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.

144 Responses to Hamburger Hamlet

  • Karen says:

    Some of us have great memories from the 70’s and very early 80’s enjoyed it too. I left the area in 82, so I can’t speak for after then. The one on Sunset was a great experience. Someone else mentioned the wait staff, and they were right, it was a terrific team that added to the experience.

  • Will Hamblet says:

    Mr. Webb was over 20 years too late. Prime time for HH was the 50’s thru the 60’s.

  • Karen says:

    I am not going to argue with you. If you want fine dining, go to a fine dining restaurant, but if you wanted to grab a burger in a fun environment in the ’70’s or early 80’s, HH was great place to go. Why look down your nose and rain on people’s nice memories? That’s kind of sad.

  • Mike Webb says:

    You are soooo wrong I worked in the business for over 20 years was a chef and Kitchen manager for most of that time.

    I used to visit 7 restaurants on my days off to keep up with current food trends mostly in Orange County CA around the beach areas.

    The food at HH was Bad at best

    A very poor company by the mid 80’s as that’s when I visited them they may have been good in the past but I never saw it.

  • Karen says:

    Someone (or 2) always has to be negative. My husband is an executive chef and we both loved Hamburger Hamlet. It wasn’t fine dining, but it was tasty. Like everyone else, I loved the lobster bisque. I ordered French Onion Soup as well. I worked above the Sunset Hamlet in a medical office from about ’79-82. Dean Martin was there almost every day and he was a big flirt and very charming. We also had a nodding acquaintance with Richard Prior (spelling?). We saw someone well known in there almost daily. Dean saw us celebrating my upcoming wedding and sent us shots of tequila, which he had probably noticed we ordered now and again when we were celebrating. Good times. We went there to watch Luke and Laura get married and the place was packed.

  • Barrett Craig says:

    So two guys out of about 100 hated the Hamlet. U think maybe those two know nothing about food? Lobster bisque best dish anywhere. Never found anything more delish thanwings w apricot. Imagine my joy when I got a job at the Patent/Trademark office and soon discovered I was walking distance from the Arlington HH. Rumor has it all are closing down soon.

  • Mike Webb says:

    I find it weird that so many people liked the HH food I found it basic at best and down right bad most times only thing I liked was some of the people at the Bar customers… good conversation.

    My experiences come from the Costa Mesa location 1990 to when it closed up maybe that was just a poor location run bad or they just lost it by that time that may explain why they closed up.

    I would avoid the food it was so bad

    I always went to Fashion Island for food Muldoon’s Irish Pub

  • A Marvick says:

    I was about to ask whether anyone else remembered that fried chicken wing platter with apricot sauce! The only item on the menu good enough to make it worthwhile resisting those top-flight burgers, and they always came to the table too hot to touch. Many happy memories of HHs in Westwood Village location.

  • John Ell says:

    We were regulars at Doheny Hills, Pasadena, Westwood and Costa Mesa locations. I ordered off the “old” menu for years after they got rid of a bunch of numbers. I ordered No. 13 for years and they always knew what it was. We still make Those Potatoes and Chicken Wings with Apricot and my wife often says “eat the sides, I pray you.”

  • john toombs says:

    I worked up by 9000 Sunset blvd. area .The HH was one floor down and across the street.Beer scooners were great

  • Lisa says:

    I worked at the Beverly Hills Hamlet on Beverly Drive for several years in the mid to late 1980s. There were still several of the older women that had been there forever. They had great stories. Esther Crayton was one of them. Used to wait on lots of celebs. One of my favorites that would always sit at my table was Jon Voight. He would come in with his daughter, Angelina Jolie and his son. She must have been 11 or so. I remember thinking how she would be a knockout when she grew up. I miss this place. I did get to take my oldest son there when he was a baby before it closed. He got to meet a few of the women there before they retired. Lost touch with a lot of old friends from there.

  • John Hindsill says:

    Charlie, you were probably working there when I first went to the Westwood store in early 1958 after I returned home from ASC. I found the wall plaques riffing on quotes from “Hamlet” to be a nice touch. The food was good, too.

