L.A.'s Vintage Bars and Restaurants Are in Danger
The Formosa Cafe was shuttered last year — but it's being resurrected.
On a patch of wall in the Formosa Cafe's secret back room, there's a spot where you can see three distinct layers of wallpaper, the remnants of multiple redecorations. The oldest is a beautiful botanical print, a black background with lemon yellow fruit on a green vine and bursts of white flowers. It's probably from the '20s or '30s. Layered over that is a small gold and brown checkered pattern that looks to be from the '50s, and on top of that is a vibrant red with a muted, spindly floral pattern that could be from the '60s. Each layer represents a different era in the Formosa's 92-year history, and they've only survived because the space, behind a fake wall in the rear of the restaurant's famous train car dining room, has been neglected for so long. It's perhaps the best-preserved physical history in a building that once embodied true vintage Hollywood.
Of all the historic restaurants and bars in Los Angeles, the Formosa serves as the ultimate guinea pig, having had practically every strategy for preservation and renewal thrown its way. Opened in 1925, the venue became a hangout for many of Hollywood's most legendary stars due to its proximity to the studios, and the lore surrounding the place includes stories of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall canoodling in the booths, Elvis giving a Cadillac as a tip to a waitress, and John Wayne sleeping off his bender in the train car–turned–dining room and then getting up in the morning and making breakfast for the staff.
The Formosa later became a shrine to those stories and that golden era, festooned with signed pictures of the stars who drank there. Over the years, the bar and train car dining room and red booths and low-hanging lanterns barely changed, other than to get progressively grimier as age took its toll.
And then the Formosa was afflicted by something even more damaging than age: apathy. The new Hollywood set wanted flash, not nostalgia, and the tourists and wannabe screenwriters who frequented the Formosa were too few to keep it vital. I loved the place; I never went there. By the time the Formosa was shuttered last year, the hallowed restaurant had not only lost its luster, it had lost its relevance.
The story of the rise and decline and near obliteration of the Formosa, as well as its imminent rehabilitation, is the story of L.A.'s passionate but neglectful relationship with its vintage legacy. The city has staked much of its identity on the Golden Age of Hollywood, but it's been less than stellar at maintaining — or even recognizing — its own incredible wealth of classic bars and restaurants. From Fair Oaks Pharmacy in Pasadena (1908) to the Scottish lodge wonderland of the Tam O'Shanter in Los Feliz (1925) to the old world European–themed Steak 'n Stein in Pico Rivera (1946), the region offers an accurate representation of practically every decade of dining over the last 100 years.
Yet guides to L.A. rarely play this up. Despite the fact that many tourists arrive here and are baffled by the lack of Hollywood glamour, few resources point them to these magically transporting eateries. You have to do a deep dive on L.A. tourism website discoverlosangeles.com before you find anything about the places where Hollywood's golden era are so well preserved — one page a few clicks in offers some suggestions for how to discover Frank Sinatra's Los Angeles, and that's about it.
These three layers of wallpaper in a secret room at the Formosa reveal three eras of its history.
Richard Foss, culinary historian and curator of the Pacific Food and Beverage Museum, says that our disregard for these places hinges on the city's self-image. "Los Angeles has been for a long time self-consciously about the restaurant experience as theater, and also about the restaurant as something that is novel and innovative," he says.
That sensibility, he adds, comes at a high cost.
"In Los Angeles, our attitude toward food causes us to destroy a lot of history — or worse, destroy it and then try to bring it back in a warped hipster version of what it once was. If you look at the Formosa, if you look at the old House of Irish Coffee on Fairfax, if you look at what was done with Clifton's, all three of these were basically gutted and then redone in almost a parody of what they once were."
Such is the conundrum of the historic restaurant. We never want them to change, but we don't give them enough of our attention — or our money — to make change avoidable.
The Formosa is a cautionary tale about what happens when the luck of preservation through neglect runs out — and how that luck might somehow get restored.
Food has been the second great obsessive romance of my life; the first was with all things vintage. I began scouring thrift stores and junk stores as a teenager, and by the time I was in my early 20s I'd amassed a collection of old flowered china, antique furniture and vintage clothing that threatened to overwhelm my life. (I'm doing better with that now ... kinda.) So perhaps it's predictable that one of the things I have come to love most about Los Angeles is our abundance of vintage restaurants and bars. The surprising thing is how long it took me to discover them.
When I arrived in 2012 to be the restaurant critic for L.A. Weekly, I sought out the edible things the city is known for: the modern Californian food and the vast wealth of immigrant cooking. No one mentioned L.A.'s historic restaurants to me, and I found little mention of them in the research I did about the city. Early on, I got the sense that many Angelenos viewed places such as the Dresden and Musso & Frank and the Formosa as played out, destinations where tourists and newbies went to experience some kind of clichéd Hollywood fantasy. I never heard about the older neighborhood spots at all.
