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

  • Mike says:

    Loved both their lobster bisque and french onion soups!

  • K Jeffalone Moore says:

    I loved eating at the HH in Century City on Century Park East(?) and “Little” Santa Monica during the early 1980s. The mushroom burger and the onion soup fondue were my favorites. I remember one of the waitresses, Sandy! She always knew what our (my then co-workers as well as myself) favorite orders were and almost had them at our table before we were seated! Great food; excellent atmosphere!!

  • Chip Fussell says:

    In late 1973 or early 1974 I had a conversation with Harry Lewis at his offices in BH. I was in my late 20s. I was just starting out as a stockbroker with Dupont Glore Forgan. Harry was a man with flair. I recall him telling me that when he met his wife, she told him that she had always wanted to own a hamburger place and his response was, “So have I!” The name for HH, according to our conversation, came from him deciding that rather than being an acting Hamlet, he would be a Hamburger Hamlet. The other thing that has stuck with me all these years is that he mentioned that he owned a Bentley and an Excalibur automobile. He said that driving the Excalibur gave him a back ache. He liked the Bentley more and he said that a Bentley was the ultimate status symbol. Since a Bentley cost only a few dollars less than a Rolls, in owning a Bentley you were saying that you could afford a Rolls, but preferred the Bentley.

  • Salli Stevenson says:

    I remember the Hamlet in Westwood, next door to the Bruin Theater. I majored in lunch there in 1964 and 1965 The # 11 with cheese and bacon, fries and the chocolate cake. It was heavenly!

  • Jon Stock says:

    The food was aaight there but they had this like seven layer triple chocolate cake that was fricken mind blowing! That’s all I can say about that #bestever

  • Noel Decker says:

    I was the GM at the Woodland Hills unit (#8) in 1969-72, and I still have a LOT of good memories about those early days.

    The WH unit was called Fort Apache, because it was SO far from the Beverly Hills home office and in those days, Topanga Canyon Blvd was THE last pit stop off the 101 until you got to Oxnard…and getting to those mandatory 9am Friday morning meetings in Beverly Hills was a killer even back then…!

    Someone mentioned that there were a lot of African-Americans working at HH. I asked Harry about that one day and his answer was so simple. He said that he and Marilyn had been blesses with success, and they wanted to share that with as many black people as they could.

    I still remember two of my favorite servers..Ms. Bessie Porter and Ms. Lovenia Washington.

    I was a tall skinny white kid, all of 22 at the time, yet they took me under their wings and made sure I was doing alright. My son Adam, now 45 years old, was born while I worked there and those ladies made sure I had a basket of food as I went flying out to the hospital on 02-12-70 for his birth.

    Interesting memory that half the GM’s were white and we had to wear blue blazers with a large pinned on logo over our breast pocket. The black GM’s had to wear brown blazers, with that same logo on their pocket

    Years later, I went back to help Harry open the Costa Mesa location and I needed to have the Costa Mesa PD escort my black servers and cooks from LA to their cars, because of all the death threats we were getting for months after we opened, teaching all of us the openess of the “big city” vs Orange County back in the 70’s. We all felt like we were in the deep south, NOT Southern California….

    I remember Marilyn threw Harry a huge 50th Birthday party at the office, None of us salaried managers were making a ton of money in those days and yet we had to get excited when she presented him with a black stretch Mercedes WITH an English personal driver…! Harry canned the driver after a few weeks and was quite a sight driving himself around to the restaurants in that thing…

    The Lewis’ had the BEST all around maintenance man, a hefty jack of all trades Irishman by the name of Mr. Sullivan. He kept those busy places open with more than one hanger or pack of gum…Great guy.

    Our VP of HR was a David Jansen look alike by the name of David Bacon. Super nice guy, as was my DM, Fred Sanchez. Fred and his brother Joaquin, help put together the old DuPars chain back in the 50’s.

    Anything today with the HH on the sign is unfortunately just a shell of what once was. A restaurant without a soul is just a room with four walls. The Lewis’ put their souls and their hearts into their locations..

    I look at the Cheesecake Factory of today and HH with that huge menu was really the CF of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s….with that Lobster Bisque, the best fried wings in town….. and “Those Potatoes…!!”

