Memory Palace: The Rehabbed Formosa Cafe Takes Visitors Deep Into Hollywood's Past
It’s no secret that Los Angeles has a complicated relationship with the past. It’s not that there is no history here; the history is just not always readily discernible.
Many of us longtime Angelenos have grown accustomed to finding our built history plastered over—or, worse, leveled in a blink overnight. Maintaining history or context here can be nothing short of heartbreak. Consequently, old landmarks and vistas are often referenced in phrases that begin with “used to be” and “once was.”
For a little while, in the early aughts, it looked like West Hollywood, California’s venerable Formosa Cafe—a cozy, dimly lit, scruffy hideaway—might, too, become one of those “once was” stories. The low-slung, cinnabar red structure with the retro flourish of a jade green neon sign has occupied the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Formosa Avenue in some form or name since the 1930s. Over the decades, it has played host and backdrop to movie stars, props and craft folks, dreamers, gangsters, rockers, punks, and drifters.
The site’s first restaurant was a spot called the Red Post Cafe, which opened its doors in 1928. It became the Formosa Cafe in 1939 and would trade hands and augment its identity in myriad ways over the years, before longtime chef Lem Quon took over in 1976. Quon later passed the reins to his step-grandson, Vince Jung, who ran the cafe in recent years.
Nested near the motion picture studios once run by Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, later Samuel Goldwyn, and now Warner Bros., the Formosa remains suffused with Hollywood golden-era lore. It was a favorite watering hole of stars like Lana Turner, Frank Sinatra, and John Wayne, as well as mobsters Bugsy Siegel and, later, Mickey Cohen. In more recent decades, it had also endeared itself to celebrities such as Bono and Leonardo DiCaprio. But the double punch of two “makeovers” threatened its prestige. The first, in 2015, stripped the bar and restaurant of its trademark black-and-red lacquered interior and its gallery of kitschy, through-the-decades celebrity headshots, washing the room in a dead industrial gray.
The subsequent backlash traveled swift and loud. The second remodel attempted to hurriedly fix the first. During the holiday season of 2016, the Formosa shuttered without warning, and for a while, its future was a mystery.
The story could have ended there, as too many often do, but in this case the 1933 Group, a local hospitality company with a good reputation for preservation, signed a long-term lease on the Formosa in 2017. And the nonprofit Los Angeles Conservancy moved swiftly with a plan. The Conservancy convinced the 1933 Group to work with it on applying for the Partners in Preservation grant program run by the National Trust and American Express.
When the grants were announced in November of 2017, the L.A. Conservancy/1933 Group proposal to restore a vintage Pacific Electric trolley car attached to an outside wall of the Formosa was among the winners. The $150,000 grant funded the restoration of the car’s windows, roofing, interior woodwork, and red-painted exterior. The money also supported peeling back a portion of the interior walls to reveal the trolley on the inside of the restaurant.
L.A. preservationists had breathed a sigh of relief when the 1933 Group signed its lease. Company owners Bobby Green, Dimitri Komarov, and Dmitry Liberman have opened a friendly constellation of meet-and-greet watering holes that include notable restorations of the Highland Park Bowl (see the Fall 2016 issue of Preservation) and the barrel-shaped Idle Hour bar in North Hollywood. As well, they’ve left their signature on newer spots across the city: Harlowe in West Hollywood, Bigfoot Lodge in Atwater Village and Culver City, and Oldfield’s Liquor Room, also in Culver City. At each of these places, mood and history is at the forefront.
Working with designers, master craftspeople, historians, fabricators, mixologists, and chefs, the 1933 Group, bit by bit, is giving back parts of our specific past to history-hungry Angelenos. Re-energizing the Formosa meant a lot more than restoring the familiar colors and photographs. Green and team wanted to dig deep by telling and honoring a story about the building, its neighborhood, and its colorful past. Two years and a little over $2 million later, they’ve unpacked a gold mine of hidden history, and the Formosa is ready for its close-up.
Like the best sort of L.A. historic locations, the Formosa has long been one of those “bequeathed” destinations that a friend would hip you to, and in time you would do the same. Your place became their place, and so on. It wasn’t chic—that was its appeal—and probably even in its heyday couldn’t be considered glamorous, but it pulsed with a noir aura.
While “Cafe” was part of the name, you didn’t go for the food, but to be nourished in a different sort of way—it was a portal to L.A.’s past. Depending on your ritual, the Formosa would be your first (or last) stop of the night. You squeezed your chatty party into one of the snug red leather booths, ordered a simple cocktail, and took in the atmosphere, or you dropped in to wind down after a show on the Sunset Strip or a punk club set. Back in the early 1990s, when I was working my first newspaper job, I’d meet other reporter friends for a quick drink in the narrow trolley car room, crowded with dusty photos of celebrities we couldn’t name. It pulled Angelenos back for decades, even as the street and businesses changed around it. The Formosa was threatened with demolition in 1991, but local preservationists, including the L.A. Conservancy, helped save it. A big-box mall complex next door dwarfed it in 2004. Yet even in its disheveled years, it remained a rare slice of old Los Angeles hiding in plain sight, until that ill-fated 2015 renovation.
