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 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.
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.