    Good stuff…..and great memories of a different time.

    Noel Decker

  • Terry G. Smith says:

    Went there, at the original, on Sunset frequently. Started with my high school friend in 1952; later at the other locations. He passed away a few years ago. Sure miss those days.

  • John Hindsill says:

    I didn’t. Not in Westwood Village, not on Sunset Strip, not on Van Nuys Blvd. where I often lunched in the early seventies. Not at any Hamlet I ever went to. I guess I just was not racially observant. And I certainly would not know what you noticed in those decades, since I didn’t know you then. In fact, I don’t like the innuendo inherent in noting Blacks were not cashiers.

  • Sandy Samuels says:

    Did not anyone notice that in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s that every Hamlet location that I ever visited except the 8931 Sunset location that the entire staff (possibly excepting the bartender) except the hostess/cashier was Black?

  • Preston says:

    I worked at the one in Woodland Hills as a bus boy during high school up until 1969. I made enough money to buy an MG, a Corvette and an American Motors AMX. It took working 5 nights a week after school and weekends to do it, but I liked cars. Mr. Lewis came in about once a month and always taught me something. Never have your hands empty. Walking toward the kitchen, you take a bus tray. Walking the other way, you fill every water glass. Walking back, you fill every coffee cup and start a new pot brewing. Walking back, you sweep the carpet while looking around for a table that might need clearing soon. He taught me not to waste a motion and never to leave a customer needing to wave for something, you anticipate. Vin Scully came in, Hugh Beaumont(Beaver’s father), some other celebs. The experience I had working there gave me a good base to understand business and over the years, I did very well starting businesses over the ensuing years, always thinking about what Harry Lewis taught me. Eventually I emailed Mrs. Lewis a long note about it, what I had accomplished and how the Hamlet had gotten me started. I was promoted quickly to substitute chef, and then host by the time I was 17. But, if the dishwasher didn’t show up, I needed to get right back there and handle that. She read it to Harry and said he was very moved, and was walking around the apartment saying “that’s my legacy…the people I trained.”

  • Sean Carrillo says:

    In 1978 I used to frequent the Hamburger Hamlet on the 5th floor at Bonwit Teller in Beverly Hills. I have never seen this HH mentioned here. It too was affordable and delicious and the people watching was first rate. I was an elevator operator at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel at the time. I write a bit more about some of my adventures in my blog (self promotion alert) avanishingworld.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/sons-and-lovers/.

  • Brian Weiss says:

    I don’t think you could graduate from UCLA in the 60’s without at least a minor in Hamburger Hamlet, with all classes at the Westwood location! That was back when they knew what they were and served a remarkably array of hamburgers. I also frequented the San Vicente location a decade later, when I was living in Santa Monica.

    I used to eat lunch regularly with a friend and business acquaintance at the Sherman Oaks location, but the menu kept shrinking and the prices kept rising. When the curves crossed, we went elsewhere. It was a sad ghost of what the “real” HH was in its heyday.

    The Pasadena location closed a couple of years ago, and has now mutated into a very, very sad DuPar’s with bad, expensive food.

  • Charles W says:

    I remember there were two different Hamburger Hamlet’s in Century City. Our family used to go to the one near the ABC Entertainment Center in the 70’s. It was quite large with a second level. They had a MS. Pacman table game in lobby. I think they moved to the South East corner of Avenue of the stars and Little Santa Monica in the 80’s. We also went to the one in Brentwood and on Sepulveda. I went on my first date at the Westwood Village location and we went to see Foul Play at the Bruin.

  • Lurky McLurkson says:

    Christy Canyon had lunch with Jim South at the HH in Sherman Oaks, right after her historic first meeting with him at World Modeling in ’84. There oughta be a statue!

  • Brad says:

    I remember having lunch at the Beverly Hills(?) location in Summer of 1977.
    The burger was delicious. My lunch company that day was my Geart Uncle Bill and his friend….Mel Blanc!

