourmet market -- five years later. They saved some of the facade and created a little replica inside called Bristol Cafe. You can get a bowl of chili there for about 11 bucks.

But if you hang around long enough, it becomes clear that this isn't really a grocery store. It's a cafe surrounded by a sushi counter, coffee bar and panini shop, the catering headquarters for that nightly party called "dinner." It's a see-and-be-seen hangout, a place to schmooze and make deals, for brushes with celebrity and wealth. It is, in a way, still Chasen's.

Young executives too busy to cook tear into fancy sandwiches, doctors fresh from Cedars-Sinai stop by for cornichons and a good Burgundy, the affluent jobless sit and read the papers and take in the scene.

If you happen to go to the Bristol Farms That Used to Be Chasen's for actual groceries, don't expect to just dash in. This is an extended immersion into the social habits of the pampered and particular. During the busy periods at lunch, before dinner and throughout the weekend, the aisles are almost impassable.

The customers -- excuse me, patrons -- don't move very fast because they might spill the low-fat, half-caff latte that slowed the coffee bar's long line. The guy gabbing on his ultra-techie cellphone over in fish may be blocking your access to salmon, but he's scheduling an important Hollywood meeting. You and your fish can wait.

You'll do a lot of waiting at the Bristol Farms That Used to Be Chasen's, just as if it were a busy night at the restaurant. Though the help-to-customer ratio is higher than at other grocery stores, it takes a while to satisfy the extremely discriminating clientele. They're used to having things their way, all the time. That's what made Chasen's so reassuring.

Witness a crisis at the chili bar, which serves to-go cups of Chasen's famous, meaty chili. The store is out of large containers. A clerk explains, again and again, that two small cups are equal to one large. No go. Something has disrupted the chili ritual and now everything's ruined. The catered-to can't cope. They scowl, they huff, they whine. A woman in Paul Frank monkey pants walks away, chili-less.

The employees listen to complaints that the tapioca isn't as good as Gelson's and that the barley soup is only so-so. They'll let a young woman reject six fish fillets before she settles on one that's acceptable. Like a seasoned maitre d', the clerk at the panini station can expertly extinguish a brewing hissy fit with merely a quick nod of acknowledgment.

The Bristol Farms That Used to Be Chasen's is still a destination for special occasions. The generation that celebrated parents' anniversaries or birthdays in the red booths now takes home the market's cake and ice cream for their kids. Want a black spider cake for Halloween or a three-tiered, silver-plated pastry stand? It's here.

Of course, Chasen's was known for prime star-sightings. It's the same today, but with everyone in designer sweatsuits, it's hard to tell who is a famous Hollywood star and who is a well-tressed personal trainer. A quick flash of the gold Rolex or 10-carat bracelet is a good giveaway.

Maybe no one in Boise wears 10 carats with her sweatsuit, but you have to hope that Albertson's understands. Knocking down a building doesn't mean you've extinguished a legend. That steak-eating, martini-swilling, night life-loving crowd hasn't disappeared, after all.

Valli Herman can be reached at weekend@latimes.com.

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