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Remembering Hamburger Hamlet co-founder Marilyn Lewis

A Hamburger Hamlet burger with blue cheese, horseradish, A1 sauce, red onions and garlic fries.
A Hamburger Hamlet burger with blue cheese, horseradish, A1 sauce, red onions and garlic fries.
LWY/Flickr Creative Commons

Marilyn Lewis, who founded the Hamburger Hamlet chain with her husband, Harry, has died. She was 87.

She died Wednesday, her son Adam Lewis told the Los Angeles Times.

"It feels like a chapter's closed, having her no longer with us," says Alison Martino, a pop culture historian who runs the Vintage Los Angeles Facebook page. "She took so many stories with her."

Lewis is the second proprietor of a classic L.A. restaurant to pass away this week. On Tuesday, Lucy Casado of Lucy's El Adobe Cafe in Hollywood, died at the age of 91.

Hamburger Hamlet, considered by many to be the first gourmet burger restaurant, opened in 1950 on Sunset Boulevard, near the Whisky A Go Go.

Marilyn Lewis and her husband Harry were both actors. On their first date, he pitched his big dream to her: starting a restaurant where both entertainers and ordinary people could enjoy themselves.

"She thought that was such a great idea. On their first date they were even putting together the menu," Martino tells KPCC.

Hamburger Hamlet was an instant success, in part because it offered customizable burgers — maybe the first restaurant to do so. It also had a diet menu and was famous for Marilyn's side dishes.

Lobster bisque. Zucchini circles with apricot sauce. "And those potatoes!" Martino says. She describes them as being similar to hash browns but filled with sour cream and crisp on top. The Marilyn Burger, which Lewis named after herself (not Marilyn Monroe, as some have claimed), was also popular.

The look featured red leather booths, wood paneling, dim lighting and big, rolling leather chairs. "You could wheel over to the table next to you," Martino says. "It felt kind of like a party."

Celebrities including Ronald Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor and Dean Martin flocked there. But Martino, who grew up near Sunset and Doheny, says Hamburger Hamlet was also a neighborhood hangout.

"You could walk in and sit next to Bette Davis. You could see Lucille Ball in the restroom. You could see Peter Falk on the pay phone," Martino says. "Obviously, we see celebs around L.A. But this restaurant in particular, nobody really bothered them. Yet they were as friendly as could be because it felt like we were all there with our families on a Sunday night."

Martino also describes Marilyn Lewis as being racially progressive in an era when many restaurants would not serve black patrons or hire black waiters: "When she opened in the 1950s, she was adamant about hiring staff of all race, nationality and color. Nobody had a staff like this in the 50s. Down the street at Ciro's, Sammy Davis Jr. couldn't walk in. He had to walk through the back door."

Frances Taylor Davis, who was once married to Miles Davis, worked as a hostess at Hamburger Hamlet for many years.

The chain expanded in the 1970s and '80s with locations all over Southern California. 

On Facebook, KPCC listeners shared their memories.

Carol P. wrote: "I ate at Hamburger Hamlets more often than any other eatery in the 60's and 70's. Always the bacon/cheese burger! I'm a 74 year old vegan now but still remember those meals and the atmosphere fondly."

Pam H. wrote: "My mom took me to Westwood HH. They had shadow boxes on the walls with parodies of Shakespeare such as, "Get thee to a bunnery. I am very busy, with more burgers at my beck than I have buns to put them in. To a bunnery go!" The food was great- best patty pelts. All the wait staff was African American back then. A different era."

Roger Ch. wrote: "Hamburger Hamlet was awesome. Was much better than other diners, eg Denny's, and the prices were reasonable. Food quality was good, but the service was always excellent... HH, you will be missed."

The Lewises, who also owned the now-closed Kate Mantilini in Beverly Hills, sold the chain in 1987.

One by one, Hamburger Hamlets began shut down. The iconic Sunset Boulevard outpost closed in 2011.

Only one Hamburger Hamlet, in Sherman Oaks, remains open. (It closed briefly in 2014 but reopened a few months later.)

"I don't think there'll ever be a replacement," Martino tells KPCC. "I've been searching for it for a very long time. It's a very simple concept. Everything wants to be the new, hip joint and they don't last very long. The Hamlet lasted decades and decades."

Marilyn Lewis also ran a clothing line, Cardinali, and helped dress Marlo Thomas for the TV show "That Girl."