  • Kathy says:

    My husband and I both remember eating at the Hamburger Hamlets throughout the LA area while growing up. I grew up on the westside and most frequently went to the locations on Sepulveda and in Westwood Village. I also ate at one in Maryland while visiting friends at Georgetown University, and when we moved to Oak Park in 1995 we were happy to find the one in Agoura Hills. We just ate at the remaining location in Sherman Oaks, and found it to be quite good. I got the baby cheeseburgers and my husband enjoyed the turkey dinner. Give them a try – it was a fun walk down memory lane.

  • steve says:

    These were great restaurants with over 30 or 40 different kinds of hamburgers. The menu was huge as I remember and while they had one in Costa Mesa, the one in Westwood was my favorite.

  • Jill says:

    Does anyone remember the Hamburger Hamlet in Encino in the lobby of the Independence Bank Building on Gloria and Ventura?? One of my favorites from the 70s!!

  • Alvin Epstein says:

    Growing up in Brentwood, my family and I used to go to the one on San Vicente quite frequently. I always liked the food and atmosphere there. I miss it.

  • Patrick Friel says:

    What about the HH once located on Hollywood Blvd., across the street from the Chinese Theatre?

  • Christophe Silvey says:

    Grew up going with my parents to the HH in Palm Springs every spring break. There was a cool early ’70s mall around it, it’s all gone now. Loved reading the framed articles on the Olivier film version. A totally unique vibe and a pioneer in burger cuisine.

  • Terry Smith says:

    My high school friend and I sat on that patio many times. Later, when it became a chain, we frequented several; Westwood, Beverly Hills, Sherman Oaks. The lobster bisque was one of my all time favorites. We were friends for a lifetime; he passed away a couple of years ago. Thanks for the memories. t.

  • Hortencia says:

    FYI The Hamlet has reopened in Sherman Oaks on Van Nuys.

  • Jonathan says:
  • Jonathan says:

    Isn’t it strange; the older we get, the fonder the memories. The stories we could tell; those of us there during the disco craze. Ventura Blvd. The back door entrance. The bathrooms. Reserved seating for us “regulars” at the front window booths. Gosh we thought we were slick. Cars left at the front door by the Valets. Sabrina Strejan (wonder what ever happened to her?) That red and white Jersey Candy-striped dress that was skin-tight. If she reads this, I hope she forgives me. She was a young man’s dream. Hope she’s sill happily married. The StepUp bar. The stepDown Library. The back dance floor. Disco. Michel Jackson Donna Summer, Chemin de Fer jeans we were poured into. BB and CC Starr. Still the best couple and greatest Porsche Turbo WhaleTail ever. And San Vicente (the door was actually on Darlington). The drinks, the music. I learned to DJ there. OK and the burgers and lobster bisque. Harry and Marilyn were the best people. Thank you Harry and Marilyn for some unforgettable times. The Best Club in LA. The best people. Memories most 21-25 year olds only dream of. Harry and Marilyn let us live them.

  • Dan Manc says:

    George Mejia – thanks for sharing your experience with Dean Martin. I’m 60 years old and have come to appreciate Dean Martin in the last 20 years. Would have loved to see him in person and will settle for visiting the Hamburger Hamlet t0 be where he often had lunch.

  • Gary honea says:

    I worked for maryln Lewis at her home in Beverly hills catering as a chef. She was fun and a perfectionist. What fun doing parties for Ken burns and Julia child’s. She loved her hamlets

  • Trish says:

    I grew up in the 1960’s and my mom and dad took me to HH, I think it was the one in Westwood, and possibly a couple of other locations, and they were all fabulous. Utterly fabulous. Even as a kid of 10 or 11, I knew good stuff! I vividly recall seeing Cyndy and Steve Garvey (the baseball player) and their family in there one day, such fun! Never got a bad meal at HH. The burgers were perfection, always top quality, and I miss HH so bad. I tried to explain to a younger person the other day the difference between burgers then and burgers now, and they just don’t understand. All these “gourmet” burgers for outrageous prices that can’t even come near to HH! It makes me sad and I’ve searched (in vain) for anything that remotely comes close, but have given up, because there simply won’t ever be another HH as it was in its heydey. I just want to send my fond thanks to the Lewis family for giving MY family such wonderful outings, times together, great food, great feelings and beautiful memories. It’s an era that won’t ever come again.

