There are always a few L.A. bistros in the hot spotlight. Those that never achieve citywide trendyhood struggle, survive, or go dark. Most of the truly famous eateries bask in a scoop or two of prominence before eventually, inevitably, fading into memory, or receivership, or a porno movie theater (Sardi’s), or a Bristol Farms grocery store (Chasen’s).
One memorable night Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart got sh…got smashed at the bar and actually heisted the joint’s safe. The two of them rolled it out the front door, abandoned it in the middle of Beverly Boulevard, and rumor has it that it took six people to haul the thing back inside. Last time I looked, it was gone. Chasen’s, I mean. I don’t know what happened to the safe.
Many other L.A. saloons (let’s face it, they’re ALL saloons) have enjoyed a healthy share of celebrity. Scandia. The Cock ‘n Bull. The Ming Room…all successful, all popular, and all gone. Only a very few well-known bistros prospered until they became the stuff of legends. Among those is Chez Jay’s.
Disclosure: I used to hang out there, at Chez Jay’s. Not any more. 467 miles is almost too far to drive for a shot of single-malt.
Physically, the building is narrow as Ann Coulter’s mind. To the left is a bar with room for only eight or nine stools, and beyond that a tiny, magical, kitchen. On the right are five wooden pew-like booths, and four or five ‘4-top’ tables. Toward the back, on the way to the restrooms, is a VIP booth that seats six. Twelve, if they’re well-acquainted. From the ceiling droop remnants of the balloon airbag from the movie, “Around The World In Eighty Days.” Nobody dares throw peanut shells anywhere but on the floor.
Yes, on the floor.
Other beachside bars need signs warning that barefoot customers are unwelcome. Not so at Chez Jay’s, where a prickly carpet of cracked peanut shells makes footwear mandatory. Plastic baskets of peanuts are everywhere. On the bar, on the back-bar, on tables, in the restrooms, and on the roof, for all I know. Thus, peanuts and Chez Jay’s are inseparable, and thereby hangs a tale.
The mystery began some years ago when an good friend of restaurateur/actor Jay Fiondella left town for a few days. Actually, what he left was the whole earth. Astronaut Alan Shephard, who was booked for an imminent return visit to the moon, stopped into Chez Jay’s for dinner on a summer evening, after which he generously offered to take one single Chez Jay’s peanut into outer space on a rare Business Class roundtrip.
Come to think of it, there were actually two nuggets accompanying him on that thrill-ride, since the peanut shell Colonel Shepard slipped into his pocket was intact. I know. I watched him do it. I was sober. It was early.
Audio/Video: Tick-tock, tick-tock / calendar pages flipping.
A week or so after re-entering our questionable atmosphere, Alan Shephard phoned Jay and promised to bring him the only Arachis hypogaea in history ever to have done the moon trip. They established a date and time of peanut-return, after which, of course, Fiondella promptly called everybody from Venice to Valencia and told them exactly when his peripatetic peanut was coming home.
The evening of the astronaut’s – and the peanut’s – return to Santa Monica was, let me assure you, more than somewhat festive. (Thank you, Damon Runyon.)
Until the moment Shephard showed up and returned the peanut to its original home, there hadn’t been such a crowd in Chez Jay’s since the night Lee Marvin won the Academy Award for “Cat Ballou” and got so shi…wasted that he left the Oscar under that thingy in the Men’s Room.
Again, eyewitness reportage. What luck.
There was much excitement and celebration when Alan Shepard formally presented the intact shell to Jay Fiondella, who announced he was considering having it gold-plated to wear as a ring. Talk about your snappy accessory.
Meanwhile, celebration ensued. There was handshaking and backslapping and tush-grabbing and drink-drinking and, of course, everybody wanted to touch the peripatetic peanut, to hold in their hand, however briefly, and you know peanuts; they all look alike…
Some people say it never left Chez Jay’s intact, that it was put on the bar or a table and vanished into a crowd of peer peanuts. Some say the cocktail waitress left with it in her navel. Some say it fell to the floor, joining many of the celebrity celebrants. Some say it was eaten by an actress who thought it was a part of a producer. Some say it drowned in a Harvey Wallbanger. Some say Lee Marvin stashed it under that thingy in the men’s room…
Mike Anderson, former manager and now owner of Chez Jay’s, told me on the phone just last week that he knows exactly where the moon peanut has resided ever since the chaotic celebration of its return.
Really, Mike? Okay, but you know peanuts. How can we – how can you – be sure that that peanut is THE peanut? And what about that elephant at the Santa Monica zoo who’s been stoned to the eyeballs since February, 1971?
Mike Price is a long-time newspaper columnist, talk show host, and screenwriter who appears as a standup comedy headliner for top clubs and casinos across the country.