On my visit, Bobby Green walks me through my own past. Truth be told, I hold my breath as I step over the threshold. Miraculously it all seems just as I remember it, somehow even more saturated and vibrant.
It’s early afternoon, just before the lunch rush, but at first glimpse, it could be 5 p.m. anywhere. The blinds are closed against the sun except above just a couple of tables, where the slats cast long shadows as inky as wet brushstrokes. Seated in a pair of front booths, a quartet of square-shouldered, gray-haired men bark stories at one another under a portrait of a smiling Bugsy Siegel, stogie in hand. They’ve begun to tuck into what looks to be a shared plate of hearty lo mein.
We linger before the gleaming brass-topped front bar, its backbar trimmed with celebrity 8x10s and the familiar “Meet Me at the Formosa/Where the Stars Dine” signage. Green recalls the task list for the renovation. The 2015 remodel hadn’t done away with the original exterior, nor had it compromised the main bar and its trolley car addition. To make the concept work as a whole, the two add-ons—the back patio and an upstairs space that had both been added in the 2000s as a response to the city’s no-smoking ordinance—needed to be addressed.
But the first time-travel puzzle was the trolley car, which has been returned to its original splendor. The wood paneling is fully restored, with gauzy white curtains hanging over the windows. From certain angles, with splashes of blues, lilac, and gold-tinted lighting, the setup looks like an Edward Hopper painting. Getting to that was a delicate and lengthy process.
Made circa 1906 and believed to have been decommissioned in 1936, the trolley car had been added in a remodel around 1940. Green and team removed the drywall covering the side that had been connected to the cafe. “It would be like attaching a shipping container to the side of a building now,” Green explains. “Adding on a rail car wasn’t cool back then, it was just a way to do a quick and easy add-on to gain more space. These upper sides,” he gestures above a row of tables, “were mirrors over drywall.” Revealing the car is a stunning enhancement, down to the gold “Pacific Electric” and “913” lettering on the sides and front. “Anything we could save, we would refinish. It’s like working on a Victorian house—that sort of patience and detail.”
Green slips a latch to a back area of the trolley car. “This was always a hidden back room,” he says. “First for Bugsy Siegel and then Mickey Cohen. There used to be a bank of telephones set up back here, probably from the studio across the street. Siegel also installs that booth safe in the floor in the front—so there is never a hand-to-hand exchange of money.” Green gestures toward the front table where the men are finishing up their lo mein. “Vince had a locksmith open the floor safe back in the ’90s. It was empty.” Now patrons can peer into the glass-covered hole filled with a fan of decorative cash and marked with a plaque.
In the main bar, the 1933 Group was focused on bringing back all that had been grayed out or perhaps tossed away. Luckily, says Green, Vince Jung had saved boxes of photos, knickknacks, and key decor. Many original items, such as the lanterns and red vinyl booths, were repaired or replaced exactly as they had been, but Green and his team took a few liberties with others. “When we started pulling things out, we came upon about 10 or 12 different kinds of wallpaper, none of it exactly what I remembered. So we worked to try to find something that had the mood and the feel—red, flocked with impressions of the Formosa’s pagoda logo.” The ceiling had been cork panels painted flat black, and for the renovation they fashioned a subtle but sumptuous treatment: another textured wallpaper that even in the afternoon half-light looks cast in glowing pewter. While the old floor was bare concrete sometimes covered with carpeting, the new floor is black terrazzo shot through with brass that echoes the Walk of Fame stretch of Hollywood Boulevard—a change that connects to the area's history.
The team studied old photographs, examining window treatments, shelving, the bar setup, even the details of the tabletops and blinds. “There have been many incarnations throughout the years,” Green says. “We wanted to freshen it up, but you have to stay close to what it was. I’m constantly asking myself, really, would it be that way?”
This reverence has much to do with Green’s own past, and his understanding of how important convivial anchor spots are in one’s personal sense of place. He moved to Los Angeles with his family from Oklahoma when he was 10 years old. L.A.’s constant remaking has left him deeply reflective about the pace of change. “If you grew up in a smaller town, you can revisit a spot for most of your life,” he says. “It doesn’t change. It becomes part of who you are. That’s different here. Things change so quickly that you feel kind of stranded.”
