CITY HALL — Frank Sinatra dined there. The Pentagon Papers were reportedly leaked there. One of its peanuts went to space.
The Chez Jay restaurant at 1657 Ocean Ave. has a long list of famous patrons and notable events spanning its more than 50-year resume, but that may not be enough to keep its spot in Santa Monica.
By law, the Chez Jay ownership team will have to compete against all other applicants for the right to operate on the city-owned property and, for the first time since 1957, city officials are looking for more than the quirky steak joint is used to providing.
The restaurant sits on Ocean Avenue immediately west of what will be Palisades Garden Walk Park. That’s a $47 million investment, and City Hall planned from the outset to include an eatery that syncs with the outdoor ambiance and the clientele that the park is expected to attract.
With that in mind, the restaurant has been on a month-to-month lease until officials had a clear idea of what they wanted out of the restaurant in the Civic Center park.
Now that Palisades Garden Walk is designed and under construction, “it’s a lot easier,” said Miriam Mack, economic development manager with City Hall.
“It’s something we’ve been anticipating for a long time, so we did not make any longterm commitments until we knew what was happening,” Mack said.
The criteria listed in a staff report calls for a casual dining restaurant — with or without alcohol service — that has an outdoor dining component that links to the park.
It’s a long way from what the kitschy restaurant offers now, which is more of a time capsule to the 1960s when the Rat Pack dined and the FBI was investigating underground groups like the Weathermen on its premises.
“If you come, you will see that it’s a steak house with a bar, a really classic, old-fashioned kind of place,” said Abby Arnold, a member of the Chez Jay team that is putting together the restaurant’s proposal.
In her day job, Arnold writes grant proposals for nonprofits. She got on the Chez Jay case through a referral from Back on the Beach Cafe, the restaurant that operates by the Annenberg Community Beach House.
Arnold put together the documents that helped Back on the Beach keep its berth when City Hall put the location out to bid. She had a personal connection to the place, which is where she had her wedding.
“It’s like going back to one of the best days of my life, helping them to stay there,” she said. “It’s the same with Chez Jay. I’ve been going there for years and years and years. I feel like I understand who they are and what they do.”
Michael Anderson and Anita Fiondella Eck, the owners, are willing to rework the restaurant’s look, menu and ethos to meet the requirements put forward by city officials, Arnold said.
“Chez Jay is very willing,” she said. “We’ve been working for a year to think about how to respond by changing the restaurant.”
The question facing the restaurant is how to meet the needs of the park users without sacrificing the essential qualities of the establishment.
So far, they’re talking about adding a patio for outdoor dining and putting in a take-away window so park patrons can get casual food and snacks to bring to the park, Arnold said.
Despite the building’s age and history, it is not a registered landmark in Santa Monica, so there are fewer restrictions on changes to the physical envelope of the building.
That might change, however, if the Landmarks Commission takes up the matter on a future agenda.
The commission hasn’t looked at Chez Jay on its own because it’s still working on landmarking pieces of “high risk” areas like Main Street, wrote Commissioner Nina Fresco in an e-mail.
After the council considers the bid criteria, they will agendize it, though it’s hard to tell if a designation would get in the way of anyone making changes to the building, she wrote.
Operational details like the length of the lease and the rent paid to City Hall are all part of the bid process, and relate to how the operator needs to finance improvements to the site.
Right now, Chez Jay is month-to-month, and pays City Hall a percentage of its gross revenue from food, alcohol and movie shoots, Mack said.
Arnold is confident that the time-honored establishment has what it takes to remain where it is.
“It’s been there for 50 years, so we know what people want and need, and we’ve been thinking about it for a year,” Arnold said. “We’re totally ready to put a proposal together and compete with whoever might be out there.”