Club sandwich, hold the mayo, side of fries, extra cheese, and a dry martini, shaken not stirred—Judge Bryan Byun's regular order.
"When you're sick, nobody calls you. When you die, everybody comes to the funeral."—Pepe Ruiz, Chasen's bartender
In the wild, if you want to hunt game you go to watering holes. In Hollywood, if you want to hunt celebrities you go to restaurants. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, there wasn't a bigger watering hole in the jungle than Chasen's, the grandpappy of trendy, exclusive showbiz eateries. Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, and Humphrey Bogart were just a few of the regulars of this Beverly Hills restaurant; but by 1995, Chasen's was long out of fashion, consigned to a dusty corner of history as Hollywood's elite flitted off to hipper and trendier scenes. Today, the façade is all that remains; inside, it's a grocery store. Chasen's itself lives on only as a brand of canned chili.
Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's, a 1997 documentary directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor), is an elegiac record of the restaurant's passing, weaving film clips of better days, when the dining Mecca was frequented by the A-list of the A-list, with behind-the-scenes footage of its final week, when the luminaries who'd long forgotten Chasen's came flocking back for a taste of lost glamour. As might be expected, Off the Menu comes soaked with nostalgia for Old Hollywood, with a dash of bitterness at the former hot spot's lonely decline. As one interviewee notes, if everyone who scrabbled so desperately for a table for its farewell had patronized the restaurant in its fading years, Chasen's would never have had to close its doors.
Facts of the Case
If you've seen archival footage from the 1940s through the 1960s of Hollywood celebrities out on the town, it's more than likely that you've seen Chasen's. During its heyday, just about every movie star, TV star, and head of state (including the Pope) whose name you'd recognize walked through its doors at one time or another. Ronald Reagan proposed to Nancy there; Liz Taylor had ten quarts of Chasen's famed chili sent to her on the set of Cleopatra. Off the Menu is full of such anecdotes, offering glimpses of the lives of the rich and famous from the perspective of those who served them.
Most of the documentary is devoted to footage of and interviews with the Chasen's staff, many of whom worked there for decades and whose loyalty and devotion to the restaurant border on the fanatic. We meet such Chasen's fixtures as über-waiter Tommy Gallagher, legendary for his uninhibited schmoozing (he was perhaps the only waiter who called Sinatra "Frank"); Raymond Bilbool, the fussy, unbelievably bitchy banquet staff manager; and Pepe Ruiz, the bartender, whose signature Flame of Love cocktail (a concoction so elaborate in its creation that the drink itself is beside the point) was beloved of Ed McMahon. Also included are present-day and archival interviews with celebrities and Hollywood power players who fondly reminisce about the glory days of Chasen's and mourn its passing. ("It's over twenty years old—tear it down!" Jay Leno quips ruefully.)
Between the cracks of this unabashed wallow in Old Hollywood nostalgia, though, we catch a few glimpses of the darker side of Chasen's and the star worship it represents. Starstruck Tommy Gallagher, who was there from the early years and worked 16-hour days until forced by illness to retire, made Chasen's his life, but at the expense of his relationship with his son, whose fond remembrance of his father (who died not long after the restaurant's closing) is tinged with more than a little resentment. The mostly Hispanic kitchen staff was kept out of sight and rarely allowed to even enter the dining room, let alone rise above menial positions. And there is of course the underlying theme of the cult of celebrity and the eagerness of people to debase themselves for the privilege of basking in reflected glamour. Such difficult questions are relegated to occasional moments, however, as Off the Menu isn't so much a probing examination of Chasen's, as it is an affectionate, bittersweet farewell to an era and a culture that has long passed.
Sinatra. Liz. Garbo. Bogie. These names evoke a dreamy-eyed reverie in many a fan of Hollywood's Golden Age, and it's this audience for whom Off the Menu will have the most appeal and relevance. Berman and Pulcini take starstruck nostalgia as a given, and the whole of their narrative is based upon that assumption. If you're not already the kind of person who reads People and Us Weekly for the paparazzi shots (or, like yours truly, guiltily leafs through them in the supermarket checkout lane), you may wonder why a restaurant closing should warrant a feature-length documentary.
That said, one of the revelations of Off the Menu is just how intimately entwined the restaurant was with LA showbiz mythology; if Beverly Hills was the Mount Olympus upon which the gods of Hollywood resided, then Chasen's was their dining room. More than an eatery, Chasen's was a second stage in the theater of celebrity, a place to see and be seen; it was a gauge of status and a cathedral of fame where star power was affirmed and worshipped. Before seeing this documentary I had heard of Chasen's, but only peripherally, as a throwaway reference in Hollywood history books. In Off the Menu, the background becomes the foreground, and we see the machinery behind the curtain, the invisible army that catered to the whims of Hollywood's pampered royalty.
