It appears that the shuttered Formosa Cafe, beloved for its old Hollywood vibrations, is in good hands as new operators plan to reopen it as soon as summer 2018. But they're asking for the public's help to secure a $150,000 National Geographic grant that would help with the restoration of the venue's heart — a room made from a Pacific Electric Red Car trolley.
“It's one of those rare survivors in Los Angeles,” says Adrian Scott Fine, director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy. “The Formosa has outlasted most, in terms of significance and Hollywood history. It tells a story of 1940s and 1950s Los Angeles and West Hollywood.”
The 1933 Group, known for reviving other historic venues, including the Idle Hour and Highland Park Bowl, plans to return the Formosa, a onetime Chinese eatery and celebrity-infused watering hole — Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley are said to have been customers — to the way it was depicted in the 1997 noir film L.A. Confidential.
“Should we secure the money, we'd use it for restoration of the red trolley portion seen in L.A. Confidential,” 33 Group spokeswoman Lisa Strangis says. “If the grant money doesn't come, they're still moving full steam ahead. Regardless, the Formosa will be coming back in 2018.”
Late last year, the venue closed after its state alcohol license was suspended. It reopened temporarily but quickly faded. In the 1990s, the city of West Hollywood made the site a “local cultural resource,” according to the West Hollywood Heritage Project.
The 1933 Group says it's working with the Chinese-American family that owned the venue for decades in order to find the right, vintage aesthetic. The operator says the venue was built in 1925. The city of West Hollywood says 1934. The restaurant's website once said it opened in 1939.
In any case, the L.A. Conservancy's campaign to get $150,000 for restoration is also an awareness effort. The National Geographic contest runs through Oct. 31 and is based on online votes. The Formosa is Los Angeles County's candidate, and it's up against 24 other sites nationwide, which are competing for a piece of $2 million in total grants. The conservancy nominated the Formosa for the grant.
Over the weekend, the nonprofit held a public tour of the venue to drum up support for the nomination.
The “Vote Your Main Street” competition could bring attention to the cafe's role in Los Angeles history, particularly as a gathering place on L.A. County's portion of Route 66, now Santa Monica Boulevard. “They don't have to win to gain a lot from this,” says preservationist Kim Cooper of Esotouric historic tours.