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.)