Cassell’s may not be completely defunct but its first two outlets certainly are, as are several short-lived “expansion” outlets in the eighties. Once upon a time, its name was the most often-given answer to the eternal question, “Where do you get the best hamburger in Los Angeles?”
Situated in Koreatown and open only for lunch, Cassell’s was the kind of place you took your friends, promising them something very special in a traditional burger. A Cassell’s burger was an expertly-cooked piece of prime U.S.D.A. beef served to you on a rather ordinary bun…and then you could dress it yourself. If you took a bite before condiments, you were impressed with how good the meat itself was. Some hamburgers are great because of the toppings applied to bland chopped meat. But the beef Al Cassell chose to use was the best you could use to make a hamburger and his unique slanted grill simultaneously broiled and fried it while the slant allowed excess grease to roll off. Another secret ingredient was the guy who ran the broiler. He’d cooked enough of them to know exactly the split-second to remove your burger from the fire.
Al Cassell opened Cassell’s Patio in 1948. He was said to be obsessive about quality, hollering at his suppliers if they didn’t deliver him the best lemons, the best onions, the best tomatoes. His homemade lemonade was especially exquisite and he was always tasting it himself and adjusting the sugar content. He also made his own mayonnaise on the premises…and then there was his potato salad. As good as Al’s hamburgers were, a lot of people thought the star of his limited menu was his unique potato salad.
Up until the mid-eighties, Cassell’s did not offer french fries. After you got your burger, you could help yourself to what he called the buffet. It was more like a topping bar: Ketchup, mustard, onions, his homemade mayo, lettuce, etc. There was cottage cheese and canned pineapple chunks and sometimes, other kinds of canned fruit. Mostly, there was this potato salad that looked like cold mashed potatoes. It was white and full of large chunks of spud, plus there was either a rather potent horseradish or hot mustard. Regular patrons of Cassell’s would argue over which it was and some would swear to have definitive information, sometimes from Mr. Cassell himself. This site declines to take sides in this vicious dispute.
The “hotness” in the potato salad, whatever it was, was hit and miss. You might get a scoop with very little of it. You might get one that would have you spitting flame. Most customers loved it but for those that didn’t want to risk the land mines, Mr. Cassell also provided a big basket of the smallest-sized bag of potato chips. You could grab a few of them and eat chips with your burger. (The potato chips went away when Cassell’s finally bowed to progress and introduced fries and later, onion rings. The new side dishes never seemed to sell that well, partly because the potato salad was so wonderful and partly because all you could eat of it was included with your burger, whereas you had to pay extra for fries or rings.)
There were other menu items at Cassell’s but not many. There was a pretty good ham sandwich, a pretty good egg salad sandwich and an excellent tuna salad sandwich. The glories of the last two had a lot to do with Mr. Cassell’s mayo.
He originally opened in ’48 at the corner of 6th Street and Berendo. Food critics discovered the place and it was very common to get there at lunchtime and find a line out the door. The quaint building had an actual patio and it was not unusual to spot Al out there, busing tables himself so as to seat customers who’d gotten and dressed their burgers and needed a place to sit and eat them. In the eighties, about the time fries appeared, he moved (grill and all) to a patio-less building a half-block east, still on 6th. That’s it in the photo above. Shortly after, a relative of Mr. Cassell’s opened an outlet in the shopping mall at Crescent Heights and Wilshire and did what appeared to be very good business. Then he handed the operation over to others and went out to open another Cassell’s on Ventura Boulevard in Encino. That one never caught on and in the meantime, the quality over at Crescent Heights plunged…and before long, both were gone.
In the nineties, Mr. Cassell’s health forced his retirement and he sold his beloved restaurant to a Korean family. They changed very little, mostly adding things like salmon burgers and chicken breasts, but you could feel the absence of Mr. Cassell. I found the quality variable. At its best, it was as good as ever. At its worst, it was still a better place to have a burger than most, including Hamptons, which I co-owned at the time…but it was no longer the kind of place restaurant critics raved about and the area was changing. Once upon a time, you couldn’t get in at lunch without a wait. Now, you could show up at 1:00 and be the only burger-eater in the house.
