Memories of HAMBURGER HAMLET
I’m still in deep mourning over the loss of the Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset Strip. It closed its doors on December 17, 2011. I was one of the last loyal customers to walk out of those neighborhood doors that night, right alongside Nancy Sinatra and Rip Taylor.
It was like leaving our neighborhood Regal Beagle.
Speaking of ‘comfort’, let’s get to the food. I had never had a bad meal or lousy service. The legendary menu pleads, “Eat the sides I pray you.” The fried zucchini plate with that tangy dipping sauce was referred to as “zircles,” the hash browns filled with lavish sour cream were called, “Those Potatoes,” and the signature “Marilyn Burger” was named after Marilyn owner Marilyn Lewis (not Marilyn Monroe). Their Lobster Bisque was actually known around the world.
Photo by Alison Martino
According to Adam Lewis, the idea of operating a restaurant for actors made a lot of sense to Harry. “When he met my mother, she drove that idea to reality,” he says. They spent their first date looking for a location. Marilyn was as progressive as they come, so even during the segregated 1950s and 1960s, she always hired a staff of every race and nationality imaginable. Director John Landis spoke on a recent podcast about getting a job as a teenager at the Hamlet and being the only caucasian on staff.
"The whole place was like somebody's den in an Eastern town. It was so comfortable and warm," recalls Lewis in Executive Magazine in 1985. She worked at the counter, cooked complicated dishes and delivered the food to customers, while her husband Harry broiled burgers, greeted people and handled the cash register.
The eatery opened in 1950 on Sunset Strip. It offered an elevated diner menu and unpretentious seating — relatively unheard of in the city at the time — and quickly became a local institution, beloved by throngs of teenagers and Warren Beatty alike. The Hamlet would go on to become a chain with more than a dozen locations in Los Angeles and the Lewises; fashionable fixtures on the scene.
Other movie star regulars included Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, Sammy Davis Jr. - who from time to time, performed soft-shoe routines atop the counter - Debbie Reynolds, Lana Turner, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Peter Falk, and Rosemary Clooney.
Marilyn and Sammy
By 1955, the Lewises opened a second location in Westwood. The 50's decor had never been touched until the closed in the early 2000s. The Smithsonian should have saved it and put it on display.
Today that location is a Taco Bell.
The operation expanded during the 1960s, largely the result of popular demand. The Hamlets developed such a quality reputation that land lords and developers began to seek them out.
The family sold the chain in 1987 for $33 million, then went on to open Kate Mantilini in Beverly Hills. James Lauver, who had been a waiter at the Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset since 1977, went on to work at Kate Mantilini when the Hamlet closed in 2011. “The Hamlet was like a country club without the monthly membership,” he remembers. “I waited on everyone from Danny Thomas to Florence Henderson to Mel Brooks.”
Harry Lewis died in 2013. I was very fortunate to attend his memorial service at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was quite appropriate since it was directly next-door to Kate Mantilini. And sadly, the Lewis’s had to shut down Kate Mantilini soon after due to an offensive rent increase. As far as the Sunset Strip location, two restaurants have failed in its place since. I vote for putting it back the way it was for 40 years. Don’t mess with success.
There was one remaining Hamlet in Sherman Oaks ran by Killer Shrimp, but it wasn't the same. They closed in 2017. And there was also the failed location in Larchmont Village that would have been better off in an airport.
Nobody ran them like Marilyn Lewis who had several lives — restaurateur, fashion designer, movie producer — all of which required talent, hard work and extraordinary instinct. I was extremely fortunate to get this picture with her on closing night of Kate Mantilini.
On July 4, 2017 I spent it with three Hamlet legends: the hostess with the most-ess, Frances Davis, actress Carol Cook, (who was at the Hamlet every Sunday night), and star waiter James Lavier. And just like I told you Frances would sometimes do, here she is doing a little dance.
Dwayne Hickman, also known as Dobie Gillis, and his main squeeze strolling past the original Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset Strip between Clark and Hilldale in 1960. MPTV Images
Hamburger Hamlet in its original location on Sunset Strip in 1966. Photo taken by Ed Ruscha for his book EVERY BUILDING ON THE SUNSET STRIP.
These photos can now be viewed on the 12 Sunsets website courtesy of Stamen Designs and Getty
Sharon Tate at the original Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset Strip
Raquel Welch and Rex Reed dancing in front of “Hamburger Hamlet” during the closing credits of the 1969 film, “Myra Breckinridge”
A rare image of Hamburger Hamlet in Westwood Village Photo source: Westwood Historical Society.
Hamburger Hamlet, Mid-Wilshire location. 1970s.
Albert Brooks and Kathryn Harrold at the Hamburger Hamlet location on Beverly Blvd from "Modern Romance"
Hamburger Hamlet on Beverly Blvd. in West Hollywood circa 1978
Stylish Marilyn Lewis on the cover of Executive Magazine
Irving Swifty Lazar's star above one of the booths. They also had one for Dean Marin and Ben Gazzara
Pasadena Hamlet 2012
Alison Martino and host Frances Davis on closing night.
We sadly lost Frances in 2019
Alison and her mother Judi on closing night.
Loved Hamburger Hamlet. Do you remember the Tick Tock restaurant in Hollywood?ReplyDelete
lots of great memories, fun times, and just like that, time moves on.ReplyDelete
Come on Lewis men, please do a pop up somewhere for a few months.ReplyDelete
Anyone remember the little filet mignon bbq burgers cooked on the grill as we sat around it!?ReplyDelete
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