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Harry Lewis dies at 93; launched Hamburger Hamlet chain

Los Angeles restaurateur and former actor Harry Lewis helped usher in the concept of the 'gourmet burger.'

June 10, 2013|By Rene Lynch, Los Angeles Times
  • Harry Lewis, founder and president of Hamburger Hamlet, in front of his Brentwood location in 1987.
Harry Lewis, founder and president of Hamburger Hamlet, in front of his… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

As an actor, Harry Lewis took second billing to the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, most notably in the 1948 film noir "Key Largo."

But he found his own starring role as a Los Angeles restaurateur who helped usher in the concept of the "gourmet burger" when he launched the ground-breaking Hamburger Hamlet restaurant chain, among others.

Hamburger Hamlet — named after one of the signature items on the menu, as well as the role that beckons to actors of stage and film alike — became that rare high-low hit.

Among the restaurant's regulars: Ronald Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor, Sammy Davis Jr. and Tony Curtis — all Lewis' buddies from the film business. But it was also a place for Los Angeles families looking for a night out that included milkshakes. The New York Times once dubbed it "democratic dining."

Hamburger Hamlet's ability to duplicate the dining experience from one restaurant to the next, from Los Angeles to Chicago and Washington, D.C., helped pave the way for similar concept restaurants that would follow, such as California Pizza Kitchen and Cheesecake Factory.

Lewis, 93, died Sunday at a convalescent home in Beverly Hills, where he had lived for the last two years. He had sold off the Hamburger Hamlet empire in the late 1980s and was disappointed at how its profile had fallen over the years. In its heyday, there were 24 outlets nationwide. Today, there are five, according to the company website.

"Like so many restaurateurs, Harry understood that the restaurant business is also the entertainment business," said Jot Condie, president and chief executive of the California Restaurant Assn. "His legacy will endure."

Born in 1920 on Wilton Place in Hollywood, Lewis enlisted in the U.S. Army as a teenager, and got his first taste at acting in a World War II morale-boosting production called "Winged Victory," according to a family representative. After leaving the service, Lewis worked steadily as a contract actor for Warner Bros. in the 1940s. He had long dreamed of owning his own hamburger joint, but it wasn't until he partnered with a woman named Marilyn Friedman who had style and creative energy to spare that the dream took off.

On their first date, Lewis shared his vision for a place that served distinctive hamburgers and other homey fare. That night, the couple began scouting possible locations. The two launched their first restaurant on the corner of Hilldale Avenue and Sunset Boulevard in 1950 before they were even married.

It was an instant hit.

It was known for customized burgers with audacious toppings long before that became the trendy thing to do, as well as an eclectic mix of comfort food reflecting the couple's likes and travels. Essentially, they were serving food that they themselves would enjoy eating.

The red leather booths, chandeliers and movie memorabilia that lined the walls gave little hint to the chaos that was often unfolding in the kitchen. Neither Harry nor Marilyn had much cooking experience. Marilyn, for one, joked that she could barely boil water.

But somehow, they made it work and grew into dual roles: Harry was all about the day-to-day operations, and being the face of Hamburger Hamlet. Marilyn was big picture. Expanding the empire, developing recipes, writing company policy.

Lewis' son Adam on Monday recalled how his father could cook 30 hamburgers on the grill at once "all to order." He said his father was compulsively driven by attention to detail. Waiters and managers were taught to walk through the restaurants while performing a 180-degree visual sweep, looking for anything amiss.

"He didn't have any hobbies. He went to work — that was his hobby.... I bet you he is the only guy who, when he got to the pearly gates, said: 'I wish I spent more time at the restaurant,' " Adam Lewis said.

Harry and Marilyn Lewis sold the chain for about $30 million.

Lewis and his wife opened several other restaurants, including Kate Mantilini in Beverly Hills. It became the backdrop for a scene in 1995's "Heat," when Robert De Niro and Al Pacino shared the movie screen for the first time.

Harry and Marilyn Lewis turned the reins of Kate Mantilini over to their sons in 2009. Their colorful relationship provided much fodder for Marilyn's memoir, "Marilyn, Are You Sure You Can Cook? He Asked." The title referred to Harry's brief skepticism before the couple signed the paperwork for the first restaurant.

Besides his wife, Lewis is survived by their sons Adam and David and five grandchildren.

Services are pending.

rene.lynch@latimes.com

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