After two years of meticulous, loving research and $2.4 million of restoration and renovation, the iconic Formosa Cafe will reopen on Friday to its 1939 glory in one of Hollywood’s most glamorous facelifts.
Bobby Green and his 1933 Group partners Dimitri Komarov and Dima Libermanhave teamed up with Little Fatty chef and owner David Kuo in bringing the legendary watering hole next to the old Warner Hollywood Studios back to life.
“I just have a love affair with old things,” Green tells L.A. Weekly on a recent tour of the Formosa Cafe, which has escaped demolition and was designated a cultural resource by the city of West Hollywood.
Features like Bugsy Siegel’s booth and hidden floor safe, as well as the newly reupholstered booths named after Hollywood royalty who called it home, like John Wayne, Ava Gardner and Elvis Presley, are preserved in addition to the original bar, which has famously nursed the likes of Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart and Bill Murray over the years.
The tiki-inspired Yee Mee Loo on the new bar menu, a powerful concoction of Clement Agricole rum, blue curacao, crème de cacao, orgeat, pineapple and Rum Bar over-proof rum is an homage to one of L.A.’s oldest dive bars in Chinatown.
The main new element of the Formosa is a back bar covered in custom red and gold wallpaper and a black terrazzo floor designed to mimic the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Group 1933 has transformed what used to be a dilapidated outdoor smoking area into an homage to Chinese-American history in Los Angeles, as well as resurrected the Yee Mee Loo.
“It opened in the ’30s and closed in the ’90s,” Green says of the notorious Chinatown haunt. “The building was condemned after the Northridge earthquake. Years ago, I had heard about a woman who had the Yee Mee Loo bar in her house. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but fast forward to the Formosa, I wanted to track her down and see if she still had the bar and sure enough, she did. Happily, we were able to install it here and put it back in much the way it was in Chinatown all those years to celebrate the old Chinese-themed restaurants and bars.”
Another inspiration for the back bar is the stories of Chinese American history in Los Angeles. A gallery of photos inspired by “Forbidden City: The Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs” line the walls documenting stories of Chinese American actors, producers and directors dating back to 1917 including Chinese Westerns.
“It’s a great way to combine old Hollywood with Chinese-American culture and history in Los Angeles,” says Green, whose 1933 Group also restored the Highland Park Bowl.
Never famous for its food, the cafe brought in Kuo to develop the menu, which consists of Little Fatty items like our Best of L.A. pick squid ink xiao long bao, sizzling black pepper beef and his additive General Tso’s cauliflower. He’s also added a new updated version of the cafe’s original Chinese chicken salad.
“Our dumplings are special because they are made with squid ink on the outside and a seafood and pork broth on the inside, Kuo tells L.A. Weekly from one of the many hidden alcoves in the restaurant.
“We wanted to stay true to ourselves. While we pay homage to the past, we like to push the food forward as well. You won’t find any egg foo young here.”
The Formosa Cafe, 7156 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; (323)850-9050