Historic West Hollywood Hangout
Formosa Cafe – West Hollywood, CA
Last Visited: June 2020
I’m confident there’s not another restaurant in the world where John Wayne cooked eggs one morning in its kitchen after passing out the night before, Ava Gardner danced in the aisles, Elvis sipped a mai tai or two, Bogie sat at the bar and a couple of notorious mobsters conducted “business dealings” in their own private booths. All that and much, much more transpired through the decades at West Hollywood’s Formosa Cafe. After the shutdown of L.A. restaurants was lifted in June, Tracy and I (along with friends Jeff and Cecilia) knew this was the first dining establishment we wanted to check out.
The Formosa Cafe officially opened its doors in 1939 (although there had been a restaurant occupying the space since the mid-20s). In the early 90s it shut down and faced demolition, but a group of citizens and preservationists helped save it from the wrecking ball, and the building was designated a landmark. It made a brief return in 2015, but was closed shortly thereafter.
A few years ago the Formosa Cafe underwent an extensive $2.4 million renovation. Its new operators, the 1933 Group (Bobby Green, Dimitri Komarov and Dima Liberman), are known for their vintage-inspired bars … North Hollywood’s Idle Hour, Silver Lake’s Thirsty Crow and Highland Park’s Highland Park Bowl. Yes, those places are also on the Mai Tai Tom & Tracy short list to visit.
Supposedly back in the old days the food at Formosa Cafe wasn’t exactly the draw, so The 1933 Group hooked up with Little Fatty Taiwanese restaurant chef and owner David Kuo and enlisted his expertise to update the menu and work his culinary magic. We can tell you first hand, it worked … our meal was terrific.
First a little Formosa Cafe history lesson. From its website, “Located across from the then-Samuel Goldwyn studio, stars like Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Elvis Presley would pop into the legendary Formosa Cafe regularly for dining and drinks. On any given day, patrons might have seen Ava Gardner dancing past the old, red leather booths, or John Wayne nursing a late-night scotch (he was caught making scrambled eggs in our kitchen one morning, after reportedly passing out in a booth the night before).”
“We worked with local L.A. archivists and hospitality notables who helped to inform the new food and cocktail menu: a retrospective of Formosa’s culinary evolution since the 1920’s. The new Formosa not only transports guests back in time to the glory days of Hollywood, but with its new menu, patrons are given another way to connect to a part of L.A.’s gastronomic history, too.”
As this was our first foray out to a restaurant since February, we made old people, early reservations (oh wait, we are old people) on the theory that it would be less crowded at 5:30 p.m. After parking on a side street we walked past an old trolley car located, which I thought, adjacent to the restaurant. In fact, it’s actually part of the restaurant (more on that later).
I prepared my new dining facial attire, and I was ready to enter.
Walking in was a case with restaurant memorabilia with nearby newspaper clippings detailing its illustrious and notorious past.
We were correct about the restaurant being less crowded at this early hour, only one other party was seated when we arrived. Every staff member wore a mask and gloves, while hand sanitizer was available everywhere. Eventually, parties were seated with an empty booth in between, and, at first, it appeared the bar was closed since there were no stools in sight.
We pretty much had this cool space to ourselves, and quite a room it is. The four is us were seated in one of the red leather banquettes in the main dining room across from the bar and very near the entrance to the Pacific Electric Red Car, with its “913” standing out prominently. (photo below by Maxim Shapovalov when there were stools at the bar).
The banquettes are small. and we wondered how they’d fit all the food on the table, not to mention our legs under it. I guess people were smaller in 1939. Above all the tables and encircling the perimeter of the restaurant are photos of the numerous stars and luminaries who dined and drank here during the restaurant’s heyday. Many of them are signed. Above us was Raymond Burr and none other than Jack Webb. “This is the city,” I said. Also near our table was a display case featuring Elvis Presley liquor decanters donated by his manager Colonel Tom Parker.
Who knows, we might have been sitting at the same booth Marilyn Monroe dined at back in the day or where Frank Sinatra attempted to woo Ava Gardner.
The Pacific Street Car was closed on this evening. The restored Pacific Electric Red Car trolley dates to 1904. It’s the oldest surviving Red Car in existence. Similar to the bar area, the trolley is chock full of photos of famous people. (photos courtesy of Formosa Cafe).
I read in one article that a “discreet VIP room at the rear of the Red Car holds an additional 20 guests. Mobster Mickey Cohen ran a bookie operation from here, and it has its own entrance. Green “installed a vintage rotary phone for guests to call in drink orders, which are served through a private window.” Thanks to a Yelper for the photo.
Another gangster, Bugsy Siegel, had his own booth at the Formosa. In a newspaper article, according to Green, Siegel “ran a lot of his operations out of here. The ownership at the time must have turned a blind eye to it or maybe was getting a slight kickback. Who knows? This is where he would sit. People who owed the mobster money could show up at night and drop it through a slot, into the safe. Siegel could return the next day, when no one was around, and retrieve the cash. That way, he never had to be involved in a direct exchange.” The safe is still here (since I don’t know which table it’s under, this photo is also from the internet).
