The Shuttered Formosa Cafe Is Making a Comeback
The Formosa Cafe before it was gutted.
In recent years, all the news having to do with the Formosa Cafe has been bad.
The historic bar and restaurant, which hosted the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Wayne and Clark Gable, survived plans for demolition in the early 1990s thanks to the efforts of dedicated preservationists. Even after behemoth new shopping centers rose around it, the Formosa chugged along for a few years. But business was slow, and many people felt it had become a bit of a tourist trap — or as one friend said to me, "it's the place you throw your lame birthday party the first year you live in Los Angeles."
There were signs of a resurgence: In 2014, a partnership was formed between Formosa's owner, Vincent Jung, and the team at Red Medicine (Adam Fleischman, Noah Ellis and chef Jordan Kahn). The result was Red Med at the Formosa, an experiment that blended the Formosa's historically Chinese menu with Red Medicine's cutting-edge cooking. The result was pretty awesome, but it didn't last long. The Fleischman/Kahn/Ellis partnership pulled out of the project, citing good sales but saying, "The ownership at Formosa Cafe has not fulfilled its agreements with Red Med."
After that, it only got worse. The space was gutted, the historic bar and vintage booths and loads of Hollywood memorabilia cast aside to make way for a dull gray interior that was completely characterless. Taxes went unpaid. In December of last year, the Formosa closed after a 91-year run.
But now, finally, some positive news: The Formosa, as first reported Monday by Los Angeles Magazine, will reopen next year. Not only that, the new operators have a vested interest in restoring the Formosa to its former glory.
The Formosa has been featured in L.A. Confidential, The Majestic and Still Breathing.
Those operators are the 1933 Group, a company that began as a standard cocktail bar group but has taken a serious turn toward historic preservation. As the name implies, 1933's bars (Oldfield's, Bigfoot Lodge, Harlowe, Sassafras) have been inspired by a love of vintage, but in recent years its projects have moved away from creating old-timey fantasies and turned toward rehabilitating historic spaces. That direction most recently led to a stunning restoration of Highland Park Bowl, a historic bowling alley.
One of 1933 Group's owners, Dimitri Komarov, says in a press release about the Formosa Cafe project: “In a time when beloved establishments are closing throughout Los Angeles, our company mission has evolved to prioritizing the preservation of the city’s architecture and history by acquiring and breathing new life into notable gathering places such as these.”
The same press release states 1933's "intention to reinvigorate the restaurant’s cultural value and historic significance." How will they do that? "By collaborating with the family of the original owners, 1933 Group plans to refurbish and incorporate cherished keepsakes and weave Formosa Cafe’s previous Chinese influence throughout the culinary program."
There is no bringing back the original Formosa. The mixture of grunge and glam that made it so magical will probably never return, and what we're likely to get when it reopens (currently projected for summer 2018) is a slicker, glossier version of the Formosa. But at least someone recognizes its value, and is trying to do it justice. At this point, that's the absolute best we can ask for.
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