It’s rare to find a community establishment as peppered with celebrity lore and surrounded by as die-hard a local following as Chez Jay.
Rarer still is a six-decade family-owned restaurant standing in a town often criticized for favoring development over authenticity and where small businesses were among the nation’s hardest hit by the pandemic.
Yet in a year that saw the wiping out of many multigenerational eateries — the Vienna Pastry Shop, Enterprise Fish Co, and Pacific Dining Car to name a few — Chez Jay remained steadfast. And, as the threat of the pandemic recedes, Owner Chris Anderson stands at the helm ready to steer the storied dive-bar-meets-celebrity-hideaway-meets-local-hangout into the next chapter of history.
Covid was not the first storm lobbed at the beachcomber bistro by the tides of time. It has weathered numerous financial crises, navigated shifts of management, and overcome threats to its highly coveted lease.
Still, the pandemic was no easy ride as Chez Jay’s is a business centered on atmosphere, on the cracking of peanut shells, the dim glow of rainbow string lights, soft cushion of its cherry red booths, and the steady hum of the Temptations or other groovy tunes playing in the background.
It’s also an experience precipitated on the ability for patrons to lean over the hardwood bar and have the bartender recount a tale from the Chez Jay canon while fixing them a Jays Mai Tai.
There are many stories for customers to absorb. From the famed peanut that Alan Shepard took to the moon, and that Steve McQueen later threatened to swallow, to the curtained off table 10 where Daniel Ellsberg’s is rumored to have leaked the Pentagon Papers — incidentally, the same table favored by frequent patrons Marilyn Monroe and the Rat Pack.
People certainly come to Chez Jays for the celebrity lore, but they find themselves staying for the friendly staff.
“Creating a relationship past just ordering food is always our focus, it’s important to get to know people’s names,” said Owner Chris Anderson. “We’re able to see a customer who grew up here send their kid through college and when they come back we can ask ‘hey how’s your kid doing’, because we’ve been here long enough.”
This beloved following provided the support necessary for the restaurant to get by with to-go orders, limited capacity, and months of outdoor only dining. However, their survival cannot be chalked up to customer loyalty alone, it is also due to the unwavering devotion of many longtime employees.
Chef Guillermo De Arcos G, known as “Chef Memo”, played a pivotal role in keeping Chez Jay running. His father worked as a cook at Chez Jay back in the seventies and Memo has been in the kitchen since the nineties.
He said he fell in love with the restaurant when he started working there and several years later fell in love with his wife who he met on site. His determination over the past year and a half stems from a promise made a long time ago to Anita, the daughter of original owner Jay Fiondella.
“She asked ‘can you promise me to not close Chez Jays even if it’s the worst case scenario?’ And I made the promise to her,” said Memo. “For a minute I thought we might close, but I always kept my hopes up and after 14 months we are fully open again and it’s amazing.”
Memo is not the only person to have made such a solemn vow. Mike Anderson, who took over ownership from Fiondella in 2000 and then passed it to his son Chris in 2019, exchanged a similar agreement with Fiondella’s mother Alice many years before.
“His mother Alice was precious and I absolutely loved her. She always told me ‘Mike we work too hard, never leave this place, once you leave this place we’re done’. And I told her ‘Alice I will never leave’,” said Mike.
The two men have stayed true to their word and now customers new and old are now flocking back in droves.
“Our whole goal is to create a melting pot,” said Chris. “At any given moment, you’ll see people in their 20s to 70s, from all different kinds of backgrounds, and that’s what we’ve always tried to maintain.”
With brighter days ahead Chris said he is looking forward to cultivating a community space where neighbors can bump elbows with neighbors. The Backyard at Chez Jay’s hosts live local musicians every Wednesday and Saturday night and all Santa Monicans are welcome to swing by.