Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's

on June 19, 1998 by Jon Matsumoto
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   "Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's" isn't just about the sad demise of one of Tinseltown's most celebrated restaurants. It's also a bittersweet look back at the Golden Age of Hollywood, which Chasen's came to symbolize during its seven-decade existence. This splendid documentary chronicles the tearful and frantic two weeks that preceded Chasen's grand exit on April 1, 1995. The husband-and-wife filmmaking team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini capture with humor and warmth the various colorful characters and stories connected to the restaurant's lengthy history. The bachelor party of the late Jimmy Stewart, and Elizabeth Taylor's request that Chasen's famous chili be flown to her in Rome during the filming of "Cleopatra"--these are some of the anecdotes that are lovingly shared.
   But the film's most memorable figures aren't the numerous celebrities that are remembered or interviewed; they are the many fiercely loyal employees of the eatery. They make "Off the Menu" a surprisingly touching and human experience. Many of these workers had toiled for Chasen's for 30, 40 and even 50 years. When some of these mostly older men talk mournfully about the impending death of the restaurant, it's as if part of their soul is about to be taken from them. To irrepressible head waiter Tommy Gallagher, the restaurant is like a seductive mistress. His grown son still seems wounded by the fact that Gallagher, who often did not return home from work until 2 a.m., spent far more time at Chasen's than he did with his own family.
   Yet "Off the Menu," screened at the fest's closing night gala, is admirably objective. It arraigns a myopic profit-margin mentality of the restaurant owners, who sold this valuable part of Hollywood history to a strip mall developer. Simultaneously, the film is an indictment of the trendiness of Hollywood. Although it continued until the end to host lavish post-Oscar parties, Chasen's had ceased years ago to be a fashionable place for celebrities to be seen. Only when it was announced that it was ceasing operations did the restaurant fully regain its star appeal, leaving some people practically begging to be admitted.
   The film is both about the value of tradition and the importance of change. To their credit, Berman and Pulcini aren't afraid to touch on the racist and elitist attitudes that sometimes permeated Chasen's (and Hollywood's) male-dominated walls during its glory days. Nevertheless, it's nearly impossible not to feel a sense of sadness as Raymond Bilbool, the flamboyant and intense kitchen supervisor, is captured proudly walking into the parking lot shadows after his last night of work. For Bilbool and some of his fellow co-workers, life may never be quite as meaningful or exciting.    Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Produced by Julia Strohm. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 90 min. Screened at the L.A. Independent Film Festival.
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