By the time he was taking in the bar scene, in the 1990s, he and his friends floated through their own circuit of classic L.A. haunts—The Derby, The Dresden, The Burgundy Room, The Good Luck Bar. These rooms had character, some grit, and often a jigger of whimsy. “It was that feeling. We were all vintage heads. Swing dancing. The clothes. The cars. I’d go to the Formosa, but by about 2000, I’d stopped. It was starting to get a little fratty. But,” he stresses, “this is one of the places that influenced what I do now.” It wasn’t simply about chasing a scene; it was really about settling into a mood. These places felt like you’d walked into a middle moment, a story in progress.
The process of renovating the Formosa, says Green, was full of surprises, and throughout, he and his team were open to and guided by chance. “The hardest part was sorting out what to do with the newest rooms, the add-ons; how to incorporate them thematically into the rest of the building,” he adds. Early on, Green’s fiancée had given him a copy of the book Forbidden City, USA: Chinatown Nightclubs, 1936-1970, written by curator, author, and filmmaker Arthur Dong, about San Francisco’s midcentury Chinese American nightclub scene.
Inspired, Green decided to take the opportunity to tell some less-told Hollywood stories. “L.A. likes things that are hidden. Here, the real pros look for something hush-hush, and that’s what made the Formosa the Formosa,” says Maxim Shapovalov, a photographer who’s been working as the 1933 Group’s archivist since 2017, digging deep into the Formosa’s past and sorting out ways to use the wall space to tell another layer of the story. (He used longtime bartender Lindy Brewerton’s memoir as an essential tool in clarifying some of the cafe’s tangled history.) Shapovalov is now at work on his own book about the venue’s wild history: Meet Me at the Formosa, due out this year.
For the front spaces, Shapovalov worked on ways to display the vintage headshots Jung had saved. As for the newer back patio, which the 1933 Group had decided to partially enclose to better integrate with the main room, he reached out to Dong about his store of Chinese American Hollywood memorabilia (which includes a vast photo collection) to see if he might be able to incorporate some of those images. Ultimately, Dong agreed to curate a long-term exhibition in the space. Called Hollywood Chinese at the Formosa, it’s a sampling of information and photos from his new book Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films (Angel City Press, October 2019). Dong wanted to convey and honor the history of working Chinese American actors—but without overlooking the notorious stories about Hollywood’s offensive caricatures and the historically common practice of casting white actors in Asian or Asian American roles. “It’s an unusual situation and an extraordinary opportunity to explain some of the history in its complexity,” he says.
Pulling the room—and the story—together is the ornate backbar from another one of L.A.’s vanished nightspots, Chinatown’s Yee Mee Loo restaurant. The carved wood piece is now one of the elegant focal points of the Formosa’s back room. It was made as a prop shrine for the 1937 film The Good Earth and had somehow landed in Chinatown. After Yee Mee Loo closed, the shrine was installed at another area restaurant, Cinnabar, until it shuttered in 2005. Green got in touch with the sister of Cinnabar’s owner, who had been keeping the piece in her living room. They made a deal. Now patrons can see the shrine—and learn about it and the film’s own nuanced history—as they dine with friends.
The Formosa had never been known for its food; it was always more about the atmosphere. “So we knew the food had to be better, but what degree of better?” says Green. “We didn’t want it to be too elevated.” After rounds of research, they brought in David Kuo, the chef behind the L.A. “Taiwanese soul food” restaurant Little Fatty, who developed a solid Asian fusion menu featuring dumplings, noodles, Szechuan-style shareable main courses, and salads. And Green solved the problem of what to do with the upstairs bar added in the 2000s by converting it into a rooftop dining area with its own bar, tying in the motifs of the rest of the space.
He admits each additional element required consideration: “I lose sleep over this sort of thing. You have to question everything. I know my friends will. Your friends will. You have to adhere to the history, the story of what things were. Is this paying homage? What story are you telling?”
As so much of the city gets struck like a movie set, Green knows more than ever that our memories need a place to spark. We need places to come together to create new ones. Adrian Scott Fine, the L.A. Conservancy’s director of advocacy, sees the Formosa’s revival as not just a victory, but a teachable moment. “Having the Formosa come back as the Formosa is what’s really special with this project,” he explains. “Once a legacy business closes, it most often is lost and gone forever, with longtime customers lamenting its passage. That could have easily occurred here, with the Formosa converted into something else with a new name and identity.”
Most important, stresses Fine, “The Formosa is quintessential L.A. You cannot ‘make’ a place like the Formosa. It just happens over time, which is what makes it so special. This project has shown that progress doesn’t have to equal destruction or the loss of a longtime legacy business to make good financial sense. People want to go to a place that has roots, stories, and layers of history that you can see, touch, and feel. You can do that at the Formosa, and now can add your own stories.”