  • Mike says:

    One of my favorite restaurants back in the 80’s and 90’s! I went to a lot of the locations in Southern California! Some of them quite a few times! I ate at the one on the Sunset Strip a few times back in 1987, when I worked down the street in the 9000 building. I went to the ones in Beverly Hills and Brentwood quite a few times in the 90’s. I went to the one on Sepulveda, just north of National Blvd in West LA, several times in the 90’s. I also went to the one in West Hollywood, on Beverly and Robertson, and the one in Westwood Village a few times. I even ate at the one in Costa Mesa, when I lived down there in 1987 and 1988, and after moving to the Valley, went to the ones in Northridge, Agoura Hills and Sherman Oaks. Loved them all! Some of the Hamburger Hamlet’s were also great places to watch Monday Night Football! I really miss HH!

  • Angela says:
  • Marlene Gilbert Anderson says:

    I was the bartender at HH on Melrose Place – we were down the street from a recording studio, talent agency and across from Cedars Sinai hospital. There were always celebs dining there. One of my favorite memories is Cher being there with Gene Simmons and some older customers thought she was there waitress. Loved it there – loved my co-workers. Mrs Lewis would never come in as there had been a shooting there years before.

  • JAMES WATSON says:

    My parents and I went the hambuger hamlet in Brentwood on San Vincente.

  • Jane says:

    The recipe for HH lobster bisque is pretty labor-intensive! It’s at http://www.melindalee.com/recipes/hamburger-hamlet%E2%80%99s-lobster-bisque/

    I loved the blue cheese burgers at the Hamlet –had never had anything like them before (was the Hamlet the first to serve hamburgers that combination?).

  • CARON says:

    I started dining at the Hamburger Hamlet on Wilshire and Normandie in the 70’s. My favorite dish was the rotisserie chicken with the apricot sauce. It was absolutely delish!! I also went to the Westwood location for breakfast every morning when my son was in kindergarten at U.C.L.A. Seeds Elementary. I have dined at many locations and never been disappointed with the great food and service.

  • George Mejia says:

    I was the Bartender at the Beverly Hills HH in the early 80’s. I just wanted to reply to you, that yes, Mr. Dean Martin would come in for lunch 3-4 times a week at 3:00 and ask me to turn the TV to Barney Miller. He always sat at the first table across the bar, drank my perfect martini, followed by a glass of white wine with his lunch. What a great experience in knowing him…
    we also had Zsa Zsa Gabor who would sit in a both every week. One of my other favorites was when George Carlin sat at the bar with his Mickey Rat
    T-shirt and I will never forget that day. Also I met Lionel Richie just when he was going solo.
    it was a nice place for hollywood , but the owner was sort of the witch lady to the employees because she never cared about the employees. I remember that I was told to eat my lunch behind the bar because I was not given a break and when I was drinking milk, I was fired
    for drinking milk behind the bar.
    I was young and set up for their inabilities to conduct a business.
    I remember the big red hair from Mrs Lewis.

    I would love to reconnect with anyone from that restaurant.

  • Matthew Riddick says:

    I went to the one on Sunset in the late 80’s and I remember that they had great onion rings

  • Aston Banniser says:

    Lobster Bisque with REAL big chunks of actual Lobster…the best…

  • Craig Buckel says:

    anyone ever find the recipe for the lobster bisque?

  • Chris says:

    I remember going into the one on San Vincente with my mom. There was a lot of commotion, and as we turned to see what was going on, we were face to face with Beatlemania. Paul was leaving with a couple of men. No John, George or Ringo. They were in LA appearing at Hollywood Bowl.

  • Terryl says:

    We used to call the one on Sunset “Hangover Hamlet” because it was such a great place to go for a yummy breakfast after an all-nighter of dancing and being young and crazy. Now the one in Pasadena, where we still liked to go as a family for a dose of “comfort food” is closed, too. Oh, how I loved their burger with blue cheese.