Mr. Cassell died in June of 2010. Two years later, his restaurant was closed. Another set of new owners were refurbishing the historic (built in 1928) Hotel Normandie a few blocks away and they planned to reopen Cassell’s there as part of that building. At the time, they said Cassell’s would be back in eight months with the old quality and some new menu items, including milk shakes.
As of this writing, it’s been a year and there’s no word of the comeback of Cassell’s. We hope it’ll be back and that much of Al Cassell’s way of making burgers will be in evidence. If so, it’ll be a great place…but it probably won’t match the glory days when Al himself was on the premises and you could hear him simultaneously tasting his lemonade and yelling on the phone at a supplier who’d delivered something less than the best lemons.
The Carnegie Deli in New York is a great and wonderful place…and probably more prosperous than ever since its neighbor, the Stage Deli, recently closed. The Carnegie Deli in Beverly Hills was not a great and wonderful place, which explains why it isn’t there any more.
In the early eighties, the Stage opened an outlet in Century City — also a pale imitation of its Manhattan ancestor but not quite as pale as the west coast Carnegie would be. In 1988 when the Schwab’s Drug Store at the corner of Crescent Heights and Sunset was razed, it was announced that the forthcoming shopping complex there would include an L.A. version of the Carnegie. Later, the plan was shifted to 300 N. Beverly Drive at the corner of Beverly and Dayton Way.
The buzz was that billionaire Marvin Davis had had a standing order every day at the Century City Stage Deli for a half-pound of lox, a half-dozen bagels, a pint of cream cheese and four bags of potato chips to be delivered to his office each morning. This did not satisfy him and he decided to open his own deli. (Another rumor was that he opened the Carnegie in Beverly Hills after he was made to wait too long for a table at Nate ‘n’ Al’s down the street.)
The opening on August 9, 1989 was a huge media event with celebrities including Don Rickles, Carol Channing, Billy Wilder and George Burns. Burns was so impressed with the place that he booked it for his 100th birthday party, which was to be held on January 20, 1996. George made it to that date but the deli didn’t. The opening was also attended by pickets as Davis and his partners had elected not to sign with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, Local 11. And there were also restaurant critics present, that evening and in subsequent weeks. Few of them liked what they ate.
The place shut its doors on August 26, 1994 and someone had to call George Burns and tell him to find someplace else for his party. There were many reasons for the deli’s closure but the big three probably went something like this…
- Nate ‘n’ Al’s, a long-established local tradition, was right down the street.
- The food at the Carnegie cost more than the food at Nate ‘n’ Al’s.
- The food at the Carnegie wasn’t as good as the food at Nate ‘n’ Al’s.
Why couldn’t they at least replicate the quality of the original in New York? Probably some combination of management and suppliers not being as good. All I know is I ate there twice — once by choice and once because an agent I was lunching with insisted we meet there. I didn’t care for the meal either time and I didn’t care for that agent.
Sorrentino’s Seafood House was one of several Southland restaurants owned and operated by members of the Sorrentino family. It was located at the corner of Pass Avenue and Riverside in Burbank. A few blocks away was the more upscale Alfonse’s, run by the famous chef, Alfonse Sorrentino. The seafood restaurant was reportedly run by two of his cousins. Whoever ran it, it was a great place that at lunchtime was packed with folks in the entertainment industry.
I liked lunch at Sorrentino’s better than dinner, though both were great. At lunchtime, most entrees came with an amazing kind of potato I’ve never encountered anywhere else. It was halfway between the consistency of a baked potato and mashed — something like a pudding — and laced with onion. It was not listed as a side dish on the menu, which may explain why it didn’t seem to have a name. Every time I asked a waitress what it was called, the answer was “It’s just something the chef whips up at lunchtime.” He did not whip it up at dinner and believe me: I asked.
The photo above is of Sorrentino’s banquet room which got a lot of traffic from TV shows and movies holding wrap parties or press conferences. I rented it a few times on behalf of CAPS, the Comic Art Professional Society, back when I was on its Board of Directors. The food was good, the staff was great. The only reason I can imagine for its closure in the eighties was that they didn’t do as much business in the evenings as they did for lunch. An awful lot of deals were concluded and script meetings held in its lush, red booths. I miss it and I miss those potatoes.