And when I learned about L.A.'s oldest restaurants from lists and guides and suggestions from friends, the time-travel aspect of them was rarely touted. I had heard, for instance, that Philippe's the Original was a good place to get a French Dip, due in part to the probability that it was the birthplace of that sandwich. But it wasn't until I went (during the research for my first 99 Essential Restaurants issue) that I realized how little the place has changed in its century-long history, how eating there is a lesson in what Los Angeles was like in 1908. Places like Philippe's and Langer's get plenty of attention thanks to the food they serve, but there are so many places in Los Angeles that exude history — restaurants you can step into and find yourself in a perfectly preserved approximation of another era — but that we mainly ignore.
Why is that?
The food conversation is led by people (myself included) who have decided that the quality of a restaurant is almost entirely measurable through the taste of what's on the plate; everything else is trivial. Not only that but the food must adhere to modern standards of deliciousness: It's fine if something is retro, but it had better be retro/modern — cleaner, fresher, a winking nod to rather than an accurate representation of the past. (Unless it's a burger — our old-school burger joints remain beloved while family restaurants are forgotten.)
That narrow focus ignores so many other desirable attributes. What about design? What about community? Rarity? Almost every midsized city in America has delicious farm-to-table small plates these days — how many of them have a world of restaurants and bars that reveal our edible history through the last century?
Taste is only one sense. There are so many other things about a restaurant that can deliver pleasure. Recently I've found just as much joy in other things, in other senses and in other kinds of taste.
Last year, I began to explore the history of Lawry's the Prime Rib and realized that the restaurant is responsible for many of the things we take for granted in American dining. Did you know Lawry's invented the doggie bag? That it was the first restaurant to offer valet parking? That it's likely responsible for the American custom of eating a green salad before the meal?
When I moved from Silver Lake to Eagle Rock, I discovered Colombo's Italian Steakhouse and Jazz Club, and I was almost angry no one had ever pointed me to it in the past. Colombo's is a thriving example of a type of dining that's almost extinct in America, especially at the neighborhood level: dinner and a show. Old-school Italian food, cheap carafes of house wine and live jazz — here was that rare dining room, full of people of all ages and races, enjoying music together. I'd found more than a place to eat; I'd found community.
The retro beauty of the Dresden's dining room is too often ignored.
The Dresden in Los Feliz gets plenty of props for its bar and awesome live entertainment, but it's the oft-ignored glory of its dining room that gives me goosebumps. The gorgeous curved white banquettes, the deep red walls, the dark wood accents — that has to be the most beautiful dining room in America. What do I care if the peach melba served there is vaguely inedible? It's a miracle you can order peach melba at all!
I'll admit that after eating in many of the restaurants that serve food popular in the 1940s and '50s, I wondered if people back then just had bad taste, beyond issues of fashion. Then I ate at Dal Rae.
Dal Rae opened in 1951 and moved to its current Pico Rivera location in 1958. It still looks the part, with some of the best midcentury light fixtures in town, and its menu has barely changed over the decades. You can order lobster thermidor or have cherries jubilee flambéed tableside for dessert. Even though you might find hunks of lobster baked in cream sauce with hollandaise and cheese a little overwhelming, you're much more likely to understand the appeal of this type of food here as opposed to at L.A.'s many other vintage restaurants. Because at Dal Rae, they're not just serving throwback food, they're cooking it with the type of care you'd expect of any upscale restaurant.
When you eat Dal Rae's oysters Rockefeller, you can sense that the creamed spinach was made properly, that the oysters are fresh. There's a wonderful appetizer of artichoke bottoms stuffed with crab, and it's obvious the kitchen staff trimmed the artichokes in-house, made the sauce from scratch, used high-quality crab. It's a place where you really can eat almost exactly the way a glamorous couple might have eaten in 1950 when they had something to celebrate.
What makes any of these things less thrilling than food that adheres to modern standards of good taste?
Dmitry Liberman, left, and Dimitri Komarov of 1933 Group, which is restoring the Formosa Cafe
Standing in the Formosa's main bar, Dimitri Komarov and Bobby Green consider the faux-baroque, red-patterned walls. "The wallpaper was a last-ditch attempt to give the place some of its character back," Green says of yet another, more recent layer of the restaurant's past.
The two men are part of a team that's taking on a daunting task: Bring the Formosa back from extinction.
