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SAVING CHEZ JAY : Santa Monica Feathers a New Nest for Popular Restaurant

January 12, 1989|TRACY WILKINSON | Times Staff Writer

Champagne may seem out of place in a joint with sawdust on the floor, but the folks at Chez Jay had something to celebrate Wednesday.

The 30-year-old Ocean Avenue landmark--favorite lunch and dinner spot to a legion of loyal followers--is apparently on the road to being saved.

The Santa Monica City Council late Tuesday cleared the way for owner Jay Fiondella to move his restaurant about six blocks to Main Street. At the same time, the council took the first step toward slapping a temporary moratorium on any additional restaurants on an 11-block stretch of Main from Pico Boulevard to Santa Monica's southern border with Venice.

"I'm really excited and looking forward to moving to Main Street," Fiondella said Wednesday. "The old-timers have been calling all morning."

Indeed, Chez Jay is a place full of old-timers and faithful regulars.

Inside the tiny restaurant--so dark your eyes have to readjust each time you enter or leave--Hollywood writers jostle for a table alongside business-suited lawyers and construction workers in hard hats. Legends and lore abound; many of the same patrons have been eating Chez Jay's thick hamburgers and seafood salad for years.

But the site at 1657 Ocean Ave. that the restaurant has occupied since 1959 belongs to the RAND Corp., and the think tank wants the land back to build additional offices or a parking lot.

Fiondella had hoped to be able to relocate to a parcel he owns in the 2500 block of Main Street, between Ocean Park Boulevard and Hollister Avenue. With developer Al Ehringer, he recently put a 10,000-square-foot building on the site.

But a special Main Street Plan--development guidelines adopted into law nearly nine years ago to check growth in the trendy area--allows only four restaurants on the block. And there are already four operating or with permission to operate on the block.

So Fiondella last year asked the City Council to amend the Main Street Plan to allow him to open a fifth restaurant on the block. And with a 4-2 vote, the council late Tuesday directed the city attorney to draw up an ordinance granting the amendment.

"If this were a developer coming from out of town, I don't think anyone here (on the council) would consider altering the Main Street Plan," said Councilman Herb Katz, who voted to approve Fiondella's request.

"But I get the sense that it's because it's Jay and his restaurant . . . and it's the community taking care of its own."

The council did tack on additional provisions. The final ordinance still must be approved by the Planning Commission and the council.

Following recommendations from neighborhood groups, the council agreed to open a full community review of the Main Street Plan, aimed at strengthening its restrictions. The review is to be completed by the end of the year.

Nibbling at Plan

The Ocean Park Community Organization had complained that the city was steadily nibbling away at the Main Street Plan, amending it four times in just two years.

The dissenting votes came from new council members Ken Genser and Judy Abdo, who praised Fiondella's restaurant but said they could not go along with amending a plan that an entire community had worked hard to draft.

Fiondella still has a long way to go before he can relocate. He must submit full plans to the city for approval and will be required to provide about 20 on-site parking spaces.

Fiondella says the parking requirement may prove difficult during the day because he will share the building and its parking area with other tenants. He may end up opening for dinner only.

Regardless of how the details are finally worked out, Fiondella and his fans welcomed the news.

Outlined Plans

In between greeting customers during the lunch rush earlier this week, as Frank Sinatra crooned "The Lady Is a Tramp" from a jukebox in the corner, Fiondella, 62, outlined his plans for the new restaurant.

The new address is more upscale than the somewhat tawdry but changing stretch of Ocean Avenue where Chez Jay sits now. But though the new building is fancier, Fiondella said the restaurant will maintain the same menu and relatively low prices, the same charm and the same small size.

"You'll still be able to throw the peanut shells on the floor," he said.

Currently, Chez Jay has only seven booths and three tables, all covered with red-and-white-checked tablecloths. Model ships, pictures of hot-air balloons and a mounted 45-pound yellowtail said to have been caught by Gen. George S. Patton cover the dark, wood-paneled walls.

In addition to about 20 employees, Fiondella's 28-year-old wife, Lucy, who is expecting a second child, serves as hostess, while his 88-year-old mother, Alice, lends a hand by picking up trash outside or occasionally busing tables.

And, from the look of things, Chez Jay will be able to maintain its following.

Names Remembered

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