Harry Lewis died last week and I want to note it. He created a successful string of restaurants called Hamburger Hamlet in Los Angeles. I wrote about the closing of the final Hamlet a while back. I wanted to note his passing because without knowing it he helped raise me.
Growing up in LA Hamburger Hamlet, or “Hamlets”, as we called them for short, loomed large. They were a great medium restaurant. Not fast food, but not fancy. You could dress casual, or a great to place to go after you’d been to a movie. I am a child of the ’70’s. The political aware, ERA T-shirt wearing kids, mom wearing Dr Scholls with her long straight hair, dad with side burns with big lapels. When I was 8 my mom started her business. An alternative school. She was busy and my dad was not Mr. Co-parent. Domestic duties still fell on to my mother totally.
It was around this time that my mom announced she was not cooking anymore. Once in a while? No, Thanksgiving was pretty much it. She meant it. She had her own health food, but if I didn’t want salt less turkey soup,( and who does?) lentils, rice cakes we were on our own. My sisters and I would cobble something together. Our go toos: Fettucine Alfredo, fried Chicken, quiche makes me wonder why we weren’t obese.
The other way I ate was when my sister Carole got her drivers license my mom would hand her $20 and say “Take Daphne to the Hamlet”. We would sit in the red vinyl booths on National Blvd, or Westwood or for the fancy Hamlet on Sunset Blvd where it was usual to see Dean Martin at the bar. There were many things we loved on the menu: the French Onion soup, “Those Potatoes” , which was hash browns with sour cream ( what’s NOT to like about that!). But, the dish that really took root in my heart, mind and soul was the #11 hamburger. This burger had crisp bacon, and Russian dressing. The ratio of meat to bread, to yummy extras was all perfect.
Harry Lewis started out as an actor.
He had a vision of an upscale hamburger place that was still easy, accesible. He and his wife Marilyn sold the collection of restaurants in the ’80’s for $30 million and it was never the same.
Cut to 2000, I was guest on a show in SF and waiting in the green room with me was Marilyn and her son, who was running their remaining restaurant. She was delightful and gave me her memoir which I read dreaming of a #11. It had great stories like Sammy Davis Jr. and Jeff Chandler filling in for the Lewis’s so they could elope.
Years later I’m very pregnant with Vivien and my doctor was in Westwood near Hamlet Gardens. One of the few places they still ran. You know how as the pregnancy wears on the doctors visits become more frequent. Mark often came with me. Since I was pregnant I was alway hungry. Mark knew not to come between a snarling pregnant woman and her appetite so he always let me pick. More often than not I’d say “Hamlet Gardens”. Was it as good as the old Hamlet, no. Partly because it seemed more fancy, ladies who lunch. Even though I was a lady lunching I longed for the straight ahead wonder that was red vinyl and perfectly proportioned cooked meat. Nevertheless, during this pregnancy I had little interest in spice, veggies, off beat. I wanted WHAT I KNEW and hearty.
The Hamlet Garden’s had a hamburger, but not the #11. I would ask the waiter if they could make it. They would say, “Let me check. Sometimes some of the old timers are in the kitchen and they can make it for you.” One day I noticed that Harry Lewis was there.
He was still a handsome man, lined, grey, but distinguished and well dressed. He was looking over the dining room still very interested in the running of his business and that people were being taken care of. We caught eyes and smiled. He said,
“Did I hear you ask for a #11?” said the man who helped raise me, but I had never met. Did I! So I gushed about how I grew up in the Hamlet’s and how much I loved them and my baby ( gesturing to large belly) NEEDED a #11 to insure her strength and vitality. Well, Mr. Lewis was charmed and charming and I GOT MY #11. I got quite a few during my last trimester. When he walked away from our table I sat back relieved. “Mark, our baby is going to be ok.”
“Of course she is” Mark said.
“No, now she has been blessed.” Because in my agnostic, alternative, always searching for our next meal upbringing the creator of the Hamlet was the equivalent of a patron saint and he had just laid on hands.( so to speak)
It worked. Look at Vivien! She was a big, healthy baby.
I know what it is like to be the loyal customer who misses their favorite restaurant and to be part of the favorite restaurant who closes and misses its loyal customers. It is a strangely superficial, yet enduring relationship.
My gratitude to Harry and Marilyn Lewis and their restaurants. Without them I might have starved.