Regular readers of WEHOville may notice frequent posts about the opening of new restaurants. Unfortunately, most are shortly followed by another post announcing the closing of the same restaurants. Some had a celebrity connection as a performer with more money than good sense lent their names and funds to an eatery that had the odds against it from the start. One of the most memorable of these celebrity dining spots was Dino’s Lodge, which lasted more than 20 years on the Sunset Strip but lives on in reruns of a TV show that set the standards for early sixties cool.
The series 77 Sunset Strip, which ran on ABC from 1958 until 1964, starred Efrem Ziimbalist Jr. and Roger Smith as a pair of hip private detectives who operated out of an office next door to a restaurant called Dino’s Lodge. The sophisticated sleuths parked their convertible in Dino’s lot, where a pompadoured valet called Kookie used the hippest vernacular while combing his hair to perfection. This show was the first of a genre of similar series like Bourbon Street Beat, Surfside Six, and Hawaiian Eye, all of which featured handsome detectives, sexy ladies, scenic locations, and catchy theme songs.
While the address 77 Sunset Strip did not actually exist, Dino’s really did occupy 8524 Sunset Blvd. on the block just to the west of La Cienega. The building at 8524 Sunset had a chequered past but Dino’s would become its most famous tenant. Back in the 1940s, the site had housed an auction house specializing in wooden furniture followed in the early fifties by a not-so-successful family restaurant called the Alpine Lodge. In the late 50s, the owners of the Lodge approached singer Dean Martin and his business partner with the idea of saving their sinking restaurant by hooking up with the star, who needed the influx of cash.
Dean Martin had been half of the most successful showbiz duo of the early fifties, but by 1958 the crooner had split from his comic partner Jerry Lewis and his career was on the skids. As his late son Ric explained in 2011, “In debt and desperate, Dad agreed to several business deals on the side in the hopes something big would come along to reignite his career. He sold his name to a restaurant and bar on Sunset, which became famous as Dino’s Lodge.” Included in the deal was a job for Martin’s brother William as manager. Although Dean Martin did not actually own the joint, he did get fifty percent of the profits in return for having his neon countenance displayed several feet high above the Sunset Strip.
The eatery, which featured dark woods and plushly upholstered booths for that Rat Pack ambiance, served steaks and Italian cuisine that kept it in the black for a few years, especially after 77 Sunset Strip made Dino’s a popular tourist trap. Martin’s connection to the restaurant bearing his name ended in 1962 but his image remained on the sign out front until the entire block was totally renovated in the 1980s. Dino’s memorabilia like cups, menus, and ashtrays have become highly prized by collectors.
When I was a kid, my mom and I loved 77 Sunset Strip and watched it every week, so in 1971, when I moved to my first WeHo pad only a block from Dino’s we had to check it out. The pasta was tasty but not as spectacular as the view. By this time, Dino’s had seen better days but I’m happy that I had the chance to dine in a memorable WeHo bistro before its inevitable demise.