From the lively, ten-table dining room at Chez Jay, Chris Anderson has watched restaurants in the buildings that have sprung up around his father’s iconic bar and restaurant during Santa Monica’s development boom struggle to build a clientele.
A cafe was the first to land in the two developments along Ocean Avenue after they opened in 2014. Then, a fine dining restaurant. A vegan eatery set up shop. A casual Sicilian restaurant moved in. All eventually closed.
It’s unlikely that the patrons at Chez Jay noticed. They come in droves for the old Santa Monica, embodied in a restaurant and dive bar that still serves the same in-shell peanuts the Rat Pack snacked on and had seen only one change in ownership since it opened in 1959. Anderson’s father, Mike, took over Chez Jay in 2000 when founder Jay Fionella retired.
His father made sure the restaurant honored that history. Regulars have absorbed a canon of Chez Jay stories: an Apollo 14 astronaut took one of those peanuts to the moon, Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards had their first date there and Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote screenplays in the dining room’s cherry-red booths.
While the restaurant has a reputation as a paparazzi-free getaway for the stars, it’s also a place for locals from different walks of life to rub elbows. When people are waiting to be seated at Chez Jay, they often decide to join someone’s table and start talking, Anderson said. He doesn’t see that happen at other restaurants.
“My dad always taught me that most restaurants have great food, but what was super important was to lock down a great concept, because a patron will remember the laughing and the joking and the specialness of a restaurant over the food,” Anderson said. “You’ve obviously got to have good food, but if you walk into a place and it feels magical, most people remember that more.”
It’s harder to feel that same magic in a new restaurant, Anderson said.
“You can’t just build history,” he said.
Anderson is gradually filling his father’s shoes, and he isn’t planning to make big changes to the formula anytime soon. He never wants the Chez Jay experience to feel formulaic, though.
“I don’t want the script here,” he said. “And what I mean by the script is this: If you go to a restaurant, you say hi to the maitre d’, you sit down, you order and then you leave. I want some personality in there. I want you to feel part of the establishment, that you know the person behind the bar and they know you.”
As Anderson takes over the bar and restaurant, he wants patrons to continue to feel they are walking into a time capsule. Chez Jay will still play the Four Tops and the Temptations, maintain a no photography rule and serve its famous butter steaks.
While it isn’t immediately clear how a 1960s time capsule will invite new visitors who only know the decade from history class, Anderson believes the restaurant will draw younger patrons in search of authenticity.
“The world is changing so much around us, but once you walk through those Dutch doors in the front, you can leave that all behind for as long as you want to be in our establishment,” he said. “You can go in there and you’ll barely see people on their phones. That’s what I love about it.”
Anderson has started an Instagram for Chez Jay since he returned to Santa Monica about a year and a half ago, however.
He doesn’t take many photos of the bar and dining room, but he does use it to keep patrons abreast of special events, like a car meet he hosted last summer. He’ll use it to invite fans to Chez Jay’s 60th anniversary in July. Hopefully, he said, a new open-air patio at the back of the restaurant will be open by then, and diners can expect a slightly tweaked menu.
Those are small changes, however. In a city with new buildings and businesses springing up left, right and center, people will always be able to find a piece of local history at Chez Jay, Anderson said.
“The development here is great, it’s bringing new people in to experience Santa Monica and new stories get to be told,” he said. “But it’s very important that we keep some Santa Monica history so people can enjoy that, too.”