CITY HALL — The Landmarks Commission voted 6-0 Monday evening to give landmark protections to Chez Jay, a restaurant whose future is as uncertain as its past is lively.
The hearing was packed as 43 people spoke at the meeting with a nearly unanimous voice asking the commission to designate the restaurant a landmark.
The restaurant is as historic for the people that frequented it as the physical aspects that could be preserved as part of the designation, according to a report from city officials.
The report relies on a 2009 unpublished biography of the restaurateur Jay Fiondella and his establishment by Jon Stebbins called “It Happened at Chez Jay’s.”
It describes celebrities like actor Peter Sellers displaying their talents for the delight of the masses, and back-room deals taking place at the legendary “Table 10” where rumor has it that Daniel Ellsberg passed the Pentagon Papers to eager reporters and Henry Kissinger dined.
The atmosphere was made possible by Jay Fiondella, a vibrant man who pursued law, bartending, acting and made hobbies out of ballooning and treasure hunting.
The success of his business rested on the comfortable climate he created which attracted celebrities and others dodging attention by prohibiting tourists and paparazzi, according to the staff report.
The designation will protect certain physical characteristics of the restaurant, although exactly what will be fleshed out by staff and brought back to the commission for approval.
According to the staff report, most of the historic significance of the site comes from the interior, where the restaurant’s “noteworthy social interactions took place.”
That includes the arrangement of the banquettes, tables, bar, sawdust covered floor, nautical decorations and “Table 10” amongst others.
“As such, the loss of some or a majority of its contents, decorations and ephemera as well as a change in the design and/or use of ‘Table 10’ would eradicate key elements of the property’s significance such that it would no longer meet Santa Monica landmark criteria related to historic personages and associations,” according to the staff report.
The decision thrilled Anita Fiondella-Eck, Jay Fiondella’s daughter and now co-owner of the restaurant who has fond memories of sitting in the booths listening to the varied clientele.
“It was a wonderful evening,” Fiondella-Eck said. “It warmed my heart to hear what everybody had to say about Chez Jay as part of the cultural landscape and the history of Santa Monica.”
Exactly what the designation means to the structure is unclear.
The land on which Chez Jay stands was once owned by the Santa Monica Redevelopment Agency, an entity that was killed by state lawmakers and the courts in February 2012.
The property is now in the hands of a “Successor Agency,” which may or may not have to sell the property to satisfy obligations to the state Department of Finance.
Even if the land remains with City Hall, the Chez Jay business may not.
Fiondella-Eck and co-owner Michael Anderson have a month-to-month lease controlled by City Hall. City officials declared their intention to allow other businesses to bid for the spot in April, although the process was put on pause when the future of the land itself became a question mark.
The idea was to create a restaurant space that would complement the $47 million park being built immediately east of the Chez Jay site, preferably with a walk-up sales location and a family-friendly atmosphere.
It could be done with the existing business, despite the landmark designation, Fresco said.
“The ideal circumstance would be to leave Chez Jay alone and encourage the Chez Jay people to open an auxiliary window in the back that services the park,” Fresco said. “It would not change the Chez Jay vibe at all.”
Chez Jay and its ownership are committed to working with City Hall to make a business that fulfills the needs of parkgoers, Fiondella-Eck said.
“We’re excited to play a role in the park,” she said. “Dad always wanted to be a ‘tavern on the green,’ he always talked about that. We would be excited to make that happen as well as be a historic landmark, which would preserve part of Chez Jay.”