  • Charlie Carroll says:

    I was hired as the evening manager at Westwood during summer of 1957. During my six months there I met many Hollywood personalities. Lee Marvin and I shared many cups of coffee. At least once I had to admonish Zsa Zsa Gabor to put her dog back in the car. Anne Francis was often curt to the waitstaff but she kept coming back. Bob Newhart liked our menu. Occasionally I filled in at the Sunset Blvd restaurant. Actress Rita Moreno was a frequent guest. I often found myself sneaking the lobster out of the bisque.
    Mr. Lewis came in from time to time. I was offered the management job at the new store opening up in the Valley; but I was called to active military duty.
    In 1979 I brought my family into the Westwood HH and some staff remembered me from 22 years earlier.

  • amcwhitney says:

    Egg custard LuLu with graham cracker crumbs and whip cream!!!-YUM!!! And, if you know your “hamlet history” ….a #7 medium well! We dined as a family at both the HH in Brentwood, where I was raised, and Westwood, where my Grandmother lived, from the ’60’s on…until they were no more :-)

  • Mike says:

    I ate at just about every HH in the LA area at least once, and I even ate at the one in Costa Mesa on Adams Blvd once when I lived down there in late 1987, early ’88, but the ones that I frequented the most were the HH’s on Sepulveda Blvd in West LA, the one in Beverly Hills, the one right on the border of West Hollywood, on the corner of Robertson & Beverly Blvd, and the one on the Sunset Strip. I have great memories of eating at that HH a few times, when I was working right down the street in the 9000 building in 1987. I loved them all! They were great restaurants, and it’s really sad that almost all of the HH’s are now gone.

  • James Cimarusti says:

    Update: The Desert Fashion Plaza has been torn down-

    When I was last there a couple of years ago, the HH was as described above. Who knows if/when they ever claimed the table and chairs or any of the interior remanants prior to total destruction.

  • James Cimarusti says:

    Correction on the location of HH in Palm Springs: it was located at the Desert Fashion Plaza in Palm Springs. It had a separate entrance from the street and probalbly had a mall entrance too.

  • James Cimarusti says:

    I’ve eaten at the Palm Springs location (still there but closed). That location(part the Dead Palm Springs Mall) still has signage up on the rear of the building and all the furniture on the inside and looks like it’s ready to open at anytime. They had good burgers there and it’s a shame that location closed, it being right on the main drag of Palm Springs. Palm Springs is finally doing something about the dead mall and maybe HH will come back.

  • Kevin Marcus says:

    My parents used to take me to the HH in Westwood during the 1990’s, I remember it being great and was sad to see it close. Went away to college in Santa Barbara in 2000, and wound up moving to Sherman Oaks in 2005, two blocks away from the Hamburger Hamlet here.
    Their bar, happily, has still been restored, the cocktails are great, and the food is still awesome. Turns out my dad went to this HH when he was. High school. I’ve introduced it to friends (all mid-late twenties) to early thirties, and we go there at least twice a week for either dinner, happy hour, or brunch. Very glad it’s still there!
    p.s. the chocolate cake is still awesome, and I always get those potatoes with my omlettes.

  • Marty says:

    I visit the Sherman Oaks HH on the average of twice a week for dinner and usually either Saturday or Sunday for brunch. The burgers are still great but so are the ribs, rotisserie chicken, salmon, meat loaf, chili, fajitas, California market salad and some of their new daily specials (a real deal at $9.99) for salad, entree, and fruit. The pesto pasta, beef Stroganoff, chicken pot pie and bacon quiche are my favorites of the daily specials. Weekend brunch served until 3PM Saturday and Sunday adds a very nice French toast, waffle and a really special California skillet. They have a few very good bartenders too. Servers are all top notch. I can vouch for every single one!

  • William says:

    I remember going to the BH Hamburger Hamlet in 1981 and seeing Beau Bridges. He smiled, but I was very shy then, so I didn’t bother him or anything. That HH was a great place, with wonderful service. It was always a treat to go there. Glad to hear there’s still one in Pasadena. Ah, South California……

  • Winnie Bond-Madsen says:

    Yes, Maxine. Just buy Marilyn Lewis’s book, “Marilyn, are you sure you can cook? he asked”

    Great book for all HH fans with some recipes. Loved their restaurants and loved Marilyn’s clothes line “Cardinali”, in fact her designs still hold up very nicely!

  • Maxine Silver says:

    Is there any way to get the Lobster bisque and Onion soup recipes?

  • mc says:

    I ran across Hamburger Hamlet sometime in the early 2000’s (late to the party I guess) on Hollywood Blvd. It was a good catch a bite before seeing a movie.

    Loved the hamburgers, and the Lobster Bisque was my favorite. Glad to hear a few are still hanging on.

