When Jay Fiondella wandered out to Hollywood from the East Coast in the 1950s, he had his eyes set on becoming a famous actor. Little did he know that he would instead open up and run one of the most iconic and legendary restaurants to ever grace the Los Angeles area, while leading a life bigger and more outrageous than any acting role he could ever have played.
Along the way Jay would become friends with a wildly diverse group of the famous and notorious of the last half of the 20th century; a group that would include Frank Sinatra, Henry Kissinger, Steve McQueen, Buzz Aldrin and the Beach Boys. His exploits would be touted in magazines and on television and he would gain more fame than he ever could have dreamed of as an actor.
The story of Chez Jay is really two stories, one of the restaurant and one of the man and how the distinction between them was often blurred. In the early ‘50s, Jay was working as a bartender at Sinbad’s, a popular, scrappy bar on the Santa Monica Pier, while hustling for acting gigs. Before his shifts he would often have breakfast at a small café located on Ocean Avenue just south of Colorado Avenue. Jay became friendly with the owner, who he learned was having problems keeping the place open. One morning the owner said he had finally had enough and offered the place to Jay for exactly $1.
With little restaurant experience other than that as a bartender, Jay literally leaped at the opportunity and with the help of a friend’s $5,000 investment, took over the flagging establishment. Jay named his new restaurant “Chez Jay,” after “Chez Joey,” a restaurant in the movie “Pal Joey,” whose character was played by Frank Sinatra. In one of many ironic twists in Jay’s life, Sinatra would later become a regular at Chez Jay.
Chez Jay opened on the Fourth of July weekend in 1959. The grand opening was pure Jay Fiondella, complete with vivacious show girls and a rented circus elephant that lumbered up to the bar and chomped on the baskets of free peanuts. The circus elephant made a lasting impression — angrily denting the top of the bar when one of the saucy models tried tempting it with a drink. The bar was never fixed and remains dented even today. This stunt-filled first weekend would set the tone for the restaurant’s unique personality and clientele as it quickly gained a loyal following.
Jay’s first menu consisted of steaks, sandwiches and seafood of unspectacular quality. His first cook had trouble handling his drinks while on shift and occasionally behaved erratically, one night even wrapping his naked body in aluminum foil and running through the restaurant screaming that he was a baked potato. Once Jay changed cooks the food improved dramatically. And from the beginning, Jay placed baskets of dry roasted peanuts on the bar for all his customers to enjoy. The peanut shells were tossed on the floor and Jay usually left them there for a while before he swept them away. These peanuts would later become a part of Chez Jay lore, as one of them made it all the way to the moon stowed away in an astronaut’s film case.
Chez Jay first started attracting celebrities when an agent for a number of British actors began frequenting his place and told his clients Jay’s place reminded him of an old English seaport pub. Soon, Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Peter Sellers were hanging out at Chez Jay and telling their friends about it. It was an unlikely hot spot, with only 10 tables and 12 barstools, dark, worn décor, marginal artwork and peanut shells covering the stained, hardwood floors. It actually more resembled someone’s living room than an eating establishment. But the place was comfortable and at the center of it all was Jay, a charismatic, bombastic force of nature, who told stories and always had a few beautiful ladies vying for his attention. Chez Jay wasn’t just his restaurant, it was his home, an intimate, disheveled place where the famous could do what they wanted without the threat of paparazzi or bad publicity.
By the mid-’60s, Chez Jay had become the place to be for celebrities who appreciated Jay’s refusal to talk to reporters and for his rule forbidding cameras anywhere inside the restaurant. Frank Sinatra often reserved table 10, the private table in the back, for he and his fellow Rat Packers , Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin. Jay would eventually become close to Sinatra, and was often given front row seats to his shows in Las Vegas and be invited backstage afterwards where they would carry on all night.
Lee Marvin, an incorrigible and hard-drinking regular, once barreled in on his motorcycle and downed shots at the bar as he sat on the rumbling bike. One night you might find Jim Morrison, Clint Eastwood, Jim Brown, Jane Fonda or Judy Garland having dinner or squeezing in at the bar for a drink. On another night it might be Don Drysdale, Hugh Hefner, Joe DiMaggio or Cary Grant pushing their way through the restaurant, looking for an open table.
