03/27/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
FORGET DISNEY WORLD; IN 1972, Olympic hero Mark Spitz, fresh from winning seven gold medals in Munich, made a beeline for Chasen's restaurant in Hollywood. Ronald Clint, the manager, seated Spitz at the center table usually reserved for such as Alfred Hitchcock and Groucho Marx. Unfortunately Marx himself sauntered in moments later. "So it's come to this," said Groucho. "I'm going to have to swim to get a decent table in this joint."
Clint, Chasen's manager for 40 of its 59 years, delights in the memory. The sad truth is, though, that soon no one will be able to get a table at Chasen's, decent or otherwise. On April 1, Hollywood's famed celebrity oasis, once synonymous with Frank Sinatra and Clark Gable, will close its doors, taking with it more than half a century of glamor. "Jimmy Stewart always favored liver and onions," says Clint. "There isn't a major star who has not eaten here."
The trouble is that too few of the major stars have been in lately. Bastion of an older, more conservative Hollywood, Chasen's has been eclipsed by power hot spots such as Spago and Morton's. "At some of the newer places, people are allowed to come in wearing warm-up suits, even T-shirts," says Clint. "We still require a jacket."
Chasen's began humbly enough in 1936 as a barbecue pit with only two items on the menu: ribs and chili. Dave Chasen, an ex-vaudeville comic who died in 1973, did the cooking himself. With rapid-fire word of mouth, business swelled—as did the menu and the restaurant's mission. Chasen's 55 tables soon became tony, upscale centers of gravity for Tinseltown machinations—and a locus of Hollywood legend.
Lore has it that when a certain irresistibly dimpled child star of the '30s cried that she wanted a cocktail like her parents', a Chasen's bartender tossed together a concoction of ginger ale, grenadine and fruit that became the Shirley Temple. Another time, when a very pregnant Dorothy Lamour squirmed uncomfortably at her table, owner Chasen ordered part of it cut away. Once, square-jawed Wagon Train star Ward Bond took the cutting business into his own hands. Annoyed at all the hype surrounding young Orson Welles, he approached Welles's booth with a pair of scissors and severed the boy genius's tie—inducing Welles to duke it out in the parking lot.
The irony is that even as Chasen's begins its final countdown, young Hollywood has been flooding in. "It's wild," says Clint. "All these new stars who normally flock to the trendier places are coming in at last. They seem to enjoy themselves—and wonder why they haven't been here before."
F. X. FEENEY in Hollywood