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All's Ok At Chez Jay

October 08, 2000|S. IRENE VIRBILA

WHEN I LIVED IN SAN FRANCISCO, I DEVELOPED a fondness for the scruffy, old-fashioned bar-restaurants of North Beach, South of Market and other neighborhoods. The city's year-round fog and chill made it natural to retreat from the elements into the cozy dark of a Sam's Grill or a Jack's. In Los Angeles, the weather works against the concept: a true joint can't have outdoor tables or serve smoothies and chopped salads. Still, there is at least one genuine article here: Chez Jay in Santa Monica, which celebrated its 41st birthday this year. Not many places in this town can say that.

Look for the modest blue-and-white neon sign, visible through a screen of tattered palms just across from Ocean Avenue's hotel row-- where Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, Shutters on the Beach and the new Casa del Mar and Le Merigot hostelries compete for pampered tourists. Chez Jay sits next to a couple of budget motels. It has a few parking spaces on the side, but they're always taken. Merrymakers spill out onto the sidewalk, moving from outside to inside with the easy aplomb of regulars.

Inside, it's properly dark, and most of the crowd is gathered around a bar with a somewhat nautical theme. A ship's wheel is mounted at the entrance, and multicolored Christmas lights are twined around rolled-up sails overhead. In the gloom, you can just make out the red-and-white checked tablecloths marching down a row of booths. A jukebox in the corner belches out a fabulously eclectic set of tunes, everything from Nat King Cole to Abba. Over the clock, a cocky Sinatra grins from a black-and-white print.

The peanuts served at the bar are irresistible--roasted in the shell and not too salty. Toss the shells over your shoulder; the floor is covered with sawdust. The nuts are sort of famous, too. Alan Shepard, the first American in space, was a regular, says Jay Fiondella, owner of Chez Jay. The night before Shepard left for training, he had dinner at the restaurant. "He told me he was going to take a golf ball and golf club with him. There was a basket of peanuts on the table, and I said, 'Take a peanut to the moon for me. I want to have the first astro-nut,' " Fiondella says. "He stuck it into a pocket and a couple of months later, he called and said, 'I have your nut for you!' " The peanut did go to the moon, and there's a photo to prove it.

Beer and peanuts aren't the only entertainment at Chez Jay. You can also watch the cast of characters who filter into this beach haunt. Everybody is having a rollicking time. It's like an ongoing party with Fiondella, 74, the affable host.

I know people who have been going to Chez Jay for more years than they'd like to count--and food has never passed their lips. Yet this is one joint where you can eat.

First out is one of those old-fashioned relish trays--chilled carrots, celery sticks, radishes and a scattering of California black olives. Next comes a basket of thick-cut garlic bread drenched in butter.

For first courses, there's a basic cheese quesadilla, garnished with sliced avocado, a dab of sour cream and a mild, fresh salsa. Jay's kitchen turns out some decent steamers, too, though the clams are often on the large side. Stuffed mushrooms are modeled after escargots. They even come in one of those indented metal dishes, swimming in garlic herb butter, the better to mop up with bread. And the grilled calamari steak, probably frozen, isn't bad either.

One night, as I'm about to order a steak, I ask Michael Anderson, the longtime, genial manager, what grade the beef is. Choice? He frowns and admits he doesn't know. "If you want someplace famous for steak, go to Ruth's Chris," he tells me. "We serve a good steak, though. I'll ask the chef," he says and disappears. I fully expect him to forget, but he's back with the answer. "The chef says it's choice." He's right. They serve a good, not great, steak.

The best is the steak au poivre, which the waiter will take pains to explain is not the usual peppercorns in a sauce. They're embedded in the surface of the steak, and it's topped with crumbled bacon and onion, which is fine by me. The New York cut is respectable, too, and if you're here, you might as well try the house specialty, steak Fiondella. That's a New York marinated in olive oil and herbs and dusted with bread crumbs. I ask myself: What would Ol' Blue Eyes order? Probably the straight New York cut. Though I like the flavor of the culotte steak, I could do without the thick wine reduction. On special, there's often a nice hunk of prime rib.

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