Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Hamburger Hamlet: Good Night, Sweet Prince


If you grew up in L.A. , you remember the heyday of the Hamburger Hamlet. Much more than a burger joint, it was a casual but classy hangout that epitomized the showbiz way of life. Co-founder Harry Lewis, who died last week at age 93, was an actor. He had a long movie career, which included  roles in Key Largo and as a sheriff’s deputy in a film noir classic, Gun Crazy. On screen he played supporting roles. But as a restaurateur, along with wife Marilyn, he was a superstar.

Hamburger Hamlet, which opened on the Sunset Strip in 1950, catered to hungry actors. At first, Harry flipped burgers and Marilyn waited tables, but their concept worked so well that soon there were locations in such tony SoCal neighborhoods as Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and Palm Springs, where Ronald Reagan and Rat Pack types often dropped by. The Hamlets promised—and delivered—what was termed “simply marvelous food.”  Burgers were well cooked, well served, and creative, boasting a variety of exotic toppings. Also on the menu were such inventive treats as “Those Potatoes.” (Yum!) Lobster bisque was a specialty, and it was at the Hamburger Hamlet that I first discovered the joys of French Onion Soup Fondue. (I still make it at home, using the Hamlet recipe.)

Another attraction of Hamlet restaurants was their decor. All Hamlets were clubby and vaguely British, with comfy red leather booths and flattering lighting. The walls were hung with theatrical memorabilia, but the Shakespearean motif carried the day. In various showcases, small figurines depicted a Laurence Olivier-type in black tights and flowing white shirt delivering puns on lines from the Bard’s most famous play. To a miniature Ophelia he proclaimed, “Get thee to a bunnery!” And, sitting alone with a hamburger in hand, he mused, “To eat or not to eat – what a foolish question.” To a bookish kid like me, being at the Hamlet was a literary as well as a culinary delight.

At the Beverly Hills Hamlet, not far from where I grew up, family groups routinely mingled with Hollywood celebrities. Circa 1965, when Broadway’s Julie Andrews was the new kid in town, I saw her coming out of the Hamlet, surrounded by studio suits. She was casually dressed in red—red slacks, red turtleneck, red lipstick—and seemed to glow with youth, health, and promise. Two years later, when the reason Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge was the question on everyone’s lips, I spotted singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry lunching with her manager in the next booth. As I recall, he was advising her about using a file cabinet to store her various writing projects, and she, as a newbie, was seriously nodding in agreement. (In 1967, the notion of digital data storage could hardly have been anticipated.)

One other Hamlet memory: in the early years all the servers were African-American. This might sound like a nod to the old plantation days, but in fact the Lewises were doing their bit, in the Civil Rights era, to promote upward mobility  Members of the Hamlet serving staff were well-spoken and elegantly turned out in crisp black and white uniforms. (I once saw a behind-the-scenes poster laying out the strict codes of dress and conduct.)  If a server did well, he or she could be promoted to front-of-the-house duty, and from there was helped to move into management. So the Lewises were using their restaurants to showcase their social views, as well as their love of good food in good surroundings. Just writing this has made me awfully hungry! 


11 comments:

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    1. Don, I think there may be a few left, though under different ownership. But the flagship branch on Sunset just metamorphosed into a trendy Italian cafe.

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  2. Oh yes, Beverly, I do miss the Hamburger Hamlets. I loved their fried zucchini circles, with that amazing apricot sauce to dip in. Thanks for this memory.

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  3. Oh yes, Beverly, I do miss the Hamburger Hamlets. I loved their fried zucchini circles, with that amazing apricot sauce to dip in. Thanks for this memory.

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  4. Tina, wasn't it Zucchini Zircles? (The Hamlet menu was very colorfully written -- and this was the era when zucchini was just being discovered by American eaters.)

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  5. Wow - I've heard the name, certainly - but had no idea what wonders awaited those lucky enough to enter the Hamburger Hamlet. I really wish I'd gotten to visit one in the heyday - mark me down for another destination when the time machines are perfected!

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  6. A good reason for time travel, Mr. C. One more note of trivia: I'm convinced that in The Graduate, after Ben and Elaine end their first date with a trip to a drive-in, their doggy-bag actually bears a Hamburger Hamlet logo. Not that the Hamlet was ever a drive-in, but I really think I recognize that so-so-familiar bag.

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    1. I just saw The Graduate on the big screen yesterday, and you are correct. That is indeed a Hamburger Hamlet bag!

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  7. I grew up in Pasadena, where there's been a Hamburger Hamlet (corner of Lake and Cordova) since the mid-1970s, and after my one visit to the one on Doheny, I decided that nothing compared, including the original. The Pasadena version has had its ups and downs, but the hamburgers have been consistently great, the atmosphere has stayed old-school SoCal comfy, and the desserts are addictive. I don't think it was still in the hands of the founders any longer, but I was there in early May, so unless an earthquake has hit that I didn't hear about in New York, it probably still is. May it live forever! (Jim the actor/waiter, if you read this, hello from Manhattan!)

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  8. Thanks, Dona -- I believe it's still there (but not with an all-black serving staff(. Does anyone else remember those days? The first time I saw a Caucasian waitress at the Hamlet -- with blonde hair, no less -- I was taken aback.)

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  9. I loved Hamburger Hamlets hash browns with sour cream and bacon bits. I consumed many platters of them. On numerous occasions I saw Ray Bradbury at the Sepulveda location.

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