Bugsy was called one of the most “infamous and feared gangsters of his day,” yet he hung out with many of the stars whose pictures are on the wall, including Clark Gable. However, Siegel’s dining privileges came to an abrupt end on the night of June 20, 1947. Siegel was at his Beverly Hills home reading the Los Angeles Times when “an unknown assailant fired at him through the window with a .30 caliber military M1 carbine.” Siegel was hit numerous times, including two to the head. The crime is still unsolved.
No one was offed during our evening at the Formosa, so before dining, we got up and took a few photos. The back dining room (formerly an outdoor space where people could smoke) includes a bar rescued from now closed dive bar Yee Mee Loo in Chinatown.
From an L.A. Times story, “One of the highlights of this space is the ornate backbar from the original Yee Me Loo lounge, aka the Kwan Yin Temple. I walked back to check it out. The back room containsphotographs that were “inspired by ‘Forbidden City: The Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs.’ They line the walls documenting stories of Chinese American actors, producers and directors dating back to 1917. including Chinese Westerns.”
“A decade after Yee Mee Loo closed in 1989, the salvaged Kwan Yin backbar was installed at Cinnabar in Glendale. After languishing in storage, the backbar was acquired by co-owner and lead designer Green in September 2018. The pagoda roof tiles that cover the new Yee Mee Loo bar were sourced from the Warner Bros. Design Studio.” The article went on to add, “Research revealed that the bar was actually a prop that had come from the set of The Good Earth. ‘During that movie, Green says, ‘[the production team] went to China and brought over tons of antiques to use in the movie.” One of them was this piece, which became a shrine where characters in the film went to pray. After filming wrapped, the shrine ended up at Yee Mee Loo where it became their bar. Now, it’s at the Formosa.’”
There’s also a gorgeous seating area featuring two enclosed booths that stands adjacent to the trolley. (photo on left is courtesy of Formosa Cafe).
After much discussion over our drink choices, I started with a Mai Tai ($16). Well, what else for my first cocktail out in few months? It took me a few minutes, but I realized I would have to take off my mask for dinner.
Meanwhile, Jeff went with the tiki-inspired Yee Mee Loo; Bacardi superior, apricot liquor and Falernum ($16). For an extra 20 bucks you can purchase a souvenir tiki glass to take home. Tracy gave me the evil eye and we did not get one. Maybe next time!
Our bartender, Drew, was great and recommended our next cocktail when he overheard us talking about Manhattans. He whipped us up a Blood and Sand; Dewar’s Caribbean, sweet vermouth, cherry heering and orange juice ($14). Good cocktail, and fortunately I didn’t have to kill a bull to drink it.
To start our dinner Tracy and I shared chile wontons; seven pork, shrimp and ginger dumplings with sweet chile garlic sauce ($17). Wow! Those were great. So great that they were devoured before we could get the iPhone out for a photo.
We also sampled General Tso’s Cauliflower; crispy cauliflower in General Tso sauce ($14). Excellent choice! This is not your mother’s cauliflower.
For our main course we shared the Dan Dan Mian; street noodles, peanuts, slow cooked brisket, bok choy, pickled Fresno chiles and mustard greens ($17). All three dishes were excellent, and the Dan Dan was a Super Wow! Where have you been all my life? I loved the spiciness. I’m sure Marilyn would have loved it since Some Like It Hot!
Jeff and Cecilia also started with the chile wontons, followed by Walnut Shrimp; battered shrimp, honey glaze, candied walnuts, shaved radish and sesame seeds ($20) and the Chicken Salad; red cabbage, iceberg lettuce, crispy rice noodles, pickled carrots, poached chicken breast, tangerines and sesame dressing ($16). An additional side of white rice was $4. Jeff is not a big fan of Walnut Shrimp (it was Cecilia’s choice), but he said it was very, very good.
There are two menu options for dessert. I ordered the Apple Cinnamon Wonton; Gala apple, cinnamon, caramel, Nutella and pecan crumbles served over a very delicious vanilla ice cream ($8). I think I let Tracy have a bite or two.
Jeff and Cecilia shared the Taro Ice Cream with Fried Sesame Balls; coconut lime sauce and hand torn basil ($9). We were unfamiliar with taro and Cecilia, who has eaten it before, explained it is a tuber with a nutty flavor. The crispy sesame balls paired perfectly with the ice cream.
Over the course of dinner, people started to drift in … some without masks, but most did wear them while entering.
After finishing our great meal, we decided to check out the upstairs patio and bar,
It was packed, and there did not appear to be much social distancing, so it was time to go.
The four of us were pleasantly surprised at how very good the dinner turned out to be at Formosa Cafe. So many times, these historic restaurants rely on their celebrity and don’t serve the best cuisine. That was not the case here.
The food was wonderful and exhibited terrific flavors, plus it was a blast to just get out of the house after three months away from the dining scene. We will definitely return. Next time, I think I’ll try either the Orange Chicken or Hainan Chicken with Tumeric Pandan Rice in a ginger scallion sauce … and definitely another helping of the incredible Dan Dan Mian.
For an evening full of star-filled memories, a dazzling interior worth exploring, plus a menu offering mouth-watering and tempting Asian Fusion cuisine, go out and experience a little local Los Angeles history at the Formosa Cafe. Tell ‘em Bugsy sent you!
Mai Tai Tom Rating: 4.65 Mai Tais (out of 5)
The Formosa Cafe
7156 Santa Monica Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90046
Dinner: 5 p.m. – 9:45 p.m.
Street parking (metered until 6 p.m.)