Vince’s Pizza was located on Westwood Boulevard about three blocks north of Santa Monica Boulevard. That’s a generic image above, not a photo of an actual Vince’s Pizza. I doubt any memorabilia exists of the place and as you’ll see, I don’t know much about it. It was the place my family got pizza in the sixties and it was pretty good pie. They had a drive-thru window but I don’t recall my father ever actually driving-thru.
Vince’s went away some time in the early seventies, replaced by a drive-thru dry cleaner. Two things did it in. One was a sudden boom in pizza places. Once upon a time, there were so few of them that people actually went to Piece O’ Pizza, which served very poor pizza. For those who knew what pizza could/should be, Vince’s was a godsend. It was the only place to get a quick, good take-out pizza for miles around…and then, one day when there were others, it wasn’t. But there was another, obvious reason for Vince’s success when it was a bustling business establishment.
Located right nearby — at the intersection of Santa Monica and Westwood Boulevards — there were three (at times, four) huge liquor stores. It was like the Liquor Store Capital of the World on those corners…and people sometimes wondered why they were all congregated there. After all, it’s not like one liquor store sells entirely different liquor than another liquor store. Why so many competitors all bunched together?
The answer is that once upon a time, there was a law that prohibited the sale of beer, wine or spirits within a certain distance of the U.C.L.A. campus and therefore the student housing. The intersection of Westwood and Santa Monica was just outside that distance.
Most nights but especially Saturday, those three or four stores were packed with students. If there had been ten stores there, they all would have done good business. And what did all those students do after they’d picked up beer and booze and were headed back to the frat house? They drove through Vince’s and picked up a pile of pizzas!
My parents learned not to brave Vince’s on a Saturday or even a Friday night. Other evenings, if you went early enough, were fine. But one Saturday night I recall, we phoned in to order a pizza that we’d come pick up and the lady on the phone basically told us not to bother. “We’re running at least an hour behind,” she said. “Our ovens can only cook so many pizzas at one time.” We took her advice and went in the other direction for Chinese.
The law forbidding alcohol from being sold closer to campus was repealed and, of course, other pizza places opened — including, shrewdly, one at the corner of Santa Monica and Westwood — so Vince’s lost most of its advantages. All it had to offer was great pizza and there were a lot of places you could get one of those in the area. And maybe, now that I think of it, it wasn’t so great. It was just greater than the pizza at Piece O’ Pizza, which wasn’t hard to be. My mother could achieve it with a Chef Boyardee mix.
The original Junior’s Delicatessen opened near the intersection of Pico and Westwood in West L.A. in 1959. As explained here, it was a small operation run by the Saul Brothers that mainly sold corned beef and other deli food to go. But they had a handful of tables and if you wanted to have a sandwich there, one of the brothers would make it and bring it to your table. It was on Pico, a few blocks east of Westwood.
In 1967, they moved to a new building that was more of a restaurant on Westwood. Almost instantly, Junior’s became one of great local success stories for that kind of business. I was a regular customer but I never found the place outstanding. The corned beef wasn’t as good as Art’s. The potato salad wasn’t as good as Nate ‘n Al’s. The chicken soup wasn’t as good as Canter’s and so on. A deli doesn’t have to do all those things well but it ought to do one thing better than everyone else in town. If Junior’s did, I never ordered it. (I feel the same way about Factor’s and Jerry’s, though I’m sure commenters here can tell me of many things they’ve loved at all these places.)
What Junior’s had going for it was a good, friendly feel and a great location. If you had to meet a friend or business associate for lunch in that area, it wasn’t merely the best choice. It was darn near the only one. So I went there often and was never unhappy, except sometimes with the bill or the parking lot. And it did have the main stamp of approval that a deli has to have in Los Angeles: You could sometimes spot Mel Brooks eating there.
Junior’s was such a fixture of the neighborhood that it came as a shock when its closure was announced in December of 2012. It closed the last day of the year. What happened? It depends on who you ask.
