The comments on my last post about Dino’s revealed quite a bit of interest in another Sunset Strip eatery, the Hamburger Hamlet. The Hamlet had other locations but the one at 9201 Sunset was the one that attracted more A-listers and is remembered most fondly.
Back in 1950, Warner Bros. contract player Harry Lewis and his wife-to-be Marilyn scraped together $3,500 to open a restaurant at 8951 Sunset on the corner of Hilldale and Sunset, in the heart of the entertainment industry at the time. Since Lewis planned to cater to the acting community, he named the place Hamburger Hamlet, since many actors dream of playing Hamlet.
The Sunset Strip location was so successful that other Hamburger Hamlets followed, eventually making a chain of 24 restaurants across Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. In 1963, the original Hamlet moved to a larger building farther west at 9201 Sunset at Doheny in a brand new high rise that housed many doctors’ offices and, a Schwab’s Pharmacy. The Sunset Strip Hamlet was the flagship of the chain, attracting a long list of stars that included Bette Davis, Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Lana Turner, and Debbie Reynolds.
The Hamlet’s most famous habitue was Dean Martin, who could often be seen enjoying a drink at the bar. Martin lived nearby in Beverly Hills and began dining regularly at the Sunset Strip Hamlet after the breakup of his longtime marriage to Jeanne Martin in 1969. The singer also found consolation in his friends at the restaurant after the tragic death of his beloved son Dino in a 1987 plane crash.
The success of the Hamburger Hamlet allowed Marilyn Lewis to pursue her original ambition of being a fashion designer, launching her Cardinali line in the 1960s. Her sophisticated styles were favorites with many glamorous stars and she designed the wardrobe for the Marlo Thomas TV series “That Girl.”
As memorable as the celebrities who hung out at the Hamlet was the food. The Hamlet menu included dishes like Lobster Bisque, French onion soup, “Those Potatoes”, “Zucchini Zircles” with apricot dipping sauce, and a variety of customizable hamburgers.
We can’t reminisce about the Hamlet without mentioning Frances Davis, the “maitre diva” of the Sunset Strip location. Frances had a fascinating career before joining the Hamlet staff, being one of the earliest black ballerinas and an original member of the Broadway cast of “West Side Story.” Her performing career was derailed for a few years by her marriage to jazz legend Miles Davis but she returned to the stage in the 60s and 70s. She can be seen as the sexy maid in the Peter Sellars movie “The Party” and as one of the white-clad dancers in the gospel number on Elvis Presley’s 1968 Comeback Special. Frances brought her talents to her job at the Hamlet, singing to regular customers as she led them to their tables. I got to know Frances in the last years of her life before she left us in 2018 at the age of 89.
I confess that I did not spend a lot of time hanging out at the Hamlet, although I do recall enjoying tuna melts with singer/songwriter Tommy Boyce of the duo Boyce & Hart back in 1972 and worked as a cashier briefly when I was between jobs. My most vivid memory is checking out Liza Minnelli and Richard Chamberlain, who were collaborating on a project at the time.
Things began to decline after Harry and Marilyn Lewis sold the Hamburger Hamlet chain to a private NY company in 1987 and opened Kate Mantilini on Willshire Blvd. The Sunset Strip location closed in 2011, Harry died in 2013, Kate Mantilini closed in 2014 and Marilyn passed in 2017. The Strip just isn’t the same without a Hamburger Hamlet.
What are your fondest memories of the Hamburger Hamlet?