Merrill Shindler - June 1993
Food Arts presents the June 1993 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Maude Chasen, restaurateur to the stars.
Over the years, many a grand and glorious Hollywood watering hole has shone brightly for a brief period and then dimmed to darkness. Romanoff's is gone. Perino's is gone. Scandia is gone. But Chasen's still thrives at the corner of Bevery Boulevard and Doheny Drive.
For 32 years, Maude Chasen and her husband, Dave, a former vaudevillian who opened the place in 1937, ran the restaurant together. Dave died in 1973, and for the 20 years since, Maude has carried on by herself. Under the firm hand of this iron-willed 89-year-old, an astute businesswoman and consummate hostess, Chasen's is as successful today as it has ever been. In a town as fickle as Hollywood, it defies every law of God and man. And the chili continues to be some of the best in town.
In a room lined with photographs of Hollywood notables who have wined and dined at Chasen's over the past half-century, Maude—as fine and fragile as Meissen china—points to a well-aged picture of what looks to be the kitchen of a railroad car diner fallen upon hard times. It's the original kitchen of CHasen's, where rubber-faced Dave would hustle up solid Americana—spare ribs, hamburgers, carpetbagger steak and his signature chili. Maude recounts how Dave opened the restaurant with $3,500 cadged from his friend Harold Ross, founding editor of The New Yorker. It was really just a chili shop back then, with four tables and a great view of the cornfields that made up the eastern edge of Beverly Hills. After doing some film work in Hollywood, she explains, Dave decided that his future lay not in the movies, but in feeding people in the movies. He added a barbecue and a bar and turned his stand first into a cafe, then a restaurant and, finally, a landmark.
In 1941, Maude, born in Kentucky, raised in Georgia, a Southern belle who ran a chain of Saks Fifth Avenue beauty salons, met the two loves of her life: Dave Chasen and his restaurant. She'd come to town to visit her friends, Don Ameche and his wife, Chasen's regulars. And when she married the next year, CHasen's became as much part of Maude's life as it was Dave's.
During Maude's lifetime, every president of the United States has dined there, many of them repeatedly. It's the Reagans' favorite restaurant; they showed up unannounced on the night he was elected President. There's hardly a star who hasn't been to Chasen's at one time or another, from W.C. Fields to Frakn Sinatra, from Elizabeth Taylor to Jimmy Stewart, from Alfred Hitchcock to Gregory Peck. J. Edgar Hoover was a regular: "A lovely man, very polite and gracious," says Maude.
Maude Chasen's philosophy is simple: "What I like to do is let people come and have a joyous time. There should be laughter and fun. Live well, eat well, enjoy your life." That's the sort of philosophy that can produce a classic. Few members of the staff have been with her for fewer than 20 years; some have endured for more than 40. Chasen's is the restaurant that catered the first (and only) flight of Howard Hughes's gargantuan Spruce Goose; that daily sent a pot of chili to Elizabeth Taylor while was on location in Rome for the filming of Cleopatra; and that fed Clark Gable his last meal on the night he died in a nearby hospital.
"We don't go in for new fashions in food," says Maude, although she started serving lunch last year for the first time in the restaurant's 56-year history. "We stick to the basics, using the best ingredients we can find. Dave and I had so much fun here. I miss him, but he's still here in the restaurant. He's here with me every night."