As such, Off the Menu is a fascinating document of the passing of a largely unsung legend. It's not the detailed history that cinephiles might hope for, and its scattershot, rambling approach doesn't truly do justice to its subject. But what it lacks in focus, the documentary makes up for in atmosphere; watching Off the Menu, you feel as if you're sitting in one of Chasen's plush leather booths, watching your waiter cook up a hobo steak tableside while you nurse a martini and scan the darkened dining room for famous faces. If you've ever been to one of those old-school LA restaurants, like Trader Vic's or the Brown Derby—the kind with autographed photos of Dean Martin and Don Rickles lining the walls, and menus upon which the words "organic" and "vegetarian" have never been printed—then you'll settle gratefully into Off the Menu's warm bath of nostalgia. If nothing else, you'll want to hear the story of the time an enraged Orson Welles flung a lit can of Sterno at John Houseman's head.
Docurama brings Off the Menu to DVD in a single-disc, full-frame transfer. Combining archival clips and footage newly shot on 16mm film stock, the video quality is only so-so, but the dated look of the film is intentional, the grainy image perfectly evoking the slightly cheesy feel of a vintage documentary. If not for the presence of latter-day celebs like Quentin Tarantino and Samuel Jackson, you'd think the film was made in 1977, not 1997. Audio is similarly unremarkable, but the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is adequate to the material.
An audio commentary featuring Berman, Pulcini, and Raymond Bilbool is the highlight of the extras, and demonstrates why the DVD format is so perfectly suited to documentaries; the trio provide a wealth of information, including making-of details, anecdotes and updates, that constitute a valuable supplement to the main feature. Berman and Pulcini clearly had a good time (perhaps too good, judging by Pulcini's jokes about being bombed during much of the final night's filming) making this film, and the wonderfully catty Bilbool, who's like a cross between Tony Randall and Basil Fawlty, is never less than entertaining, though I wouldn't work for the man for any amount of money.
Also included on the disc are filmmaker bios, a photo gallery, and recipes for Chasen's signature dishes, chili and hobo steak. All in all, it's a decent set of extras, but this is the kind of DVD that would have benefited enormously from more behind-the-scenes material or deleted scenes, or more detailed information about the restaurant's colorful history. There are just enough glimpses in the film of the closing night festivities to make one wish for a collection of unedited footage.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you're looking for a penetrating discussion of Hollywood culture and the cult of celebrity, or a definitive document of Chasen's rich, six-decade history, you won't find it here. Off the Menu is thoroughly entertaining, but ultimately too sentimental and one-sided to be an objective portrait of the restaurant or the people who frequented it. There's a less pleasant side to the Chasen's story that Berman and Pulcini tend to gloss over in their starstruck excitement over such spectacles as Rod Steiger's eating habits.
For example, a significant portion of the documentary is devoted to celebrating Tommy Gallagher's relentless and ultimately pathetic star-chasing, and as absurdly humorous as that may be (a highlight of the film is a montage of photographs of Tommy posing with celebrities, including several ex-presidents, that's like something out of Forrest Gump), there's something not so funny about a man who ignores his wife and children to spend his life fawning over movie stars who likely never gave him much notice beyond a gratuity.
Then there's the issue of Chasen's itself, and the exclusionary elitism it represented. At one point in the film we're told that diners would occasionally be rousted from their table if a more "important" person showed up; it's a sobering reminder that most of the charm and devoted service of Chasen's was reserved for a select few. Like a courtier without a king, Chasen's withered and died when Hollywood's attention drifted to newer, trendier spots like Spago, and it's worth wondering if the death of Chasen's wasn't due so much to the fickleness of celebrity eating habits as its total dependence on that favor. It's just one of the tougher issues that Berman and Pulcini never explore, to the detriment of the film.
Off the Menu also suffers from inconsistent narrative focus, too often becoming mired in interesting but pointless tangents that distract from the main story. A lengthy anecdote about a movie studio ghost may be fascinating by itself, but does it really belong in this film, and at the expense of more relevant material? As fun as Off the Menu is to watch, one is left with a slightly off aftertaste. Like the restaurant itself, the film is suffused with glamour but lacking in substance. At times it feels more like a commissioned vanity project than an independent documentary. Berman and Pulcini have obviously come to praise Chasen's, not bury it.
Poignant and bittersweet, Off the Menu offers a lighthearted—and ultimately lightweight—look back at the passing of a Hollywood institution. Those nostalgic for the Golden Age of LA and the dream factory will enjoy this sentimental elegy to bygone days and mourn their loss along with the filmmakers, but others may wonder what all the fuss is about.
The court finds Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's not g—oh my God, is that Merv Griffin? I'm sorry, where was I? Oh yes: not guilty.
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