Chez Jay’s flamboyant owner turned it into a haven for stars
Jay Fiondella, the flamboyant owner of Chez Jay, the scruffy restaurant-bar he opened almost 50 years ago that became a Santa Monica landmark and something of a shrine to his exploits as an adventurer, has died. He was 82.
Fiondella died Nov. 6 at a Santa Monica care facility after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, his family said.
In 1959, he was hustling for small acting parts and tending bar on the Santa Monica Pier when he heard about a small coffee shop for sale on Ocean Avenue and decided to turn it into Chez Jay.
From the start, Chez Jay drew celebrities. One reason was that Fiondella carefully protected them from fans and gawkers, according to a 2002 Times article on “splendid dives.” When customers walked in with cameras, he threw them out.
Through 2007, Fiondella worked regularly at Chez Jay, which invariably earned good reviews for its steaks and seafood. Co-owner Michael Anderson will continue to run the restaurant.
After opening Chez Jay, Fiondella brought his widowed mother, Alice, west to help run the place with the sawdust floors so he would not have to give up his swashbuckling ways.
Mementos from his trips were hung on the restaurant’s walls.
A competitive hot-air balloonist, he helped finance the 1973 search for the treasure of the sunken ocean liner Andrea Doria that turned up “silverware, a bottle of perfume and some trays,” Fiondella said at the time.
Two decades later, he was part of a team that recovered silver coins worth millions from the wreck of the John Barry, a U.S. merchant ship that was torpedoed off the coast of Oman during World War II.
He reveled in taking chances and in creating a romantic image for himself but never seemed to miss an opportunity to promote the tiny restaurant that made his travels possible. Recounting an archaeological dig in the Arabian Desert, Fiondella said he ran into four Chez Jay customers.
When his homemade, 65-foot replica pirate ship toppled off a trailer in 1989 while being hauled down Culver Boulevard, it caused a massive rush-hour traffic jam and briefly made him a cable news star.
“Every time they got a little sound bite from him, he always managed to slip in the restaurant’s name and address,” said Jon Stebbins, who is finishing a biography of Fiondella that he wrote with the restaurateur.
The boat Fiondella had worked on for 25 years “was my shrink, my guru, my Shangri-La,” he told The Times in 1989. “I could go on it and drink a beer and think I was in Tahiti. Now it’s history. . . . It’s the USS Never Sail.”
Stories of the famous who hung out at Chez Jay were often repeated: Daniel Ellsberg, who worked at the nearby Rand Corp., supposedly passed the Pentagon Papers to a reporter there. Marlon Brando allegedly waltzed off with a waitress. Henry Kissinger spent so much time in the back, a rear table was dubbed the “Kissinger Room.”
In the early 1950s, Fiondella roomed with actor Leonard Nimoy, who told The Times in an e-mail: “He was a gregarious, great guy. . . . I ate at his place occasionally. Always had great stories and good food.”
Jay Anthony Fiondella was born Aug. 6, 1926, in East Haven, Conn. His mother was a teacher and his father was an artist who often took him hunting for Indian artifacts.
During World War II, Fiondella was a Navy Seabee who served in the Philippines and China. After the war, he attended the University of Miami and moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting after a brief marriage ended in divorce.
Between 1958 and 2000, he had small parts in about 30 films and TV shows and used Jay Della as his stage name. His first role was in the series “Sea Hunt,” and his last was in the movie “Luck of the Draw.”
Alan Shepard, commander of Apollo 14, was dining at Chez Jay when Fiondella persuaded him to take one of the restaurant’s trademark peanuts with him to the moon in 1971, Fiondella often said.
He recalled telling the astronaut: “I want to have the first astro-nut.”
When Shepard returned the legume, he reportedly signed an affidavit that stated it had accompanied him to the moon.
“Jay used to carry the peanut around in his pocket and put it down on the bar,” Stebbins said. “One time, actor Steve McQueen put it in his mouth and Jay had to wrestle with him to get it away.”
Alice Fiondella, who helped run Chez Jay for 30 years, was hit by a car while crossing Ocean Avenue near the restaurant in 1991 and died at 89.
Fiondella’s second wife died.
His survivors include a daughter, Anita Fiondella Eck; a son, Chaz Fiondella; and a sister, Rita Luarte.
A celebration of Fiondella’s life will be held at 2 p.m. Dec. 6 at Chez Jay, 1657 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica. Those planning to attend should call (310) 395-1741.