  • Lee Elder says:

    Our family dined at the HH in Westwood a few times but the one we frequented the most was the San Vicente Blvd. location in West LA. If memory serves, the location was previously an Exxon service station, notable because my first job was at that Exxon. The HH was THE family location for us. We lived outside of the LA area, but when we visited my mother in LA, the Hamlet was our spot. The kids loved it, my wife and I loved it and Mom loved it. You never knew who you might recognize at another table, but the big attraction for us was that everyone in the family could find something on the menu that we liked and the service was always very good.

  • Catherine says:

    When I was a kid we went to the one in Westwood probably once a week. My Mom would take me there or to the one in B H. For lunch all the time. When I was finally old enough to go to Westwood with a friend, H.H. was like home base. We’d go there to call our Mom’s to come pick us up, etc. My all time fave was a # 11, which I remember as having barbecue sauce. Whenever I went with my cousin, he would ask ” what kind of a # 11 are you going to have? I miss it so much!

  • Mike Webb says:

    My experiences with H H started around the mid 80’s and the food was terrible and not worth eating the only reason I visited was to get a libation at the bar even the bar food sucked either H H crashed and burned or it was never a good place to eat. This was at the Costa Mesa CA. location man was the food bad. Managers and employees were Idiots with Big heads and small brains.

  • Adrienne says:

    I used to love Hamburger Hamlet, and I ate at the one on Sepulveda and the one on Beverly Drive. Pee Wee Crayton’s lovely widow Esther is a long time neighbor of mine. Mrs. Crayton is alive and well and makes one of the best lemon cakes I have ever had in my life. She once shared with me lovely memories of working for the Lewis family. The Hamlet was a place you could go and be assured of the quality of the food, but since there were none close to me anymore I stopped eating there in the mid 80’s.

  • Randy Reyes says:

    I have dined at all the Hamlets in the past 30 years. Had lunch at the Brentwood location everyday for 10 years being served by Vince Palmer and his great staff. Sad that so many of the locations in So Cal have closed — now living in Malibu, I still dine at the Sherman Oaks and Pasadena locations monthly. I really believe the Hamlet does casual dinning in a tasteful way we miss today far too often compared to what else is out there.

    – Randy Reyes

  • Deborah Smith says:

    Worked at Crocker Bank in Century City and ate at Hamburger Hamlet just about every day. Saw Chuck Connors once. Very nice man. Because I ate there so much the wait staff knew me so I would get extra food. I would always leave a very nice tip. I miss the place and the people

  • AndyS says:

    My aunt and uncle moved into an apartment across the street from the Whisky, just above the Shell gas station on the corner of Sunset and Clark in 1964. Whenever my parents and I visited, I got the chore of walking down the block to Hamburger Hamlet with the same order. Four steak sandwiches and one #11; bacon, cheese and Russian dressing. And I got to keep the change from the $10 bill too!

  • Modspell says:

    I have frequented the Pasadena location a number of times, once sitting directly behind TV writer Stephen Cannell as he sat there reading something. I loved the Topanga Canyon and Ventura Blvd location, long gone now. The Pasadena back room is great and has retained its charm and central round fireplace. I was just there last week, thank God it has survived.

  • Christopher says:

    Often went to the one at the entrance to Beverly Hills on Sunset and never failed to see a celebrity. Last time I had breakfast there, Diahann Carroll was sitting next to us and Esther Williams and Joanne Worley were across the room. The heavenly lobster bisque is what I recall most from the menu, although everything I had was good.

  • T. G. Smith says:

    Opps! Here’s a PS. Just discovered the original Hamburger Hamlet location on Sunset. Went there when they had picnic tables and sawdust on the floor. I was still in High School; 1952. LOVE THIS SITE. T. Smith

  • Britt says:

    I didn’t see the Hamburger Hamlet on Sepulveda Blvd mentioned, I believe in West Los Angeles. I used to take my kids there in the 70’s, but it is long gone now.

