For 58 years--an eternity in this town--Chasen's was the quintessence of Hollywood, as sublime as the expensive caviar that is on the menu and as low-brow as the world-famous chili that is not.
It was the spot where fans could find President Ronald Reagan with his boiled beef in Booth No. 2. Alfred Hitchcock routinely fell asleep at his table. Humphrey Bogart and his third wife fought raucously at theirs. Howard Hughes once rose from his and asked to use the house phone for a second. He was still gabbing like a wild man at 4 a.m.
There was a time when everyone who was anyone in Hollywood could have been found in one of the deep, dark banquettes at Chasen's, on the dance floor at the Cocoanut Grove, in the foyer of Cafe Trocadero or tucking into a Cobb salad at the Brown Derby. But those were the days when a star was a star and a restaurant was not just a hangout or a plate of food but an establishment in which to see and be seen.
Now, for reasons sociological and otherwise, neither stars nor their backdrops, no matter how dazzling, seem quite what they used to be. And in a city where the bon mot of the moment is, "That is soooo five-minutes-ago," there isn't much room for institutions anymore, either of the human or the brick and mortar variety.
"The idea in Hollywood is to be in the prow," said Neal Gabler, who has written extensively about Tinseltown history. "The idea is to be at that place that is the center of the center. And Chasen's became an anachronism."
Gabler and other historians say the closing this spring of Dave and Maude Chasen's sprawling ersatz chateau will mark the latest--and nearly the last--nail in the coffin for Old Hollywood. Its owners promise that the West Hollywood eatery will someday return, in a new and "streamlined" incarnation, but restaurateurs and other observers of Los Angeles' social culture contend that it is more likely that it will join such bygone glamour spots as Perino's, Romanoff's, Scandia, the Mocambo and the Zebra Room in that big back booth in the sky.
In the time it takes to read this article, the latest Hollywood in-spot will probably be on its way out--part of the inevitable rhythm of doing business in modern Los Angeles. House of Blues, Viper Room and Tatou are at the cutting edge of a subculture that may be more fickle than any in history.
Indeed, in the Los Angeles of the 1990s, today's "institution" is tomorrow's commercial-space-for-lease.
"You have to live with the realization that this town changes a lot," said Jerry Prendergast, general manager of Sanctuary, a currently hip restaurant in Beverly Hills that previously housed the once-hip Cafe Morpheus and before that the also-hip Asylum.
"Everyone comes here to get away from tradition," he said. "I'm surprised that there's actually a Brooks Brothers here."
It was not always this way. There was a time, it seemed, when icons had more than 15 minutes of fame, and a place that could last for 58 years might stand a shot at immortality.
Still, as Chasen's moved past its prime in the late '70s, historian Gabler noted, "the action moved on to Ma Maison, to Spago. To be at Chasen's was to mark yourself as a dinosaur, it was to be in the past with the Brown Derby or Romanoff's. They're all gone now because Hollywood is a place where the object is to be in vogue. . . . Sometime it will be Spago's turn. They all have built-in obsolescence. They are all dependent on being on the very edge."
Gabler, who did research on Chasen's for his 1988 book "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood," said the trend reflects not only the fast-forward nature of '90s L.A., but the evolution of Hollywood stardom.
With the collapse of the tightly controlled studio system, glamour was transferred from a few special settings to a constantly changing cast of individuals, he said. So hot places today do not have to be designed for luxury because the spark comes "from the people who are there, not that notion of the restaurant as stage setting," Gabler said.
Film archivist and historian Marc Wanamaker can rattle off the obituary list of restaurants and nightclubs that once were synonymous with traditional Hollywood glitz. With Chasen's soon to join them, only Musso & Frank on Hollywood Boulevard will remain, he said.
"It represents the typical lack of interest in supporting the old places," Wanamaker said. "The old people are dying off or are not going there anymore. The newer people have no cultural roots here, nothing that relates them to Chasen's or Musso's and they couldn't care less. The crux of the problem is that most people have no cultural or emotional ties to any of these landmarks."
Just last year, another beloved institution--Nickodell Restaurant--was shuttered. The Melrose Avenue eatery had been a hangout for actors and technicians from Paramount Pictures, its next-door neighbor, since the 1920s.