A bar with twelve barstools, a clutch of 4-top tables, and a handful of vinyl upholstered booths crowd the narrow restaurant, which sports red-checkered tablecloths, a tangled skein of Christmas lights, quasi nautical decor and red-striped awnings that - if you know Chez Jay, you realize - are made of canvas salvaged from old hot-air balloons. The floor is littered with peanut shells and sawdust, the beer is cold and the martinis are perfect.
I heard a gravelly voice asking me if the parking lot was available for rent a couple of Sundays from now.
It was Jay Fiondella. He said his birthday was coming up, and he needed a large space to lay out his hot-air balloon so he could make a birthday flight. He was very persuasive, almost wooing, but being new on the job, unsure of myself, and afraid of getting in trouble, I turned him down - I didn't know whether renting the parking lot for a hot-air balloon launch was something we could even do. At the end of the call, he invited me to come to his restaurant anytime I wanted to.
I've been to Chez Jay several times since, but I never met Jay face to face. He died in 2008, at the age of 82.
Jay was an adventurer. He was a balloonist, a treasure hunter, a deep-sea diver and amateur archeologist. Also a Hollywood stunt man, he bought a little dive on Ocean Avenue in 1959, which became a hang out to the celebrated and notorious. Frank Sinatra. Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson. Sean Penn. Henry Kissinger. Beach bums, astronauts, surfers, yacht captains and CIA moles. It's said that the Pentagon Papers were passed from Daniel Ellsberg to a New York Times reporter under the table at booth 10 in the back.
Chez Jay is the kind of place you'd expect to see Travis McGee or Robert Parker's Spenser hunched on the vinyl banquette of a booth, chowing down on a New York Strip steak and a baked potato. You can get surf-and-turf, chicken marsala, or fried shrimp. The bar is always full of regulars. When you walk in out of the sea breeze and sun and traffic, you feel like it's been there forever and will always be there.
But now Chez Jay's future is in peril.
The property is owned by the City of Santa Monica, and as the city develops the area according to a 2005 plan, it has converted Chez Jay's long-term lease to a monthly one, while construction proceeds on a park that surrounds the property. The city will require Chez Jay to compete through the bid process for what the city describes as "complementary with the design and activity program for the park" - meaning outdoor patios and an entirely different vibe.
Chez Jay plans to bid on the property, and has hired a consultant to help them. But even if they are awarded the lease, it will represent a drastic change for the eatery. Longtime Santa Monica residents are already mourning the passing of a cultural landmark - an unofficial one, since the Landmarks Commission has not concerned itself with the endorsement of a seaside dive.
If you're in the Los Angeles area, come to Chez Jay's for a cocktail and some peanuts. It may not be around much longer. They don't make 'em like this anymore.