Despite its glamorous history, the Formosa struggled financially. Vince Jung, whose father and grandfather operated the Formosa before him, had made several attempts to try to lure in new customers. In 2014, he partnered with the management of the cutting-edge (and now closed) Red Medicine, who installed a young chef in Formosa's kitchen and introduced a menu of modern Asian food. The development was heartening — a strategy for making something old relevant again without tinkering with its physical history. The food was good — exciting even — and the place retained its character. But the business relationship didn't work out, and Red Med at Formosa lasted only a few months.
Jung then turned over operations to a third party. Those operators decided the Formosa needed a whole new look, and — according to Jung, without his knowledge — they gave the place a complete overhaul: new seating, new lighting, new everything. They took out all the memorabilia, the signed photos and vintage decor, and painted the walls a flat slate gray.
The disapproval was immediate and universal. The Formosa's Facebook page was flooded with angry comments. One Eater L.A. headline read: "Everyone hates the new Formosa Cafe remodel."
Realizing their mistake, the new operators tried to inject some of the vintage feel back into the room. Hence the baroque red wallpaper. But it was too late; the damage was done. And after almost a century, the Formosa closed its doors late last year.
"Either you live and breathe vintage, or you don't," says Green, who along with Komarov and their partner Dmitry Liberman leased the space from Jung this spring. "That's always been my aesthetic."
The three men operate the bar and restaurant collective 1933 Group, whose initial projects were bars that doubled as over-the-top vintage fantasies. For instance, Sassafras, their Southern-themed bar that opened in 2012, was created by moving an entire historic townhouse from Savannah, Georgia, and installing it inside a building in Hollywood, along with burnished mirrors and various antebellum antiques.
But over the last couple of years, the group has moved from conjuring manufactured history to something closer to true historic preservation. The transformation began with the Idle Hour, a 1940s "programmatic" building (built to look like a barrel) in North Hollywood, and the Highland Park Bowl, a 1920s bowling alley in Highland Park that had been converted to a live-music venue in the early '70s. On the latter, the 1933 Group spent more than a year painstakingly removing walls and ceilings and uncovering the gorgeous wooden bowling alley underneath.
They have similar plans for the Formosa. Jung has kept all of the original memorabilia and fixtures in a warehouse and is working closely with the 1933 Group to put much of it back in place. A lot of time is being spent poring over old photos to see where things went and what the Formosa looked like in its heyday. There are grand plans for the rooftop bar and back bar areas, which were never part of the original vintage design, but 1933 hopes to bring them more in line with that aesthetic. The layers of wallpaper in the back room might serve as inspiration but they won't survive: The group plans to restore that secret room to its original purpose: a venue for private parties, and also a place where celebrities can hang out undisturbed.
"We want to bring it back to what it was," Green says. "There's no way we're going to be able to please everyone, but we're trying to be true to the soul of the place."
There are grand plans for the next iteration of the Formosa.
In 1991, filmmaker John Waters said of the Formosa, "I always thought this is exactly what Hollywood should look like. The worse it gets, the more I like it." In its final years before the gray-paint fiasco, the Formosa was basically a dive bar — a dive bar with a glamorous past, but a dive bar nonetheless.
In many ways, 1933's operators aim to restore some of the Formosa's legacy that time stole, to return it to its days as a fancy celebrity haunt. Even if they wanted to, they probably couldn't restore it to a dive bar. You can't manufacture a historical dive — only time and whiskey and sorrow and cheap beer and good times can create that particular magic.
Still, there are ways to preserve these places that don't involve history-destroying renovations and don't rely on the wishful thinking that nothing will ever change, that rents won't rise too much, that elderly customers will easily be replaced by younger diners and drinkers. Perhaps the most interesting strategy is the old-restaurant-new-food approach, à la Red Med at Formosa. It didn't work out in that instance, but that concept is showing promising results at Michael's in Santa Monica, where Miles Thompson's wildly modern menu somehow fits in beautifully with the late-'70s leafy-wonderland decor.
There are some restaurants where the food should be preserved for historic reasons — it would be a tragedy to lose the ability to taste the past at Dal Rae, and the menu at Lawry's is an edible chapter in the history of the American restaurant. But imagine if the Dresden served food that matched the glory of its stunning dining room; imagine if someone took over Club Tee Gee, the 70-year-old Atwater Village bar that's on the brink of closure, and changed nothing except the quality of the bar snacks and beer selection. Sure, it would be nice if Club Tee Gee could continue forever exactly as it is, but that's probably unrealistic. What's the compromise that includes preservation yet ensures survival?
"I can go into any part of Los Angeles and find some place with high ceilings, hard surfaces, loud music," Richard Foss says. "It's interchangeable. But when I go to a place that has that real neighborhood feel — I'll give the example of Old Tony's on the Pier — you walk in and you are in 1950. This is like a mental vacation for me. This is a place that is unlike all the other cookie-cutter places that are modern. But unfortunately, the only incentive that matters is customers."
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