Marvin Saul, who founded and ran Junior’s, died near the end of 2011 and control of the business passed to his sons, David and John. In a newspaper article, David blamed their landlords who were trying to raise the rent and were “not willing to bend” on “a number that we can’t give.” He cited rising food costs. In response, the landlords (a firm called Four Corners Investment Co.) blamed the sons. A spokesperson said that they’d had an excellent working relationship with Marvin Saul and had actually lowered the rent below what Junior’s was contractually obligated to pay, hoping that a declining business could turn around. When it came time to renew the lease for 2013, the two sides were unable to agree on a number. The Four Corners people suggested that the sons simply did not have the management skills of the father and that may be so. It may also be so that the Four Corners folks saw an opportunity to bring in a tenant with better prospects and a willingness to pay the full rental value of the property.
Given that I often felt the food was overpriced and not as good as it should have been, I’m inclined to think that Junior’s best days were in the past. But somehow, maybe because it was a part of my world for so long, I already miss the place and hope that reports of it reopening somewhere else will prove true. If they’d gotten a cut of every business deal made at their tables, the place would still be the gold mine that it was for Sauls in the late sixties through about the nineties.
Wil Wright’s was a chain of ice cream parlors that dotted the Southern California landscape up until the mid-seventies. There was one in Beverly Hills at the corner of Beverly Drive and Charleville, and another in Westwood Village at the corner of Glendon and Lindbrook. (There were others but those were two I frequented.) They were the perfect place to take a date after the movie. The delicate pink and red decor and little marble tables and wire-frame chairs made you feel like you were seated inside a Valentine’s Day card.
I believe there was one over on San Vicente in the Pacific Palisades area. I recall stopping in there one night after a movie with a date and the place was short-handed. There were about twelve tables and all the vacant ones still had the remnants of the previous diners…dirty dishes, slightly-filled glasses, etc. We sat at one for quite a while before a waitress came over to us…and when she did, she began scolding us for sitting at a non-clean table. As if lecturing the entire room, she began ranting about, “Why do people insist on sitting down at dirty tables before we have a chance to clear them?” Well, maybe because there was nowhere else to sit or stand and you were taking your own sweet time about cleaning the tables. I think we got up and went to find a Baskin-Robbins rather than to let that person wait on us.
But usually, a Wil Wright’s was a fun place to be. I seem to recall that my dates would always order the banana split while I wondered about the Freudian implications of their orders. I would either have a milk shake or a dish of Wil Wright’s unique orange ice which resembled frozen orange juice more than any orange ice or sorbet I’ve ever had anywhere else.
It was excellent ice cream made (apparently) on what I’m told is the Haagen-Dazs principle of ice cream: Make the same ice cream as every0ne else but ratchet up the sugar and butterfat content. The L.A. Times at one point did an article on local ice cream parlors and suggested that Wil Wright’s product had a notably higher calorie content than, say, the 10-cent cones at your neighborhood Thrifty Drug Store…also darned good places to eat ice cream if you just wanted a cone. I wonder if that harmed sales at Wil Wright’s and perhaps contributed to the chain’s demise. There is still a Wil Wright’s brand of ice cream sold in some stores — perhaps not the same recipe — but I think the parlors are all gone.
This is a scan from a menu I found on eBay. I have no idea of the year. There was also a faded insert page with ditto printing listing sandwiches for 35 cents each…
I don’t know much about Webster’s Restaurants, other than that a man named Dick Webster opened several of them around Los Angeles and that he boasted of serving the best lemon pie in the world. The one in the picture above was located at 270 So. La Cienega Blvd. and most of their ads said it was Beverly Hills but I think it was actually on the cusp. There’s a restaurant called Boss Sushi at that address now.
My family and I occasionally went to one on Pico Boulevard a few blocks east of Overland. The food was pretty simple — burgers, roast beef, chicken, stuff like that — but the menu and the waitresses implored you to save room for some of that world famous Webster’s lemon pie. I tried it one time and didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Seemed like pretty standard lemon pie to me, about the same as you got at any restaurant. But a reputation can be a funny thing…
Someone I worked with once said that the only tragedy of the civil rights movement of the sixties was in the demise of Sambo’s Restaurants. A Sambo’s was like an IHOP, which then was more often called an International House of Pancakes. They did a good breakfast business selling pancakes, then became a more traditional coffee shop for later meals in the day.
