Prior to writing and directing last year's American Splendor, Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman were probably best known for Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's (1997), an engrossing though flawed documentary about the famous Beverly Hills eatery. The film is an endless parade of movie stars, TV stars, politicians and pontiffs, represented via archive footage (dating back to Chasen's opening in 1936) and new interviews. Primarily a hangout for an older generation of Hollywood movers and shakers long dead or well past their prime, Chasen's menu and atmosphere had become decidedly un-hip by the 1990s. Until, that is, the restaurant announced it was closing -- then it became the hottest ticket in town. As one interviewee points out, "When you're sick nobody will call you, but when you die everyone comes to the funeral."
While entertaining as an historical footnote of Hollywood history, Off the Menu received mixed reviews as a documentary, and it's easy to see why. On the surface, the film appears little more than a wistful celebration, an elegiac tribute to what, in only a few more years, will be a completely extinct period of Hollywood history. Even Jack Lemmon, undeniably one of filmdom's heaviest hitters, depicts Chasen's closing as a monumental tragedy, suggesting Hollywood marks the end of its epochs (as opposed to its epics) by the death of its landmark restaurants.
But what exactly is Off the Menu celebrating? Not its high-fat, high-cholesterol cuisine of chili, red meat and heavy cream, which producer David Brown notes often sent Chasen's customers staggering to nearby Cedars-Sinai. Certainly not its ambiance, for the restaurant was architecturally dull, looking like a pricey Bill Knapp's, one of a chain of high-end "family" restaurants. A lot of celebrities ate there, but so what? Its very exclusiveness and the incredible shallowness of some of Chasen's customers don't make the place especially inviting. One unnamed interviewee, for instance, declares Pepe the bartender "the most important Hispanic in Southern California" all because he invented a drink called "the Flame of Love." Top that, Cesar Chavez.
It's Chasen's mostly ancient and diverse staff that's the heart of Off the Menu, men in the 60s and 70s, most of whom talk like Conrad Veidt or Mischa Auer. (Some of its international staff, we're told, came from as far away as the "mountain villages of Peru.") The picture is really a tribute to them much more than the restaurant itself, and what resonates are issues involving their tangential, quasi-friendships with the stars.
Belatedly, the center of the picture becomes Tommy Gallagher, who had worked at Chasen's since 1947, most days from 10:00am until two o'clock the next morning. He devoted his life to the restaurant, and even after ill-health forced him to retire shortly before Chasen's closing, he still hung out at the restaurant to be near friends, oxygen tank in tow. Such devotion won him precious photo ops with Rat Packers, presidents and at least one Pope, but it also nearly cost him his relationship with his son, a man still bitter that his dad was never around.
The result is like Remains of the Day seen through the eyes of Entertainment Tonight. The waiters rattle off the names of celebrities they've served as if they were trophies. Images and famous stories of Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne are jumbled with recent ones of Gary Coleman and Kato Kaelin. The waiters and captains take an enormous and very real pride in what they perceive, at least at times, as unique and intimate friendships with their famous customers. A final scene seems to bear this out, yet an unmistakable upstairs / downstairs line not-to-be-crossed is always present. And one can help feel these men are fooling themselves, even as you admire their dedication.
The filmmakers don't seem to entirely understand this basic quandary, judging by the way this aspect of Chasen's story surfaces intermittently, only to be revived at the end without much editorial comment. Mingled throughout the film are trivial details it could have done without, such as how a ladies room attendant inspired Donna Summer's "She Works Hard for the Money." Instead of Gallagher, the lion's share of the interview footage is dominated by one Raymond Bilbool, an extravagantly pissy Burmese banquet coordinator. He whines, gossips entertainingly, and dispenses overtly petty insults, ultimately coming off as much too self-involved to offer real insight on Chasen's or its staff.
Video & Audio
Off the Menu is presented in a full-frame, 4:3 transfer. The mix of stock footage, new footage shot on film, and miscellaneous bits on grainy videotape good fine if unexceptional. The mono soundtrack is likewise. There are no subtitles.
The main extra is a Audio Commentary Track featuring Pulcini, Berman, and Bilbool, whose bed & breakfast is shamelessly plugged. Also included are filmmaker biographies, a photo gallery, Chasen's Famous Recipes for hobo steak and chili, and miscellaneous Docurama material.
Though it fails to live up to its potential, Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's is a fun an sometimes insightful slice of Hollywood history, and a mediation on the nature of celebrity.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.