Hamburger Hamlet

There are still a few Hamburger Hamlets around: One in Pasadena, one in Sherman Oaks, a new one over on Larchmont and ones in Virginia and Maryland.  Still, I think of the ones that were in Beverly Hills and Westwood Village as “my” restaurants and since they’re gone, I can put them in this section.  Also in 2011, they closed the one on Sunset near Doheny that was a favorite of many.  For the last few years of his life, Dean Martin (who lived not far away) would be in there almost every night and it was said that he welcomed fans to just sit down with him and chat.  I kept thinking I oughta go up and see if that was really so but I never got around to it.

When that one on Sunset closed, a number of articles claimed it was the original location.  Not true.  The first Hamburger Hamlet which opened in 1950 was indeed on the Sunset Strip but farther east.  It was at 8931 Sunset, not far from where the Whisky a Go Go nightclub w0uld later flourish for a time.

The original location

The Hamlet was the invention of a Hollywood costumer named Marilyn Lewis and her husband, Harry.  Harry was an actor, perhaps best remembered for his role in the Humphrey Bogart film, Key Largo.  The way the story goes, they opened the first one with all their savings — about $3,000 or $3,500 depending on which account you read. That opening was just before Halloween of 1950 and when they were about to open the doors, they discovered they couldn’t cook. The gas hadn’t been turned on and they were so tapped out that they couldn’t afford to pay the deposit and couldn’t afford to not open on schedule. Marilyn got in touch with a gas man and struck an under-the-table bargain: If he’d come over and turn them on anyway, he could eat there for free as long as they were in business. He did both these things.

The original idea was to open an actors’ hangout but the place quickly caught on with folks of all different vocations and other outlets quickly followed.  They made a great flame-broiled burger and while you could order it with any of about a dozen configurations (toppings, add-ons, etc.), I thought the plain, unadorned version was a work of art.  It came in a little plastic basket with a handful of potato chips and it was just the perfect lunch.  If I was there at dinner, I’d usually order the same thing but with a cup of soup…usually their rich lobster bisque.

Wall signs at the original location.

There were other great things on the menu that came along later.  As they expanded, they expanded well beyond burgers.  The rotisserie chicken was particularly exquisite.  But it was difficult to go to Hamburger Hamlet and not order a hamburger.

Our family went once or twice a month to one of the two Hamlets then in Beverly Hills…and later, when one closed down, we gave all our patronage to the other.  It was said that the Hamlet was the first restaurant in that city that actively hired blacks as food servers.  My father told me that, I think.  He once said he wouldn’t want to give his business to an establishment that didn’t, and I admired him for that view.

I also have two vivid memories of the Hamburger Hamlet that was in Westwood — on Weyburn, more or less where a Jerry’s Famous Deli is now situated.  One is of lunching there just before my mother took me to see Bambi at the Village Theater, right around the corner, in 1957.  Over my Hamlet burger, I received cautionary words about not getting too upset if and when Bambi’s mother was killed in the movie we were about to see.  I believe I said something like, “I won’t.  Could I have some more ketchup?”

The other memory is of taking my first date there.  Her name was Karen and we ate burgers at the Hamlet in advance of heading down the street to a revival house that was showing the W.C. Fields movie, The Bank Dick.  As we were sitting there in the restaurant, Karen told me she was having a very good time being out with me but said something about how I shouldn’t expect anything more than a good-night kiss.  I believe I said something like, “I won’t.  Could I have some more ketchup?”

UPDATE: The Hamlet on Van Nuys Boulevard is back in business, thanks to the management of Killer Shrimp investing in the place. I’d love to see it make a big comeback but I recently went to the reopened place and was very disappointed. I had a hamburger that was nowhere near the old standard and just plain not very good…and I thought, “Well, if they can’t get that right…” If it remains open and thriving for a while and I hear approving things from others, I’ll probably give it another chance because I did love the old chain and would love to see it back in all its glory. But they have to do more than just offer the same name and menu in the same room.