The chain, which at one point involved some 1,200 outlets, was named for its two founders, Sam Battistone and Newell “Bo” Bohnett…but the amalgam of their names also had another meaning and it changed over the years. You all remember the children’s story of the little boy named Sambo who was chased by tigers and…well, I don’t remember it all that well. Something about the tigers running themselves ragged and turning into melted butter. I never quite understood the biology involved in that but Li’l Sambo took the liquified tiger home and put it on his pancakes. So when people saw the name “Sambo,” they thought of pancakes, which is why it was a good name for a place that served them. Or at least it was when the first Sambo’s was opened in 1957 in Santa Barbara.
But years later, a name like Sambo — and the accompanying caricature of Sambo, himself — came to denote an ugly racial image. Sambo started out in an 1899 book by Helen Bannerman as a native of India. She called him Little Black Sambo and in later revisions and publications of the story, he fluctuated between Indian and Negroid. Aware that the black version of Little Black Sambo alienated many, the restaurant chain made him more inarguably Indian and when that didn’t change perceptions, they made him Caucasian and tried to change his name and the name of the entire chain to Sammy’s. It didn’t take and by 1985, the once-flourishing chain was in bankruptcy. The original, located in Santa Barbara, is still open (though only for breakfast and lunch) and that’s about it.
Qualitatively, I recall Sambo’s as being about the same as an IHOP, which put them about a half-notch above a Denny’s. I think many of them became Denny’s which for a restaurant is some kind of shameful demotion. As if the chain hadn’t already been embarrassed enough by the controversy about its very name.
There are still a few Hamburger Hamlets around: One in Pasadena, one in Sherman Oaks, a new one over on Larchmont and ones in Virginia and Maryland. Still, I think of the ones that were in Beverly Hills and Westwood Village as “my” restaurants and since they’re gone, I can put them in this section. Also in 2011, they closed the one on Sunset near Doheny that was a favorite of many. For the last few years of his life, Dean Martin (who lived not far away) would be in there almost every night and it was said that he welcomed fans to just sit down with him and chat. I kept thinking I oughta go up and see if that was really so but I never got around to it.
When that one on Sunset closed, a number of articles claimed it was the original location. Not true. The first Hamburger Hamlet which opened in 1950 was indeed on the Sunset Strip but farther east. It was at 8931 Sunset, not far from where the Whisky a Go Go nightclub w0uld later flourish for a time.
The Hamlet was the invention of a Hollywood costumer named Marilyn Lewis and her husband, Harry. Harry was an actor, perhaps best remembered for his role in the Humphrey Bogart film, Key Largo. The way the story goes, they opened the first one with all their savings — about $3,000 or $3,500 depending on which account you read. That opening was just before Halloween of 1950 and when they were about to open the doors, they discovered they couldn’t cook. The gas hadn’t been turned on and they were so tapped out that they couldn’t afford to pay the deposit and couldn’t afford to not open on schedule. Marilyn got in touch with a gas man and struck an under-the-table bargain: If he’d come over and turn them on anyway, he could eat there for free as long as they were in business. He did both these things.
The original idea was to open an actors’ hangout but the place quickly caught on with folks of all different vocations and other outlets quickly followed. They made a great flame-broiled burger and while you could order it with any of about a dozen configurations (toppings, add-ons, etc.), I thought the plain, unadorned version was a work of art. It came in a little plastic basket with a handful of potato chips and it was just the perfect lunch. If I was there at dinner, I’d usually order the same thing but with a cup of soup…usually their rich lobster bisque.
There were other great things on the menu that came along later. As they expanded, they expanded well beyond burgers. The rotisserie chicken was particularly exquisite. But it was difficult to go to Hamburger Hamlet and not order a hamburger.
Our family went once or twice a month to one of the two Hamlets then in Beverly Hills…and later, when one closed down, we gave all our patronage to the other. It was said that the Hamlet was the first restaurant in that city that actively hired blacks as food servers. My father told me that, I think. He once said he wouldn’t want to give his business to an establishment that didn’t, and I admired him for that view.