The place was all about Jay. The connector. The promoter. Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, his restaurant was an eclectic mix of Hollywood glamour, sports celebrities, political heavyweights, government intrigue and loose surf culture. During this time Henry Kissinger became a frequent guest and was seen having dinner more than once with Warren Beatty. It has also long been rumored that the notorious Pentagon Papers were leaked to the press at table 10 by Daniel Ellsberg, who at the time was working at nearby RAND Corp.
RAND also played a role in the famous story of the “Astro-Nut.” NASA astronauts, whose mission to the moon would later be chronicled in the Oscar-winning movie “The Right Stuff,” were training at the secretive think tank before embarking on their daring and landmark trip. Once they discovered Chez Jay they became regulars. Unbeknownst to Jay, Alan Shepard smuggled one of his peanuts with him on the space ship and on March 29, 1971, after returning from the moon, Cmdr. Shepard showed up at Chez Jay and presented it to Jay amid great fanfare and publicity. The peanut now was so famous that customers demanded to see it whenever they dropped by. Jay kept it behind the bar until one night when Steve McQueen grabbed the peanut from Jay and tossed it in his mouth, threatening to chomp down on it. After that episode Jay placed the famous nut in a safe deposit box.
A more serious situation developed at Chez Jay when Jay discovered that two scraggly long-haired regulars were not pot-smoking hippies from Laurel Canyon but rather undercover FBI agents. Jay then learned that they were investigating the infamous and violent Weather Underground, a 1970s terrorist group linked to deadly bombings and shootings. The FBI was following a few of the members who had been meeting at Chez Jay and Jay agreed to let the undercover operation continue. In three months several arrests were made, and for his assistance, Jay received a personal thank you note from Clarence Kelley, who at the time was head of the FBI.
Chez Jay was certainly the place where anything could and did happen but it was also the launching pad for Jay’s many schemes and adventures that took place far away from his restaurant. There was Jay, the air ballooner, who appeared in commercials with Nancy Sinatra and on television in an episode of “Fantasy Island” and would later be featured prominently in the show’s opening credits. There was Jay, the treasure hunter, heading off on expeditions in search of the famous shipwreck of the SS Andrea Doria or the “Lost Squadron,” a group of military planes that had disappeared near the Arctic Circle in 1942.
And If you were to turn on your television you might hear Johnny Carson giving away free dinners to Chez Jay or see Jay as a guest on the “Steve Allen Show” or as a contestant on “What’s My line” or “The Dating Game.” Jay was featured in Los Angeles Magazine and The Los Angeles Times for his unique bachelor lifestyle, and Outdoor Life ran an advertisement for Honda where Jay played himself, floating in the sky in his balloon with a Honda motorbike attached to the basket.
Further acknowledging Jay’s unusual notoriety, Cosmopolitan would choose him as their “Bachelor of the Month.” Jay attended the Oscars and Grammys as guests of his famous friends. He also was invited to the Nixon and Reagan inaugurations, and sat on the bench next to hung-over Green Bay Packer great Paul Hornung during the 1967 Super Bowl at the Coliseum after they had spent most the previous night drinking and causing trouble at various night spots. Through his outrageous exploits Jay gained unprecedented notoriety, which only added to Chez Jay’s popularity.
As the venerable and off-beat establishment headed into its fifth decade, Jay was slowing down but Chez Jay was still as alive and vibrant as it was back in the ‘60s. Jay was in his early 80s when he passed away in 2008, and he left behind quite a legacy. He also left Chez Jay, which is now owned and operated by the Fiondella family and Jay’s former business partner, Mike Anderson. Chez Jay remains one of the truly iconic establishments in Los Angeles and is still a popular destination for the famous and the notorious who mix it up with the local beach crowd.
Many are quite sure that Jay’s spirit is sitting on a bar stool right now eating peanuts or nursing a drink at fabled table 10. And though Jay Fiondella never achieved the fame he had sought as an actor, his life was surely a big screen, cinematic masterpiece, where he was its visionary writer, director and star.
Tom is a longtime Santa Monica resident who enjoyed a 10-year career with the Santa Monica Red Cross. Tom currently is a writer and disaster management and recovery expert. Send him some of your favorite pictures of Santa Monica and its landmarks. Maybe he’ll write a story about them. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.