This coming weekend is the unofficial end of summer. The Labor Day weekend is a traditional marker in the calendar of life that means kids returning to school, dads putting the barbecues away and moms planning for the holidays.
But Labor Day has a real history and meaning. It began as a way to recognize efforts made by tradesmen. Labor Day gained official status and was made a federal holiday under President Grover Cleveland, the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms in the White House.
In today’s world we see the lionization of hard work less and less and we afford it less respect. In its place we honor Snooki for sobering up long enough to have a baby and the Kardashians for whatever it is they do.
President Cleveland was one of the hardest working presidents we’ve ever had and it is fitting that he should be tied throughout history to the cause of the worker. We need to take this weekend and focus on those who do work hard and do provide a benefit to the community from whence they came.
Men like Michael Anderson, who went from manager to owner of Chez Jay, deserve our admiration and support. He’s an old-school, hard-working man who runs his business to provide for his staff and his family.
I walked into Chez Jay this past Sunday as the sun was setting on the Pacific Ocean. The sunlight was streaming into the darkened room through the port holes on the north side of the bar. As my eyes adjusted, I realized the light was hitting a young man who had the raccoon eyes of someone who spent the day at the beach and was there for some cocktails and dinner. When I looked around the room there were couples and families occupying the tables and booths, which are covered in red-and-white checkered linen. The warm glow of the Christmas lights makes everyone look tan and healthy. It’s been that way for decades. The room has hosted the rich and famous, and a few infamous people, too.
Chez Jay has outlasted many a fancier, trendier restaurant; places like Romanoff’s and Chasen’s have all fallen away while Chez Jay keeps plugging along. Perhaps it’s the peanut shells on the floor that make it seem so cordial. Or maybe the red-and-white awning over the bar that makes you feel like you’re sitting under a flag that brings out sentimentality and patriotism. While I was there, a Bruce Springsteen song came on, and the father at the table behind me began explaining to his son and daughter who Springsteen was. It was one of those teachable family moments that make Chez Jay feel more like your friend’s kitchen than a restaurant.
In the corner big booth was a family with four generations of Chez Jay customers in it, the youngest being about 8 months old. As I looked around the room I saw young and old couples, in the flush of new love and the warm comfort of old love.
The staff at Chez Jay is really more like a family, and when you know that the saucier has been making the same sauces for the past 44 years there, you can understand why. With that level of staff loyalty and stability, you get a quality of service that will not be equaled.
Of course a restaurant is really only as good as its food. I had a rib-eye with a sun-dried tomato and Roquefort butter that was perfection. The char on the outside was crunchy and the meat was cooked to exactly the medium rare I ordered.
I say all this because on Sept. 10 the Landmarks Commission will be deciding whether or not to grant Chez Jay landmark protection. The reality is that Chez Jay is deserving of the protection. It’s home to our history, from the giant clam shell on its side that came from the old pier, to the port holes in the wall that sunlight streams through at sunset. This building and the people within it are very much a part of Santa Monica. A history of movie stars and post beach-day dinners; it’s a living monument to the America of yesteryear, and a vivid reminder of what can be. It’s a unique restaurant that offers a glimpse back in time to a softer, gentler, less corporate America.
President Cleveland saw the value in recognizing hard work and honoring it. The Landmarks Commission should follow his lead and make Chez Jay a cultural landmark and move to protect it. On Sept. 10 you can voice your opinion, or e-mail Commission Chair Ruth Shari beforehand at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Pisarra is a divorce lawyer specializing in father’s and men’s rights with the Santa Monica firm of Pisarra & Grist. He welcomes your questions and comments. He can be reached email@example.com or (310) 664-9969.