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Chez Jay's Future Uncertain in a Redeveloped Santa Monica  


By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

May 2, 2012 -- In a city that prides itself on its beach culture, one of the iconic structures from Santa Monica's days as a carefree seaside getaway may no longer fit in.

The small, sea-green and blue building with its mural depicting the bottom of the sea that has been home to Chez Jay's, a local watering hole for 53 years, could be completely remodeled or replaced under the 2005 Civic Center Specific Plan.

Chez Jay's (Pictures by Jason Islas)

The stucco building with is neon "Cocktails" sign sits at the edge of the proposed Palisades Garden Walk, which promises a design that celebrates the beach city's prosperity with welcoming open spaces and deliberately meandering pathways lined with carefully-selected foliage.

The bar and restaurant, which was established in 1959 by Jay Fiondella, an actor, hot-air balloonist, treasure-hunter, and friend to many, “does not adhere to the standards of the (Civic Center) specific plan,” said Elsa Trujillo, a senior development analyst.

The plan, which includes the Civic Auditorium, Colorado Avenue, City Hall, and The Village -- a $350-million, 3.7-acre complex with 318 residential units that broke ground in February -- has been designed to revitalize the area south of the newly remodeled Santa Monica Place.

But the dimly lit space with wood-paneled walls and sawdust and peanut shells on the floor, doesn't fit in with City officials' views of a bright, new future for the area.

As a result, the kitschy, nautical-themed bar will have to be redesigned to “compliment the park,” according to Trujillo.

As part of the plan, the City wants a restaurant that is “complementary with the design and activity program for the park,” including an outdoor dining place that will connect with the park, according to the Civic Center Specific Plan.

The owners of Chez Jay's will have to submit a proposal along with any others interested in the City-owned site, since the City is legally required to review all applicants.

"The design of all buildings within the district shall appear as pavilion-like structures that allow for a generous flow of activities from interior to exterior spaces," the plan states. "The use of verandas, terraces, patios and other such intermediary spaces is encouraged."

The current Chez Jay's fits none of these criteria.

The walls of the tiny, dimly-lit room – there are about a dozen checkered-cloth-covered tables and another dozen seats at the bar – is covered with pictures of its former patrons, including Jay's pal Frank Sinatra, a regular.

The place also has a storied past. Daniel Ellsberg, the former RAND Corporation researcher, reportedly leaked the Pentagon Papers to a New York Times reporter in the back booth. Henry Kissinger also reportedly preferred the isolated back room of the restaurant called “Table 10.”

Over the bar sits an antique diver's helmet and a piece of driftwood Fiondella got from the wreck of the S.S. Andrea Doria after helping with the salvage effort, one longtime patron said.

Chez Jay's also is reportedly home to the astro-nut, the peanut allegedly taken to the moon by Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard, who used to eat at the restaurant when he worked for a NASA facility nearby.

Nancy, who has been getting lunch at Chez Jay's for 12 years, prefers the place over most other restaurants in the city because “it has a feel,” she said while sipping her coffee at the bar.

Perhaps that feel comes from the Christmas lights that always decorate the dark wood paneling over the booths in the back of the room, and the numerous framed accolades Chez Jay's has received in the 53 years it's served patrons, famous and otherwise.

Or perhaps it's because the building oozes the personality of its founder, who passed away in November 2008 at the age of 82.

Nancy recalled the first time she came into Chez Jay's and sat at the bar, eating peanuts while carefully collecting the discarded shells next to her. Fiondella came up to her, she said, smiled and swept her pile off the bar onto the floor.

She's been throwing them there ever since. And she keeps coming back because, she said, even though she seldom orders alcohol and often eats alone, she's never felt rushed.

Mike, a yacht captain who took up a perch at other end of the bar, agreed, saying he comes to Chez Jay's whenever he's in town.

Now, Chez Jay's may be soon be gone.


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