Bernie Sanders Dines at Santa Monica's Famed Chez Jay Restaurant

The Backyard at Chez Jay - Environment -Publicity - H 2019
Acuna Hansen

There have been many famous faces who’ve stopped in Chez Jay over the restaurant's 60-year run, people like Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin, Brad Pitt, Billy Bob Thornton and Bill Murray. Time to add another name to the long list: Bernie Sanders.

After the Vermont Senator and current presidential candidate spoke at Santa Monica High School's amphitheater in late July, his team asked locals where to go in the area for a good steak. "One of our waiters said we got a phone call saying that Bernie wanted to come in," general manager Chris Anderson recalled to The Hollywood Reporter. "There were a bunch of cars for him and his security detail and transport team. They sat at table 10, the famous booth in the back, where it’s very secluded."

The group of around 20 people basically took up half of the entire bar and dining room, which regularly only seats 48 people total. They didn’t ask for privacy nor was the bar roped off. In fact, it was exactly the opposite. Sanders talked to patrons and posed for a few selfies.

"They were all very nice. Bernie was especially cordial both inside and outside the building. It was crazy when he walked out, all these people were saying his name," Anderson said. "They were only here for about 30 minutes. They said they had a lovely time and wished they could stay longer."

It’s a scene befitting a rockstar politician like Sanders, especially in the left-leaning Westside enclave. But it’s unusual for Chez Jay, which prides itself on anonymity for its more famous patrons, anyone from a Hemsworth brother to Gerard Butler, Viggo Mortensen or Robert Plant. "Fans take pictures in front of the building, but at the bar, no one treats them any differently. And we always want to preserve that."

Since 1959, the dark, windowless bar has been a magnet for actors, directors, writers and musicians who mingle with locals and beach-going tourists. Original owner Jay Fiondella — an adventurer, competitive hot air balloonist, and some say the inspiration behind the "Most Interesting Man in the World" character — wanted everyone to feel comfortable at Chez Jay.

The all-welcome vibe has never ceased through the years, whether sipping strong drinks at the bar, eating peanuts and throwing shells on the floor, or sharing plates of sand dabs or butter steak and scalloped potatoes in one of the booths.

Chez Jay lore is endless. Fiondella notoriously brought a live elephant in for opening night; Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard took a peanut to the moon and brought it back, and McQueen supposedly put it in his mouth much to Fiondella’s chagrin. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote scripts in one of the red booths. Julie Andrews and Blake Edwards had their first date there, as did Michelle Pfeiffer and David E. Kelley, who now uses the bar as a location for his Amazon series Goliath. Those are just a few known stories but there are hundreds more staff won’t dare tell.

While development has changed the neighborhood along Ocean Avenue in recent years, Chez Jay remains (almost) exactly the same. Anderson’s father, Michael, became an owner of the bar in 2000 after Fiondella retired, and years later campaigned to get the bar designated as a historical landmark. People like Renee Zellweger, Kiefer Sutherland and John Savage rallied to support the cause, and it finally was awarded landmark status in 2012.

"In all honesty, the reason it happened was because so many came out and wrote letters, went to meetings in front of the commission," Anderson said. "It’s a huge compliment to my dad. Those people really stepped up when he needed help."

The elder Anderson always wanted was to add a back patio. With help from his son, who now helps run the bar and restaurant, the Backyard debuted this summer. Operating separately from the original Chez Jay — patrons enter through the parking lot — the space features picnic tables, couches, Adirondack chairs, a fire pit, hanging vintage lanterns and string lights, and a bright blue fence that backs up to Santa Monica’s Tongva Park. The menu is separate as well, with offerings like grilled street corn, steak nachos, truffle fries and a classic patty melt on rye.

For Chez Jay's 60th anniversary this year, the Andersons are planning a big celebration sometime in the fall. There will be throwback prices and specials, maybe a costume contest for anyone dressed in 1950s garb. "It’s just this time capsule," Anderson concluded. "It’s this tiny little door that you open, and everyone changes their tone and leaves their work problems at the door. Everyone talks to each other here. It's rude not to." 

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.