  • Lou says:

    We ate at the BH locations from the 50s to the 70s. All the locations seemed to hire mostly African American wait staff, and that was a welcome novelty in those days. I loved the mushroom burgers and the French onion soup, but “those potatoes” were the family faves, two layers of hash browns with sour cream in the middle. I still make them occasionally for the hub…

  • Jeff says:

    I never liked their food maybe because I worked in fine dining for 15 years and was used to fantastic quality freshly prepared food I was a Chef for many years

  • Jeff says:

    I was a regular at the Costa Mesa store mainly the bar I will say the food was ok but I didn’t eat their much I think by the time I had become a bar fly in that store they had slid downhill. Later I wanted to Manage for them it was sad they were trying to go back in time and reclaim the past never a good idea in the restaurant business I was at the big manager possible training get together and they talked about reclaiming the past and trying to hype us up but it fell flat for me I didn’t stay they asked me why and I said they were doing the wrong thing and he didn’t like that… they closed a few years later… I told you not a good idea.

  • JB says:

    I remember this used to be a nationwide chain and my family ate at the location around Vernon Hills, IL when I was an adolescent in the early 90s. Then we ate at the location on Sunset Blvd in August 1992 on a family vacation, my parents somewhat aghast by the GLBT clientele. Being very nostalgic, I ate twice at the Pasadena location during an LA getaway in May 2012. Thought the food was good and would love to have this chain nationwide again, amidst the dreadfully dull Applebe’s and Olive Gardens of today.

  • Steve says:

    Never ate there much, but my friend, Pee Wee Crayton, the blues guitarist’s wife was the head dietician or something for the chain back in the 70’s and 80’s.

  • Tim Loose says:

    I became good friends with Johnny Madden who started as a bust boy in Sherman Oaks. He then was in Brentwood and ended up as a manager in downtown. He was murdered by his girlfriend. What a tragic lost for a beautiful human being.

  • Mike G says:

    And don’t forget the fabulous Lobster Bisque. It was pricey in the 70’s (maybe 3.50), but was worth every penny!.

  • Smooth Guitar says:

    Re: the Westwood Hamburger Hamlet. I loved the motif–which featured little insets in the walls with little models or pictures of scenes from the play Hamlet, with altered quotations (which Shakespeare may not have minded if he had dined there). Back in the mid-’60s, as a high school student, I took a girl there for dinner on one of my first dates. When it came time to pay, I realized I had left my wallet at home! No problem … I left the girl there as collateral, and ran the four blocks home (yes, I lived in Westwood), grabbed my wallet, and paid the ransom, setting my one-time date free. While perhaps sadder, I was at least wiser … and full!

  • Ted Herrmann says:

    I’ve been to most of the Hamlets many times – I think the one at Beverly and Robertson became a nail salon. I’ll still hit the one on Van Nuys Blvd. My signature meal – “apricot” chicken wings and fries – doesn’t quite taste the same anymore …

  • Scott Sperling says:

    I have so many memories of ‘The Hamlet’, but in particular of the location in Sherman Oaks/Studio City. In the -mid-late ’60’s, as a high school and college student, this was the perfect place to go to with a large crowd of friends, with a date or with my family. We loved the food, the large portions, the reasonable prices and I always felt good about asking for our favorite waitress whose name, more than 40 years later, I still remember – Merry Mack. I ate in most of the other locations, but this one was my favorite.

  • Will Hamblet says:

    Back when I was attending USC, in the late 50’s/early 60’s, you could get a steak sandwich & potato chips at the original Sunset Hamlet for less than $2.00. Even then, that was quite a bargain.

  • Neeb says:

    I didn’t get to LA until late 1994, but I did eat at the Westwood location a few times. And Jerry’s Famous is in the exact location of the Westwood location.
    The Hollywood Boulevard location has a bit role in the mythology of STAR WARS. The day STAR WARS opened at the Chinese, a few friends managed to drag George Lucas out of his home and take him to dinner at the Hamlet on Hollywood Blvd, which was right across the street from the Chinese… where there were huge crowds for STAR WARS. And while, Lucas was still stressed for a while, his mood was improved substantially.

  • Daniel Kravetz says:

    In addition to the wonderful burgers and fries, for dessert you could get a huge slice of chocolate cake topped with vanilla ice cream, hot fudge sauce and whipped cream, intended to be shared by two or more people. The Hamlet in Sherman Oaks may still be there (and “Hamburger” may not be part of the name any more), but it’s barely a shadow of what it used to be.

  • William says:

    In the mid 80’s, I worked in downtown L.A., fresh out of USC, there was a Hamburger Hamlet in the lobby of our building at 615 S. Flower Street/at Wilshire Blvd. They served the most wonderful breakfast also!

  • Ed Mathis says:

    When we used to live in Riverside, I think we ate at a Hamburger Hamlet in Palm Spring. I remember we saw Buddy Rich eating at one of the tables.

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