A scene from 1951’s “The Strip,” at the original Hamlet
This month the Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset Boulevard closes. Opened in 1978, the Sunset branch sat four blocks west of where the original debuted in 1950, back when L.A. was shedding its Midwestern veneer and embracing the midcentury. Owned by Harry and Marilyn Lewis (he was an actor; she, a fashion designer), Hamburger Hamlet was “classy” without class consciousness. With its tufted banquettes, wood details, and vintage English theater handbills, the chain was enough of a destination for a teenager to test-drive his first tweed sport coat. For years the Westwood branch (also closed) was where members of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts would break the fast, which meant having every old New York comic who’d moved west sit down—hungry and grumpy—at the same time. The food? A patty slathered with Thousand Island provided the cornerstone of a menu that rarely resisted the dramatic flourish. Omelettes were served at table straight from the pan. Beer came in schooners. The “chili size” (a cheeseburger sans bun and drowned in chili) had a following, but the lobster bisque—thick and creamy with a whisper of sherry—was my favorite. I can still order a bowl at the area’s two remaining Hamlets, in Pasadena and Sherman Oaks, but the West Hollywood branch was where I got my first taste in the ’80s. Even then the place was a step behind the times, priding itself on such touches as abundant space between tables, but I was always filled with a sense of anticipation as I pulled on the handle of the glass door.