Anita Fiondella Eck, left, and Michael Anderson are two of the three owners… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
Chez Jay, a hole-in-the-wall eatery in Santa Monica, became as legendary as its clientele by serving as a safe haven for the likes of Henry Kissinger, Fred Astaire, John Belushi, Clint Eastwood, Judy Garland and Rat Packers Frank Sinatra and Peter Lawford.
Lee Marvin once rode in on his motorcycle to order a drink at the bar. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg reportedly passed the Pentagon Papers to a New York Times reporter at the restaurant's fabled Table 10.
On Monday night, in recognition of the cozy bar and restaurant's importance to the city's cultural, social and political history, the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission voted unanimously to designate Chez Jay as a local landmark.
The 6-0 vote, with one commissioner absent, is part of a push to save the nautically themed eatery from an uncertain fate as the city redevelops the property around it into a civic park.
City officials had said earlier this year that the current Chez Jay building and its dimly lit, windowless bar would have to be redesigned to be more compatible with the Palisades Garden Walk next door. A plan for the Civic Center area calls for pavilion-like structures that would allow for "a generous flow of activities from interior to exterior spaces."
Ensconced in a narrow building on Ocean Avenue between Colorado Avenue and Pico Boulevard, Chez Jay is famed for its nearly half-century-long association with Jay Fiondella, an actor, hot-air balloonist and raconteur who lured a steady stream of celebrities into his dive bar with the promise that they could feast on moderately priced steaks and seafood without fear of photographers or autograph hounds.
Then, as now, the floor was strewn with peanut shells. Astronaut Alan Shepard, a friend and customer, smuggled a Chez Jay peanut aboard the Apollo 14 lunar mission and presented it to Fiondella upon his return. During that mission, Shepard became the fifth person to walk on the moon. The Fiondella family nicknamed the legume the "Astro-Nut" and stowed it in a safe-deposit box.
Over the course of about three hours Monday night, dozens of patrons spoke in favor of preserving Chez Jay exactly as it is. Among those who sent letters of support for the landmark designation were Renee Zellweger and Kiefer Sutherland.
Chez Jay was managed for many years by Fiondella's mother, Alice. In 1991, at age 89, she was killed by a speeding car while in a crosswalk in front of the restaurant.
Jay Fiondella died in 2008, and the restaurant operation passed to his daughter, Anita Fiondella Eck, his son, Chaz Fiondella, and Michael Anderson, who had been the Fiondella family's business partner in the venture. Fiondella Eck and Anderson spoke at the meeting about Jay Fiondella's connections to show business and Santa Monica history.
Carol Lemlein, president of the Santa Monica Conservancy, said landmark status does not define use of the property and therefore would not ensure that the current operation of Chez Jay would continue. Barring appeals to the Santa Monica City Council, the landmark designation will soon become official.
Fiondella Eck said she and Anderson want to continue operating the popular front part of the restaurant while cooperating on a redesign for the rear of the building that would allow it to serve as a "bridge from the past to the present."
Enthusiastic support for preserving the Chez Jay ambiance was strongly in evidence at the commission meeting. Among those who endured hours of discussion and testimony to lend support was John Savage, who said Chez Jay became "just a favorite meeting ground" when he was a young actor in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "I met a lot of great people — Robert Mitchum, Sean Penn," Savage said. "I have a lot of beautiful memories."