Cassell's has been on 6th Street in what is now Koreatown for a long time, though not so long in its current location. Al Cassell, the longtime owner, died in 2010 at the age of 98. Soon the place christened a couple of media generations ago as the home of LA's best burger will be moving again — and after many months of darkness, perhaps rebooting again with a new menu. Kat Odell at Eater LA has the latest deal.
Last week management behind Hotel Normandie reached Eater to share news that they have purchased Cassell's and plan to close the eatery until they can relocate it a few blocks down 6th Street into a storefront on the bottom floor of the hotel. The 1928 historical building is currently undergoing renovations that will turn it into a 100-room boutique property.
At this point, with only a cold shell and no further development of the Hotel Normandie retail space, management is looking at about an 8-month window before Cassell's can re-open. Until then, they'll be re-developing the menu and modernizing it for younger tastes. They're looking to add some creative milkshakes and other classic diner touches to the old-school concept.
You ever wonder how establishments get deemed to be LA's "best hamburger" or "best taco" or whatever? Considering that it can create such a lasting reputation, and live on forever in an establishment's window or on Google, the methodology is generally lacking in rigor, to be nice about it. It's not like a magazine, newspaper or blog will carefully select the best people to make the judgement, then challenge the evidence and really apply some standards. Nah, it's typically just the subjective take of who was available. Often a junior food writer, maybe with a little bit of a name to give the rating an extra zing of credibility. Maybe they talk to their friends, ask people around the office for opinions, and go out in the field to apply the expert taste test (but more important, gather scenery and details for the piece.) Then, voila, we have another "best whatever in LA." The best I usually hope for is that no advertiser pressure influenced the choice.
After Al Cassell died, longtime food writer Lawrence Dietz wrote an entertaining piece in the LA Times about how Cassell's came to wear the crown as best burger.
I discovered Cassell's, then called Cassell's Patio, in 1969, because Mike Salisbury, then-art director of the Times' Sunday Magazine, West, wanted to do a photo spread on L.A. burgers.
His idea was a photo of each burger with a caption detailing how much meat, the configurations, condiments and price. A dream assignment! I ate my way to eight nominees, including Apple Pan and Bob's Big Boy. Cassell's, open only for lunch, was clearly superior...
So I added one sentence to the caption for the Cassell's burger photo: "Best in the City." The piece was scheduled on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. The preceding Thursday I got an advance copy, and, ignoring journalistic ethics and common sense, showed it to Al, who clearly put his heart into his burgers.
When Al read the words, "Best in the City," he got tears in his eyes. He said, softly, that it meant more to him than anything, because it recognized what he was trying to do with his life's work.
As recently as 2004, Charles Perry — a food writer and historian who doesn't assign ratings on whim, I don't think — still put Cassell's in his category of the best patties around. On the other hand, there's a place I sometimes go into on National Boulevard, Hamburger Habit, that still has a big sign up boasting that the late Elmer Dills on KABC radio once called theirs "the best hamburger in Southern California." Remember him?
Photo of Hotel Normandie and Cassell's inset: Eater LA