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The Sunset Grill Is A Place To Sing About

January 02, 1986|CHRIS WILLMAN

What's a poor tourist to do when it comes to Hollywood restaurant-hopping these days?

The Brown Derby has long since vanished into history. Ma Maison is gone, at least temporarily.

But another hot spot has stepped in as the new place to grab a meal and peek past the ketchup bottle for stars . . . down at the Sunset Grill .

No need to worry about competing with high-powered producers and winsome starlets for reservations, though. Your clout is as good as anyone else's at the mom-and-pop burger stand that even its owner, Joe Frolich, describes as "a hole in the wall"--a place where celebrities and street people share the same stools.

The Sunset Grill hardly seems the stuff of legend, with its meager capacity of under two dozen and its close-up, streetside view of Sunset Boulevard's basket people and working girls. But ever since frequent customer Don Henley saw fit to immortalize it in "Sunset Grill," one of the past year's most popular rock songs, the Grill--located at 7439 Sunset Blvd.--has become very in .

"When they see the place, a lot of people are kind of disappointed, you know?" said songwriter Henley, chuckling. "I guess they're expecting more of a diner thing, with some neon. I took (bassist) Pino Palladino by there and he took one look at the place and said, 'All those chords just for that? ' "

Palladino isn't the only one to wonder how such a humble place could inspire such a grand song. It's also a mystery to Joe Frolich, the "old man from the Old World" described in the song's first verse.

Frolich, who was born in Vienna and came to Hollywood to take over the operation of the grill in 1957, refused to believe it when customers first started telling him that he and his restaurant were being sung about on the radio.

"I was surprised because we had no contact with Don Henley," recalled the heavily accented Frolich, closing up after a typical 11-hour day of flipping burgers. "I didn't know Don Henley's name before. I personally am not into rock. My wife and I are conservative and we like classical music."

Joe's wife, Eva, finally recognized Henley at the Grill one day, well after the song had been released as part of his "Building the Perfect Beast" album. By that time, tourists had already started gawking and taking snapshots. Rolls-Royces were beginning to pull up alongside beat-up Chevys.

Most confusingly to Joe, first-time customers were apt to ask for a beer (the song's last verse made a reference to ordering one there) when in fact all that's available are 18 varieties of soft drinks.

But most of the song--which was a recent Top 30 single--is true.

Henley sings, "These days a man makes you something, and you never see his face But there is no hiding place Down at the Sunset Grill." And sure enough, the grill itself is within a few yards of the sidewalk, and it's an open one--the kind that can't be built anymore due to recent ordinances. Joe can be clearly seen from the street, hard at work all day--one of Hollywood's only truly dependable stars.

Like the Sunset Grill itself, Henley is 38, and, like Joe, he's a non-native who enjoys what California has to offer but has never quite gotten used to it. A Texas emigre, the singer songwriter found fame as a prominent member of the best-selling Eagles, whose songs frequently described the allure and alienation that the West Coast life style holds for outsiders.

"Sunset Grill" is another classic in much the same vein, yet Henley insists the song is an indictment not of Southern California, but of urban sprawl and the changing nature of American cityscapes.

"It's just the disappearance of a certain way of life and of doing business and of people relating to each other on a one-to-one, personal level," he said. "It's about living in a world of corporations and franchises. The small shopkeeper in the city is being put out of business.

"To me, Joe simply symbolizes one of the last outposts or vestiges of the mom-and-pop business operation . . . the family-owned and -operated business. And the really sad thing is that the generations of kids who were born in the past 10 or 20 years don't know the difference. People accept Wendy's."

Last year, the Sunset Grill was put up for sale and Joe--who had leased the property since 1957--was faced with a choice: spend his savings and buy it, or retire. Not working was never a consideration, and he knew that starting a new business from scratch is a younger person's endeavor. So, despite a 3-year-old knee injury that makes it hard for him to be on his feet all day, Frolich sold his investment property to buy the lot.

"I didn't buy it to make money, I just bought it so I could stay here," he said, emphatically. "I've been here 25 years and never a dog day--always something going on. And I like it open, with the people. If I opened a place like this now, I'd have to put up a little window and that would make it entirely different.

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