The moment you enter the heavy, padded leather doors, you’re engulfed in a cozy darkness that’s dramatically punctuated by horseshoe-shaped lacquer-red booths, an ancient bar underlit with eerie, glowing, lime-green neon, and the long, narrow backroom, which, diner-style, was constructed from a train car. A red-and-black ’40s-style faux-Oriental-type font on the menu proclaims “The Formosa Café,” and underneath there’s a crudely drawn wench in a Suzi Wong dress with a cut-out peephole of cleavage lifting a martini glass in a dainty salute. She looks as though she’d be right at home on the arm of a burly sailor just in from port. Walls here are lined with hundreds of 8-by-10 glossies — many of them signed to former owner Lem Quon: faded pictures of Liz Taylor, Lana Turner, Phil Silvers, Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Bob Hope, and scads of “B” stars as well. It is always the kind of place I bring out-of-towners on the first day of their visit, because it just screams Old Hollywood. I swear, I never see any stars here unless I have a visitor with me, then — due to the magic I’m convinced the place is overrun with — they materialize: rock stars, television-sitcom regulars, even bona fide movie stars, all to the delight of my guests.
It used to serve blobs of deliciously greasy chow mein (loaded with MSG, no doubt) swimming in brown gravy; won ton soup; and puu-puu platters with little packets of paper-wrapped chicken and crispy fried spring rolls, all accompanied by tiny round bowls of ketchup and American —- not even Chinese — mustard. You’d always hear people grumbling about the food, and then a few minutes later they’d be literally licking their plates clean after imbibing a couple of martinis. Nowadays, the food ain’t half bad. There are items like orange cilantro shrimp, salmon tempura and seared ahi. Nobody ever went to the Formosa for gourmet eats, anyway.
There are glass display cases of collectible ceramic booze bottles and some Elvis memorabilia — it’s rumored that The King dined here once and tipped his waitress a brand-new Cadillac. It’s also rumored that when the place opened in 1932, it was a diner that served mainly as a bookie joint for the racetrack, and, since the place is surrounded by movie studios, you can probably bet that more than one studio deal was firmed up here over a handshake and a couple of mai tais.
The accidental mix of Formosa patrons has always been better than a hand-picked night at Studio 54 — grips and best boys and gaffers slurping soup next to a booth full of goth-club kids getting rowdy, old ladies drinking old-fashioneds in gloves and cocktail dresses flirting with the tanned bartender who’s Waiting To Be Discovered, or young women in trendy clothes flirting with Lindy, the old bartender, who was around since, like, World War II ended. In the early ’90s we almost lost this neighborhood gem to an expired lease. The suits at the studio nearby thought the property would better serve the community as a parking lot than as a landmark that was, miraculously, still in operation. Luckily, all the thousands of regulars protested in writing, at City Council meetings, and by picketing. I did all three. Now there’s an outside addition, and a rooftop area for smokers, bedecked with red Chinese lanterns, but the parking spaces still say “Jackie Gleason,” “Lucy” and “Lee Marvin.” Lem is gone, Lindy is gone, as are the aging yet wonderful waitresses and the big old aquarium full of ornery lobsters, but the spirit of the place, and its faded glamour, still lives. 7156 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 850-9050.