111 Responses to Hamburger Hamlet

  • Wendy Hughes says:

    I was never quite sure if Hamburger Hamlet was fancy or casual – maybe it seemed fancy when I was a teenager, but by the time I became an adult, there were few places in Los Angeles where you’d be turned away at the door for a fashion faux pas. Since you mentioned the Hamburger Hamlet on Van Nuys Boulevard, I’ll tell a story. It opens at about 11:30 weekdays, so my partner and I would zoom over there often a wee bit early to get a good parking place, and sometimes we had to wait outside on the sidewalk for the doors to open. One day we got there at the same time as the manager who recognized us as regulars; she opened the door and greeted us with a hearty “Welcome to Hamburger Hell!”
    The hamburgers were wonderful, but I liked to make a meal with several items from the side order menu: zucchini zirckles, Those Potatoes and popcorn shrimp, all washed down with a root beer float.

  • Bob Radakovich says:

    I remember the one near Doheny on Sunset fondly. While at UCLA in 1982 I bumped into Cheryl Ladd while she went to the rest room and she gave me a seductive smile. I will never forgive myself for not hitting on her when she returned to her table. She was gorgeous and looked better in real life than on TV. Oh yeah the food was good. I loved the Hamlets.

  • Robert O'Shaunnessy says:

    As a child growing up in San Fernando Valley, my parents would take me to the Hamburger Hamlet , located on Van Nuys Blvd. at least once a month. For me, their burgers were my ‘filet mignon’and my dad – he loved the Gumbo! We would especially wait for our favorite waitress, Miss Trellis. She always had a smile and a kind saying when she brought our dinner.

  • John Hindsill says:

    Ummm Linda Starr, I think you left out one of the ingredients for lobster bisque. I, myself, am allergic to all shell fish, but even moi can eat this lobster bisque.

  • Linda Starr in the 50 s says:

    I always went to the original in the fifties
    Just found out my mother said she gave me the original lobster bisque recipe
    Not true but it was delicious
    1 can each
    Split pea
    Adda little sherry

  • Mercy Baron says:

    Here is a great story from Marilyn Lewis and her book and the recipe for their amazing lobster bisque.

  • John Foscone says:

    I worked at two locations. First in Pasadena from 1985 to 1987. I transferred to Sunset location and worked there until 1995. Wow, all those celebrities! I saw and waited on Dean Martin many times. The stories I could tell you! Here’s one: He always had a driver deliver him there, and take him home. Yes, he drank. Yes, he smoked. If there wasn’t an ashtray, he flicked his cigarettes on the floor. We got a call one night, after he left. Seems he didn’t have his teeth, and we were asked to check for them. He had taken them out to eat, wrapped them in a napkin, and left them on the table. I don’t think we ever found them, after checking through all the waste cans. LOL I used to keep a list of all the actors, singers etc who came through the door. Too many to remember, but always, such a great place to work and eat! Sadly missed! John

  • Larry Schwartz says:

    I was at the Sunset near Doheny location in the 1970’s late one night with some friends. We went into the back dining room, to your left as you walked into the restaurant, which was totally empty except for a corner table in the dimly lit room. The people at the table were having a great time and laughing. I looked over at the table only to see Lisa Minelli, with Sammy Davis Jr.,and I honestly forgot who the third person was. I have a million true stories just like that, fun days.

  • Michael Alexander says:

    Noel Decker I waited tables at the Costa Mesa shop soon after it opened, or so I thought – 1975? Were you there then? I worked with a great crew had a helluva time. I was told that the Lewis’ started with nearly all black servers and won some awards for the benefits to the black community. As time passed and the chain grew this went away. Do you remember getting slammed just before any popular movie would begin and then again after the movie let out?The food was way above average and some of it was iconic…Burgers and bisque as mentioned; the oak plank, rice pudding, FOS, Noodle Kugel, etc.

  • Robyn O'Neill says:

    What about the delicious hamburger steaks on wood planks on metal plates? With fried onions, of course, and followed by that great tin roof sundae? And lobster bisque to start with? And the Shakespearean playbills on the walls? That was the Westwood location.

  • Jeremy Goldman says:


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