We give protected designation to buildings, to natural wonders and to battlefields. We do not, for the most part, bestow such honors on bars. This is a shame – especially in L.A., where our vintage bars hold a wealth of culture in their booze-soaked floors and sticky vinyl booths.
One such Los Angeles haunt is the Formosa Cafe, the 89-year-old bar on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Formosa Avenue in West Hollywood. The Formosa has deep history as the favored bar for many, many golden-age movie stars, whose photos line the walls. Made up in part of an old Red Car trolley, the red-and-black – lacquered interior has barely changed since its heyday. In 1991, when the Formosa was threatened with demolition to make way for a parking structure, the city's Cultural Heritage Advisory Board declared it a landmark, cementing the bar's status as a protected pocket of Old Hollywood amidst the towering big-box consumerism of new Hollywood.
The problem is that, despite its history, not many people were eating there. So recently an innovative partnership was formed, between Formosa's owner, Vincent Jung, Umami Burger founder Adam Fleischman, and Red Medicine's chef Jordan Kahn and manager Noah Ellis. The Formosa itself wouldn't change, but Kahn and co. would install a chef in the kitchen turning out Red Medicine – esque food. ]
The idea seemed kind of crazy, given the highly innovative nature of Kahn's cooking at Red Medicine. But the menu he created for Formosa rode the line between cutting edge and bar-appropriate beautifully.
Sadly, the experiment was short-lived. After launching in late January, Red Med at Formosa stopped serving last week. The Fleischman/Kahn/Ellis partnership pulled out of the project, citing good sales but saying, “The ownership at Formosa Café has not fulfilled its agreements with Red Med.”
It's really too bad. Because a new story was being told at Formosa, a deviation from the usual two ways these things go: Either someone totally takes over and “revamps” a space, ruining it in the process; or patrons come for the history and have to suffer through terrible food. To be able to sip your Singapore sling in a booth once occupied by Bogart and Bacall, while snacking on barely cooked bay scallops, their flesh lush with oceanic sweetness, dressed in brown butter and yuzu, was magical while it lasted. It was almost giddy to dive into this experience: the weirdness of eating beef tartare with “nuoc leo, peanut and chlorophyll” in this setting. Or sinking into the pure joy of a $3.50 beer at happy hour and pairing it with a bowl of oyster mushrooms with haricot vert and espelette.
The prospect of a dark bar, a cold drink and a strange paste of sweet marinated eggplant under a flurry of fresh herbs and shaved loops of celery was perhaps too good to be true: everything lovable about dive bars and vintage glamour and odd, Vietnamese-tinged culinary modernism all wrapped up into one.
In the final days of Red Med at Formosa I had been spending a lot of evenings snuggled into those red booths, enjoying huge slabs of sticky pork belly served with pickles and lettuce for wrapping, or intensely spiced, raw marinated rock shrimp topped with pickled ginger and served with prawn crackers for scooping. I was finishing up the last few words of my review of the place (a hugely positive review) when I heard the experiment was over. There's no word yet about what will become of the food at Formosa, and there's no indication of exactly what went wrong.
It didn't work out at Formosa, but maybe the example can be carried on to other spots, and more mash-ups of history and food-of-the-day will thrive again in our best vintage bars. I certainly hope so, because Red Med at Formosa was a whole lot of fun while it lasted.