Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s (1997)

The DVD packaging for Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s boasts appearances by Quentin Tarantino, Samuel Jackson, Sharon Stone, “and many more.” This star-studded “cast list,” combined with an image of the façade of Chasen’s restaurant set against palm trees, the Hollywood hills, and a huge, blue moon, promises a taste of Tinsel Town.

In its heyday, Chasen’s lived up to that promise. Opening in 1936 as a modest family establishment serving Southern food, it quickly became legendary, playing host to the celebrities of the Golden Age — Jimmy Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, Humphrey Bogart — as well as an impressive list of international and political figures: Queen Elizabeth, Richard Nixon, even the Pope. Sinatra and Martin were regulars. The “Shirley Temple” was invented at Chasen’s, expressly for its underage namesake. Ronald Reagan proposed to Nancy there. A vintage footage montage shows stars arriving at Chasen’s, smiling and debonair as they emerge from sleek black cars into the glow of flashbulbs, warmly greeting friends and waving graciously to assembled fans. Set to Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight,” the sequence is seductive, nostalgic, and completely disarming.

But that era is over now. The documentary includes Quentin Tarantino’s arrival at Chasen’s for an Oscar party (he had just won Best Screenplay for Pulp Fiction): he admits it’s the first time he’s ever been to the legendary restaurant. Sharon Stone pauses long enough to say how “sad” it is that Chasen’s is closing, but her comments feel more like lip service than genuine regret.

Supplanted by trendier restaurants, Chasen’s eventually went the way of old Hollywood itself. In 1995, when Off the Menu was shot, the restaurant finally closed. During its last few months of operation, Chasen’s again became the hottest spot in town for a new, decidedly less glamorous generation of stars: Courtney Love, Gary Coleman, Colin Powell. Val Schwab, the reservationist, repeatedly turned down astronomical bribes, asserting that the tables were “not for sale.” Prince and Kato Kaelin couldn’t get in. Chasen’s longtime bartender, Pepe, summed it up perfectly: “When you’re sick, nobody calls you. When you die, everyone comes to the funeral.”

Such is the perversity of Hollywood. But the real stars of Off the Menu are not the stars. They are the “United Nations” of Chasen’s staff, most of whom worked there for over 30 years. Hailing from points all over the globe, they are humbly dedicated to the most discreet, genteel, and accommodating service for the glamorous, wealthy, and powerful. They are the last of a dying breed of career waiters and support staff whose main purpose in life is to serve. Hollywood historian Neal Gabler comments: “There’s a whole stratum of people in Hollywood who have dedicated their lives to serving the glamour figures… Serving the stars, that is their form of having arrived.”

Tommy Gallagher, a cantankerous Irishman, worked as a waiter at Chasen’s for 51 years. Notorious and beloved for his shameless gregariousness, Tommy called Sinatra by his first name and inserted himself into what seems like an endless series of celebrity photo ops, posing with everyone from the Rat Pack to Bette Davis, from Elvis to Cher. His crowning achievement was a photo of himself with four Presidents: Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush I. Not too shabby for a waiter.

Chasen’s employees were more than just waiters. Somewhere between reliable servants and trusted friends, they resurrected a standard of old-world royal treatment for their illustrious clientele. Raymond Bilbool, the banquet captain, was curt and exacting with his staff, but would bend over backwards for customers. He delivered Chasen’s meals to regulars who requested them from hospital beds at nearby Cedars Sinai, and when Chuck and Ava Fries returned from vacation to find themselves alone and hungry in a home empty of “the help,” Bilbool came to the rescue with a hot meal.

In return, the staff became stars in their own right. Waiter Claude Krihning was famous for his preparation of “Hobo Steak,” which he ceremoniously sliced and sautéed in butter at tableside over an open flame. Not to be outdone, cocktails were more performance than beverage. “Pepe’s Flame of Love” took a full 20 minutes to prepare and involved the repeated lighting on fire of the oil expressed from a carefully peeled orange rind.

But working at Chasen’s wasn’t always so cheerful. One disgruntled former banquet waiter wrote a tell-all book exposing the poor treatment he received. Waiter Jaime Garcia briefly describes the racism he and the Latino busboys experienced in the early days, from customers and other staff members. The documentary includes a curious sequence of shots of the kitchen, a space as brightly lit, messy and chaotic as the dining room is dark, orderly and refined. In contrast to the predominantly white (albeit multi-ethnic) wait staff, the cooks, dishwashers, and busboys are all Latino.

Set to a bright, kitschy rendition of “South of the Border,” the sequence offers a contrast between the song’s blithe ethnic essentialism and footage of Latino men chopping, sautéing, and scouring. It’s either an ironic comment on the racial division of labor, or a mean joke reinforcing that division by suggesting that the kitchen is a “foreign” space.

It’s the only moment in the documentary where there’s a tear in the otherwise seamless fabric of sound and image, and it points to the ways in which Off the Menu could have been a very different kind of film, addressing deeper labor and racial inequalities. But the scene is no more than a gesture. The film’s investment in maintaining a patina of kindly Hollywood nostalgia prevents it from exploring these issues further.

That said, it does present a sympathetic portrait of a diverse group of people who forged almost familial ties in their shared dedication. Listening to the DVD’s commentary track (recorded five years after the film was originally released) feels like eavesdropping on a family watching home movies. Berman and Pulcini are joined by Bilbool, who stole the show in the original film with his catty, insightful observations. His tour-de-force continues on the commentary track, where he flirts with Pulcini and delivers zippy one-liners like “Hungary, the land of Zsa-Zsa Gabor,” with aplomb. Most touching is the affection and admiration that the filmmakers and Bilbool express for their subjects/co-workers, reminiscing about good times past and fondly remembering those who have passed on. Bilbool even apologizes for an unkind comment he made on camera concerning the mustache of the wife of a former employee.

The DVD also includes a gallery of still photos from the shoot, filmmaker bios and, most importantly, recipes for two of Chasen’s signature dishes, “Hobo Steak” and its famous chili. (Scott McKay, the Chasen’s heir, continues to sell the chili over the internet: ). This unassuming dish continues the Chasen’s legacy. These days, restaurants that cater to celebrities are more likely to feature exotic delicacies like foie gras and matsutake mushrooms. Chasen’s was the product of a more innocent age, where the most glamorous people congregated to eat some of the most basic American foods: chili, steak, creamed spinach. Although wrapped in the package of matchless service and continental flair, the food itself was homey and comforting.

Similarly, Chasen’s employees were people of humble origin who got to rub elbows with the privileged, as long as they kept their proper distance. It’s this simultaneous mixing and separation of two disparate spheres — high and low, stars and chili — that forms the central contradiction and charm of Chasen’s.

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