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.
Alison Martino with Nancy Sinatra and Nancy Sr. - Carol Cook sitting behind us
I’m still in deep mourning over the loss of the Sunset Strip location on December 17, 2011. I was there for its last day and plan on saying farewell to the Pasadena location in person on Thursday, too. I feel it’s my duty as an Angeleno because the Hamlet has been such a big part of Los Angeles culture, and since it helped shape my childhood.
Nothing pained me more then saying goodbye to the West Hollywood neighborhood hangout. It was where you bumped into celebrities and industry moguls in a casual environment, dining in darkly lit giant red leather chairs. But there was nothing casual about the clientele. Where else could you see Dean Martin sipping a martini at the bar, Lucille Ball hair spraying her red locks in the ladies room, Bette Davis chain smoking in the Tap Room, or Frank Sinatra taking a meeting with his publicist? I witnessed all of this first hand. Even the restaurant’s hostess, actress and singer Frances Davis, who was once married to Miles Davis, would occasionally burst into song and dance while taking you to your table. I remember Francis and Diahann Carroll discussing chord progressions in the lobby. It was great eavesdropping. For me, it was also a home away from home. At times the Hamlet felt like an extended room of our house. Raised a few blocks away, I had my 10th birthday party in the main dining room, and my high school graduation dinner in the Tap Room. After the sudden passing of my father in 2009, Hamburger Hamlet was the first place my mother and I ran for comfort.
My first sighting of Lucille Ball, and there were many of them, was seeing her walk past our table. I was eight years old and followed her to the ladies room. I found her in the bathroom stall complaining about her pantyhose! When I was 16 years old I was seated directly next to Bette Davis who was telling stories of Old Hollywood to her grandchildren smoking cig after cig. I remember running to the ladies - room once again - to call my mother to tell her. Bette must have gone through a pack hat hour. When I was 22 I witness Frank Sinatra with his then publicist Lee Solters discussing an upcoming concert. Eavesdropping was one of the Hamlet's perks. It was just casual like that and the staff felt comfortable too.
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.
Some may remember the Hamlet’s very first location near the Whisky A GO GO. It was opened by Harry and Marilyn Lewis. Their son Adam tells me, “all people who knew Dad remember him as friendly, loving, and kind, and he was all that.”
Photo by Alison Martino
A contract player for Warner Bros in the 40s, Harry Lewis is best remembered for the movie Key Largo, which he starred in with Humphrey Bogart, Edward G Robinson, Lauren Bacall, and Claire Trevor (who won Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film). The film came out in 1948, but by 1949 the House Committee on Un-American Activities went after the movie business. Fewer films were released during that time, and the era of the studio system with contract players ended. In other words, Lewis could no longer earn a regular weekly paycheck doing what he loved, so he made another plan.
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 original Hamlet opened in October 1950, with a two toned hot plate, two frying pans and a five gallon stewpot for chili.
"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 ever so stylish Marilyn Lewis
Lewis also developed a highly successful clothing line called, "Cardinali" whose pantsuits, ruffles, swishy dresses and jumpsuits evoked a 1960’s career woman, who traded tweed trousers and suit skirts for sultry evening looks come quitting time.Marlow Thomas exclusively wore Carinali dresses on "That Girl". Other faithful customers were Polly Bergen, Nancy Reagan, Eydie Gorme, and Joan Collins.
"That Girl", became the poster child for the brand, and it garnered fans in LA and beyond; all of whom coveted Cardinali’s reworked classics and show stopping use of texture and color.
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.
By 1985 there were 22 Hamlets across the country - 17 in Los Angeles - with five new on the way. Once inside a Hamlet, customers could expect a visual of potpourri: Old theater programs, art nouveau posters and photographs; Picasso reproductions, brass marble cocktail tables, over sized red leather chairs, and hardwood floors and wood paneling.
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
Hamburger Hamlet’s original location. Photo courtesy of Ellen Berman
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
Hamburger Hamlet in Brentwood. 1980s
Hamburger Hamlet co-founders, Harry and Marilyn Lewis at the Century Plaza in 1980.
Stylish Marilyn Lewis on the cover of Executive Magazine
Marilyn worked at the company's headquarters in Sherman Oaks. As president and CEO, she over saw the day to day operations, occasionally donning a chef's hat.
The Tap Room at the Sunset location. Sigh. I can't imagine how many times I sat in this room. I can smell the Zircles just looking at this photo that I captured on closing night. I can still picture Frances taking us to our table.
They should have just left the TAP ROOM as kept it as is rather then turning it into an over priced Chinese Restaurant.
They should have just left the TAP room as is and rented out the other half as a different restaurant.
Irving Swifty Lazar's star above one of the booths. They also had one for Dean Marin and Ben Gazzara
The Beastie Boys at the Sunset Hamlet. Photo by Spike Jones
Dean Martin photo-bombed at the Hamburger Hamlet
A painting of the Hamburger Hamlet. This hung inside the Sherman Oaks location
Menu: “Eat the sides I pray you”
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.
During the summer of 2018, Quentin Tarantino turned the LA streets back to the summer of 1969. His remarkable production team recreated the facade of the Hamburger Hamlet in it's original location in Westwood Village. It felt like a time machine. Today this location is a Taco Bell, but just for a few short days we stepped back in time.
At least I have a a few original matchbooks, menus, ashtrays and a name tag worn by a waitress named Meghan. Along with a blank receipt, a souvenir that hung inside the Beverly Drive location and a HH watch! Some which were generously donated to my Vintage Los Angeles archives