Hamptons (spelled with no apostrophe) was an upscale hamburger joint — perhaps the first one in Southern California. There were in fact two outlets of Hamptons. The original one was on Highland in Hollywood and in the spirit of full disclosure, it should be noted that the proprietor of this site was a part-owner of this one during its last few years of life. The other was out on Riverside Drive in Toluca Lake and it has now been transformed into Mo’s, with some but not all of the old Hamptons menu remaining.
Hamptons was famous as the restaurant that Paul Newman owned. That’s not exactly true but it’s also not utterly untrue. Here is how the story was told to me…
One day in the seventies, Paul Newman was having dinner with a friend of his, Ron Buck. Buck was a writer, artist and entrepreneur who had, among other ventures, built the 9000 Sunset building, as well as a trendy West Hollywood discotheque known as The Factory. He had worked without credit on several of Newman’s films, and he and the actor would later share credit for the screenplay of the 1984 Harry and Son. Buck was also great at cooking hamburgers on his backyard barbecue.
He had recently inherited an old house in which his mother had lived…on Highland Avenue in Hollywood, a few blocks south of Sunset. The other dwellings on the block were now housing real estate offices and Buck was trying to decide if he should sell the property or lease it to some business or what. Somehow, the suggestion arose that he open a gourmet burger restaurant there…a place where folks in the movie business who could afford better than Hamburger Hamlet could get one of Buck’s specialties, served with a glass of expensive wine.
The story then gets a bit murkier. Some say Newman put up the money and Buck put up the expertise and management. Since Buck was pretty wealthy, this may not be true, or it may be partially true. Some say Newman just agreed to be a frequent customer and to allow Buck to exploit that fact in publicity. Either way, the house was remodeled into a restaurant, mostly by enclosing the backyard. There was a wonderful, gnarled old tree in the middle of the yard and rather than remove it, the renovators bricked in the ground around it and allowed the tree to remain, reaching up through an opening in the newly-installed roof.
The place was named Hamptons because it was to reflect the fun and leisure of vacationing in the Long Island community known as The Hamptons. Various burgers were named for various friends and soon, it became a very “in” spot for folks who worked at nearby studios, such as Sunset-Gower or Paramount. The place didn’t do much of a dinner business but at lunchtime, it provided a welcome alternative to the fast food emporiums and taco stands of the neighborhood. At some point, it became so lucrative that Buck opened the branch on Riverside Drive in Toluca Lake. Some say that after Newman had recouped his initial investment thrice over, he withdrew whatever financial interest he had and gave full ownership to Buck. That is, if he even had any financial interest in it.
As you can see the story of Hamptons and Paul Newman’s involvement is a bit fuzzy. I vouch for none of the above, but for the fact that the two outlets of Hamptons became very popular. Once upon a time, it was impossible to get a table at lunch without a long wait. People loved the eighty varieties of burgers, including Stan’s Fantasy (with sour cream and black caviar), The Nelly Burger (creamed horseradish and bacon) and The Foggy Bottom Burger (peanut butter and sour plum jam). People also loved the little buffet that accompanied each burger, allowing you to further dress your sandwich and pile the plate with salads and side dishes. The menu did not include french fries — odd for a burger joint — but if the German Potato Salad available in the buffet wasn’t to your liking, you could order a platter of Potatoes Hamptons, which was basically hash-browns with sour cream.
I have dozens of memories of Hamptons, commencing when I worked at various studios up in Hollywood and we’d eat there once a week. It was a great place to spot celebrities and/or talk about that new screenplay. One friend of mine said it was the best place in Hollywood to meet out-of-work actresses who were waiting tables.
One time, I was lunching with the star of a TV special I was producing and we had a little trouble with a fellow at an adjoining table. He was a bit drunk and he kept banging his chair into our table and acting like it was our fault. Finally, my dining companion told him to knock it off, and the drunk stood up like he was ready to start brawling. My friend stood up to face him and the inebriated gent suddenly realized he was staring at famed dirty wrestler, Roddy “Rowdy” Piper. He immediately paid his check and left, and Roddy and I returned to our burgers.
This was in the mid-eighties. As that decade ended, so did the popularity of a lot of restaurants in Hollywood. An amazing percentage of them folded and Hamptons, while it managed to stay open, was rarely crowded. It also wasn’t very good. I believe — again, this is fourth-hand info, maybe more — Buck passed away, as did the fellow he had managing the two eateries for him. Whoever was running it tried a lot of different things, including the introduction of french fries but it didn’t help. Around 1990, I had a meal there that was so lousy, I scratched Hamptons from my list of places to go. I was not alone in this decision.
Then just a few years later, the two outlets of Hamptons were put up for sale, and were quickly purchased. One group of investors bought the one in Toluca Lake, completely renovated it and since they didn’t get custody of the name, reredubbed it “Mo’s.” The original Hamptons on Highland became Hamptons Hollywood Cafe and the group that purchased it also did a lot of remodeling, bringing in a new chef and adding new items to the menu. For some reason, they installed a “car phone” in the parking lot…a phone booth made out of an old Nash Metropolitan. And they rounded up a number of investors, one of whom was me.
I never expected to make any money off my investment and, indeed, I didn’t. The whole point of it was to be able to say to friends, “Hey, let’s have lunch at my restaurant.” Taken on that basis, it was a lot of fun. The folks who actually operated the place had a lot of good ideas, some of which were quite amusing. Since Hamptons had catered largely to an industry (show biz) crowd, they instituted an unusual pricing policy. Members of the Screen Actors Guild, Writers Guild and Directors Guild paid 10% less, while agents had to pay 10% more. The latter was meant as a joke but amazingly, there were actually diners who said, “I’m an agent. Do I really have to pay 10% more?” A few of those who asked were told yes, and they did. Wouldn’t you love to have one of those folks negotiating your deals for you?
The quality of the new Hamptons varied a lot. Sometimes, it was a great place to eat; sometimes, not. I didn’t have much to do with it except to (a) rewrite the menu to make it sillier, (b) make occasional suggestions and (c) add one menu item: The Groo Burger, based on the way my partner Sergio Aragonés likes his served…Grilled onions on top, then Mozzarella and Cheddar melted over the onions. I also had the supreme honor of having the barbecued chicken sandwich named for me and so consumed many.
But business was never too good and finally, the place was sold to a developer. For several months, it was “closed for remodeling” but no remodeling occurred. Instead, they finally tore down the house where Ron Buck’s mother had once lived, and even uprooted and removed that grand, majestic tree. The land now has on it a mixed-use structure (offices and residences) called Hampton Place. I already miss Hamptons and it’s not my investment I miss. I made a few bucks. I just always found it to be a friendly place to lunch with real good burgers and a great crowd. What more could you want?