I also have two vivid memories of the Hamburger Hamlet that was in Westwood — on Weyburn, more or less where a Jerry’s Famous Deli is now situated. One is of lunching there just before my mother took me to see Bambi at the Village Theater, right around the corner, in 1957. Over my Hamlet burger, I received cautionary words about not getting too upset if and when Bambi’s mother was killed in the movie we were about to see. I believe I said something like, “I won’t. Could I have some more ketchup?”
The other memory is of taking my first date there. Her name was Karen and we ate burgers at the Hamlet in advance of heading down the street to a revival house that was showing the W.C. Fields movie, The Bank Dick. As we were sitting there in the restaurant, Karen told me she was having a very good time being out with me but said something about how I shouldn’t expect anything more than a good-night kiss. I believe I said something like, “I won’t. Could I have some more ketchup?”
At one point, there were several of them in Los Angeles but only one (the one on Wilshire opposite the Ambassador Hotel) was constructed so that when you walked in the front door, it looked like you were walking into a giant hat.
That was the original Brown Derby, which opened on Valentine’s Day of either 1926 or 1929 (accounts differ) and moved one block away in 1937. The other main locations were (1) near Hollywood and Vine, (2) near Wilshire and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, and (3) at Los Feliz Boulevard and Hillhurst in the Los Feliz area. There were also a few short-lived ones in other spots. All served mostly American fare in a semi-plush manner with very attentive service.
Apart from the gimmick of the name and pretty good food, they had two things going for them. One was the Cobb Salad, which was invented at the Brown Derby, which was owned by the Cobb family. As the delicacy caught on in other eateries, there was much publicity as to where it had begun, and many people wanted to go and try the original. Many people also wanted to dine where the stars ate, and that was an even better reason to dine at the Derby. Like many restaurants where the big attraction is celebrity clientele, the proprietors advertised their famous patrons by covering the walls with their caricatures.
The Brown Derby near Hollywood and Vine was situated in area from which many network radio shows were broadcast, so stars were always eating there. It was not uncommon for the cast of a program to do a performance for the East Coast, then repair to The Derby for food and libation before returning to the studio for the West Coast transmission. This caused the Brown Derby to be mentioned often on their shows. When TV shows began to emanate from some of the same studios in the fifties, there were occasional live remotes from that Brown Derby. The Ralph Edwards show, This is Your Life, always began by surprising some celebrity, often in a location very close to the studio from which the program was telecast. During the years that This is Your Life came from the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, they often used the Derby, which was right around the corner. The night Edwards surprised Harold Lloyd there, Groucho Marx was in the next booth (on a break from filming You Bet Your Life at NBC’s nearby Sunset and Vine studio) and Marx began heckling Edwards as the latter attempted to hustle Mr. Lloyd across Vine Street. Well, who wouldn’t want to eat in a place where that kind of thing happened?
The Sunset-Vine Brown Derby also had a lovely banquet room and courtyard so it was the scene of many wrap parties and show biz press gatherings. All that “in” spot mystique spilled over to the Beverly Hills location and gave it a similar rep. On I Love Lucy, when Lucy, Fred and Ethel arrived in Hollywood and wanted to go somewhere to see the stars, they went to the Brown Derby…where Lucy caused a plate of food to be dumped on the head of Brown Derby regular William Holden. That was probably good for another five years of tourists flocking to the place.
Eventually though, business declined and Brown Derbies began closing down. I was an occasional patron of the Hollywood/Vine one in its last years, largely because I was working on a TV show that taped at the Sunset-Gower Studio a few blocks away. I recall being impressed with the history but unimpressed with the food…and somewhat bothered by the obsequious service. The host and waiters fawned over everyone who walked in the door like they were royalty and it seemed awfully antiquated and phony, at least to me. In any case, it was no longer the kind of place where Groucho and Bill Holden might drop by for a bite, so its main attraction was gone.
That Derby closed in ’85, the same year the Los Feliz branch turned into a night club. In the last few decades, much effort has gone into preserving the giant hat from the Wilshire location as a historical landmark. The only remaining Brown Derby is located at the Disney-MGM Studio theme park in Florida. I don’t know why they don’t buy the big hat and just ship it on down there.