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Chez Jay: Dive bar with deep past may springboard to something bigger

At the bar where a circus elephant and the Rat Pack partied — not at the same time — a couple clink martini glasses. Their faces glow in the late-afternoon light pouring through a porthole.

Behind them in the otherwise cave-like room, trimmed year-round with strands of Christmas lights, a busboy moves across wood chips and peanut shells scattered on the pocked concrete floor. He places red napkins atop red-and-white-checked tablecloths grown dingy with wear as Frank Sinatra croons the 1966 hit "Summer Wind" on the jukebox.

Here at Chez Jay in Santa Monica, where big-name Hollywood wined and dined, it might as well be 1966. But change is coming to this tiny dive bar with the king-size reputation.

Just steps from Chez Jay's back door and that bar porthole, the city of Santa Monica is building a multi-acre park with picnic tables, hills, playgrounds and two steel observation decks with views of the ocean and the pier. Nearby, more than 300 condos and rental apartments and shops are rising at the $350-million Village at Santa Monica. In 2015, the Expo Line light rail will roll into town.

City officials envision a family-friendly, alfresco eatery to go with the new development.

Chez Jay's owners hope their 53-year-old landmark restaurant will fill the bill. They are pondering a $1.5-million makeover to create an outdoor patio where visitors could order burgers, fries and ice cream cones (but no alcohol) at a walk-up window. The outmoded 150-square-foot kitchen would become a private dining room. A modern and much bigger kitchen would be built closer to the park. They plan to submit a proposal to the city.

The owners got a boost when the city Landmarks Commission voted in October to designate Chez Jay a local landmark in recognition of its cultural, social and political history.

Unlike many long-gone see-and-be-seen L.A. hangouts — Ciro's, Chasen's, Perino's, the Brown Derby — Chez Jay, with just 10 tables and 12 bar stools, lacked distinctive design or opulence. Its absence of pretension and almost shabby interior were part of the allure for big-name performers seeking an evening out of the media glare.

Jon Stebbins, who teamed with Fiondella on a history called "It Happened at Chez Jay's," parsed its merits: "I sat at a small wooden table and ordered a BLT and a beer.... The sandwich was a revelation on wheat, properly toasted, tomato cold, and bacon hot. The beer was chilly, not icy; the service was friendly, but not too."

For the opening in summer 1959, founder Jay Fiondella, an adventurer, aspiring actor and competitive hot-air balloonist, brought in a circus elephant and show girls. The elephant, snacking on the restaurant's trademark unshelled peanuts, slammed its trunk onto the bar, leaving a dent in the laminate.

From the beginning, Fiondella set rules to make his place a cozy haven: no unauthorized photographs, no autograph hounds. With its ship's wheel and canopy fashioned from a square rig sail, the place quickly lured a celebrity clientele and developed a certain Jay ne sais quoi.

A Sinatra fan, Fiondella had chosen the name Chez Jay as an homage to Chez Joey, the joint run by Sinatra's character in the 1957 musical film "Pal Joey."

Sinatra rewarded Fiondella with his patronage and that of fellow Rat Packers Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin. Judy Garland often stopped by, as did Michael Caine, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Hugh Hefner and Barbi Benton, Robert Mitchum, Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen and Natalie Wood.

"The Wild Bunch" was conceived by cowboy stuntmen there in the 1960s, and "Star Trek's" Leonard Nimoy, with whom Fiondella roomed in the 1950s, helped him create what became a signature dish: La Jolla potatoes, a melange of mashed potatoes, bananas and cheese.

Other patrons included Mick Jagger, Tony Bennett and Joan Baez. Lee Marvin is said to have ridden his motorcycle in to order a drink; another time he shared a bloody Mary at the bar with a pet duckling named Sherman.

TV writer-producer David E. Kelley and Michelle Pfeiffer, married nearly 20 years, met there when mutual friends arranged a group dinner. With its dark paneled walls and pennants over the bar, it reminded Kelley of Boston, his hometown. Their friends knew "it was comfortable terrain for both of us," Kelley recalled.

Julia Roberts, Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon also helped bring cachet to the homey outpost a block from the beach, with its jaunty neon sign and giant outdoor clamshell.

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon wrote parts of "Good Will Hunting" there. In the back room; director Quentin Tarantino rehearsed the cast of "Jackie Brown," his blaxploitation sendup.

Chez Jay drew from across the political spectrum. Antiwar activist Tom Hayden drank at the bar. In the back, Henry Kissinger conferred with researchers from the Santa Monica office of Rand Corp., the global policy think tank that was Chez Jay's landlord.

During much of Jay Fiondella's tenure, the person who really ran the joint was Alice Fiondella, Jay's mother, a diminutive dynamo who put unruly drunks on probation. In 1991, she was killed by a car as she walked in a nearby Ocean Avenue crosswalk. Jay Fiondella died at age 82 in 2008 after battling Parkinson's. The restaurant is now run by Michael Anderson, Fiondella's longtime business partner, who co-owns it with Fiondella's daughter and son, Anita and Chaz.

The owners have hurdles to clear. The state and the city are wrangling in court over ownership of the property, which had been held by the city's now-defunct redevelopment agency. Chez Jay has for years operated on a month-to-month lease. Unless that changes, the owners are reluctant to make anything but temporary improvements.

Long term, they say, they're excited about a portion of Chez Jay's becoming a link to the park, even if it means losing some of the back rooms where screenplays got worked over and composers dined on steak encrusted in coarsely ground pepper and bacon. Uppermost in their minds is maintaining what Anita Fiondella calls "the dark, mysterious, wonderful place in front."

martha.groves@latimes.com

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