My fondness for the Formosa Café was compounded with respect about twenty years ago when the inveterate, classic bar refused offers from big business to demolish and move on. This little joint that began as a trolley car with food and liquor, quickly became a destination for celebrities, and a stubborn favorite for neighborhood locals.
I remember when the corner of La Brea and Santa Monica Boulevards was a dated collection of small shops that fixed vacuum cleaners, served coffee, and sold flowers. It was far from the bustling corner of commerce it is today with a Target, Best Buy, Starbucks, BevMo, and a string of chain food and retail names you would recognize. It had a heyday, survived a rough neighborhood era, and is now a Hollywood relic.
When the gentrification project was underway, it was hard to miss the little red box with an awning that was protected from big machinery by strewn barriers and a chain link fence. The word on the street was The Formosa Café was either a holdout, or no one made them an offer they could not refuse. Regulars visited to either support the owners, or have a drink while discussing the local construction project. Inside, you are immersed in a dense collection of trinkets and memorabilia that take you back several generations when ashtrays peppered the bar, and women never entered alone.
The Formosa Café chose a blessed corner at Santa Monica and Formosa, simply because Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and D.W. Griffith opened United Artists across the street in 1919, about ten paces to the west. Early legends and entire production crews finished work during the day and night and conveniently popped in for food and cocktails. Almost by default, it fed Hollywood big shots for decades. To this day, hundreds of black and white headshots line the walls, many of them signed, from the actors and actresses that worked at the studios (which changed names a few times before simply becoming The Lot Studios) that still occupy much of its original eleven acres.
Bugsy Siegel, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable were regulars. The Formosa Café was a destination for Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato, before he was stabbed by her daughter. Today Kiefer Sutherland and Johnny Depp have been seen at the bar. The dark interior is still the norm, and the original trolley car still hosts a line of booths where you can eat and drink a few feet away from the chatter of the bar.
I live about a mile from the Formosa, and marvel at how this classic bar remains, ensconced in modern architecture on a street once populated by ladies of the evening in mini skirts and swinging purses. The area has been modernized to say the least, but the energy of old Hollywood still remains beneath its old neon sign.
The bathrooms are tiny, and although they have built a back bar around the east side of the original bar, which allows people to smoke on their “patio,” the labyrinth-like layout is simply viewed as part of its charm. The bartenders are fast and the music is good, so a brief wait outside of your chosen restroom is small potatoes.
If you visit Los Angeles and stay anywhere between Hollywood and Beverly Hills, you will not be disappointed if you visit. You can park on the street or in valet, and even visit Jones Bar across the street, connected by a crosswalk, and enjoy another more modern-yet-hipster joint that has great food and fast cocktails. It is common to pay a check and walk between these bars passing others along the way that just walked out of “the other place.”
The Formosa Café stands alone—literally—and, if you have an imagination, you can expect W.C. Fields to stroll across the narrow street for his after-shift cocktail, listen to Marilyn Monroe’s laughter, and discuss your next big picture on The Lot.
Johnny Cosmo is a writer and host of Classic American Bars on TradioV.com/LA. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org Give them a LKE on Facebook Classic American bars.
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