  • Gregory Dortch Brown says:

    From the early fifties til 1962 my dad
    William Dortch was the main chef at the
    Sunset Strip Hamburger Hamlet.
    As one of the original chefs many of the
    stars of the day would cook they’re own
    Burgers with dad at the original sunset
    HH. Its said I got offered a in the
    Lone Ranger when I was a baby but my
    said he did not want his son to be an actor.
    I do remember a picture of me & Silver .
    He worked 12 hours a day over a hot
    grill. He died in 1962. At 18 years old I went work at
    Westwood HH there was a camp West Indian
    that worked on the to go bar I think his
    name was Horace. Even after 6 years following
    Dads death people were still in awe of pops he
    Was a legend at the Hamburger Hamlet. I ended
    Up acting in London’s Westend Theatre where I
    have lived for over 33 years.
    Dad didn’t get his wish

  • Lisa says:

    Oooh…Lobster Bisque, The Oak Plank…#11 burger…best garlic bread and Herb Salad dressing was fantastic.

  • charles carroll says:

    In reading some of these recent posts i note the theme that the HH food quality declined over time. It probably occurred after the Lewis’s sold the chain.

    I always hoped that HH would find a location in the Denver area since it is a great location for new restaurant ideas. Maybe it is not too late.

  • Donnamarge says:

    My payday treat in the early 60’s was a diet special at the old Sunset location. It consisted of a burger,no bun, a crock of sour kraut, and a dab of cottage cheese.It cost 75 cents an a 15 cent tip. I enjoyed that treat as I sat on the porch and admired all the young actors who frequented the place.Twenty five years later, I was in Palm Springs with my future husband, who owned part of 118 S Beverly Dr. in BH,, The BH H Hamlet location;when we ran into Marilyn and Harry Lewis. I told Marilyn about my diet special treat and she got tears in her eyes and called Harry over to tell him about it. The Hamlets were their babies. The quality went down AFTER they sold the chain.Harry just passed away but I saw Marilyn a few years ago and she was still as sharp and beautiful as ever.

  • Frank simon says:

    In the 1960s at van nuys blvd. My family loved going there, the waitress,the food– potatoe things,lobster bisque,rice pudding yummy!

  • Lisa says:

    I might add that the location shut down that same year, in 1995.

  • Lisa says:

    I was a hostess turned waitress at the Beverly/Robertson location 1994-95. I was a senior in college at the time. I have a lot of fond memories working here and met some very colorful, interesting people who I have since lost touch with. A couple of the waitresses had been working there nearly 20 years or very close to it! I can recall watching the OJ Simpson trial on the TV in the back bar area. Faye Dunaway and Kenny (“Babyface”) Edmonds were regular customers among those I can remember. Faye ordered takeout, Kenny sat in the restaurant. I was actively recruited to work at the then all vegetarian Newsroom Cafe or whatever restaurant used to be in that location now. I politely declined. What is most amazing to me about the area is how it has changed from having a singular celebrity hangout at the Ivy to being a mecca for celebrities and paparazzi along the entire block. Of course I only know this from TMZ…I have lived in San Francisco since I left LA in 1995.

  • Phil A. says:

    Mike~
    Amen, Amen ! ” not doing the numbers ” is the key phrase in any business.
    Pertaining to restaurants, the recent closing of the Westchester Buggy Whip is a text book example.
    Besides, the restaurant business has always been tough. You can own and operate a multi unit franchise with 100 to 600 employees, and if just one member of your staff miss steps or mistreats a customer …… then the entire chain has lost that customer.
    I do not know how these owner/operators sleep at night.
    Phil Ankofski

  • Mike Webb says:

    Their comes a time in every restaurant were the management needs to make a decision on changing its food either a better product or a complete food product change. This is always difficult as you still want to keep your old loyal customers but bring in a different younger or higher end customer as your customer base has shrunk up meaning you have lost numbers of customers. This was H H dilemma they elected to just keep doing the same thing but reduce its food quality to cut costs with reducing its employee numbers thus reducing the customer experience.

    You either change or you fall down and die part of the problem is to make money in any restaurant now you need fast customer turnover (fast food) the sit down and enjoy your experience places are falling down fast as they are not doing the numbers needed to stay open.

    This started in the mid 80’s that’s why so many places closed up around that time in Orange County I saw many good restaurants close up they couldn’t keep their numbers up to stay in business yet the fast food industry was cranking in the business people want in and out ASAP food now.

    Even fast food can fail as you can see by this web site if managed poorly.

  • Karen says:

    Oops. Excuse me for not proof reading that last post.

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