Chez Jay headed for official Santa Monica landmark status
Chez Jay, a cozy bar and restaurant long popular with beach bums, tourists and celebrities alike, qualifies for designation as a local landmark, the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission decided late Monday.
The 6-0 vote, taken after dozens of patrons spoke in favor of preserving Chez Jay as it is, is part of a push to save the nautically themed eatery from an uncertain fate as the city redevelops the property around it into a civic park. A plan for the Civic Center area calls for pavilion-like structures that would allow for "a generous flow of activities from interior to exterior spaces."
City officials had said earlier this year that the current Chez Jay building and the dimly lit, windowless bar would have to be redesigned to be more compatible with the Palisades Garden Walk next door.
Chez Jay, a long, narrow hole-in-the-wall on Ocean Avenue between Colorado Avenue and Pico Boulevard, is famed for its half-century-long association with Jay Fiondella, an actor, adventurer and raconteur who lured a steady stream of celebrities into his dive bar with the promise that they could feast on moderately priced steaks and seafood without fear of photographers or autograph hounds.
Then as now, the floor was strewn with peanut shells. Astronaut Alan Shepard, a friend and customer, sneaked a Chez Jay peanut aboard Apollo 14 and presented it to Fiondella upon his return from the mission, during which he became the fifth person to walk on the moon. It became known as the "Astro-Nut."
During Fiondella's long tenure, the restaurant served a wildly diverse clientele that included Henry Kissinger, Robert Mitchum, Fred Astaire, John Belushi and Rat Packers such as Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford. Lee Marvin once rode in on his motorcycle to order a drink at the bar.
Among those who wrote letters of support for the landmark designation were Renee Zellweger and Kiefer Sutherland.
Fiondella died in 2008 and the restaurant operation passed to his daughter, Anita Fiondella Eck, and co-owner Michael Anderson. Both spoke at the meeting about Jay Fiondella's connections to show business and Santa Monica history.
Carol Lemlein, president of the Santa Monica Conservancy, said landmark status does not define use of the property and therefore could not ensure that the current operation of Chez Jay would continue.
But the strong support for preserving the Chez Jay ambiance was palpable at the commission meeting. Among those who endured hours of discussion and testimony to lend support was John Savage, who said Chez Jay became "just a favorite meeting ground" when he was a young actor in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "I met a lot of great people -- Robert Mitchum, Sean Penn," Savage said. "I have a lot of beautiful memories."
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-- Martha Groves
Photo: Chez Jay has seen a parade of legendary Hollywood actors and entertainers pass through its doors. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times