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Dining With Stars & Mobsters - Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood

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Dining With Stars & Mobsters - Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood

Old Jun 22nd, 2020, 01:19 PM
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Dining With Stars & Mobsters - Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood

After more than three months of “house arrest,” we finally escaped and had our first meal out since February. Just before restaurants closed down in March, Tracy and I, along with friends Jeff and Cecilia, were going to hit a historic West Hollywood restaurant that had undergone a $2.4 million restoration a couple of years ago. The Formosa Cafe had been a haunt of numerous movie stars back in the golden age of Hollywood. It was also the hangout for two of America’s most notorious mobsters, and there’s lots of memorabilia and photos at the restaurant detailing it all. This restaurant tells many tales. The interior is now stunning, complete with the oldest Red Car Trolley in existence. In addition, the Asian Fusion cuisine was delicious. Step back in history for a few minutes and enjoy dinner and drinks with Marilyn, Frank, Bogie, Elvis and me at the Formosa Cafe … with appropriate social distancing, of course. Link with story and photos below ... story without photos under a mai tai masked man.

https://travelswithmaitaitom.com/for...-hollywood-ca/






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 (what I thought) was adjacent to the restaurant. In fact, it’s part of the restaurant (more on that later).

I prepared my new face attire, and I was ready to go inside.

Walking in was a case with restaurant memorabilia with nearby newspaper clippings detailing its illustrious 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 with 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 “Perry Mason & Ironside” Burr and none other than Jack Webb. “This is the city,” I said.

Who knows, we might have been sitting at the same booth Marilyn Monroe dined at back in the day.

Also near our table was a display case featuring Elvis Presley liquor decanters donated by his manager Colonel Tom Parker.

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.”

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 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.

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.’”

Also in the back room are photographs 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.”

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? 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!

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.

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 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.

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. It was time to go.

The four of us were quite surprised at how good the dinner turned out to be at Formosa Cafe. So many times, some of these historic restaurants rely on their celebrity and don’t serve the best cuisine. Not the case here.

The food was wonderful with terrific flavors, plus it was a blast to just get out of the house after three months away from the dining scene. 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 cuisine, go out and experience a little local Los Angeles history at the Formosa Cafe. Tell ‘em Bugsy sent you!


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Old Jun 23rd, 2020, 12:12 PM
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Terrific, Tom!

The Formosa is (naturally) one of the iconic LA bars and restaurants that turn up in Bosch, the modern-noir cop series on Amazon. Here's the full list, if interested - https://la.eater.com/maps/bosch-amaz...film-locations . I think the Formosa is also in this year's season (6) which hadn't been released when the article was written. I love all the cool places on the list - Musso and Frank, Du-Pars et al.

The other day I was trying to remember an LA restaurant from my childhood. I could see an image of it in my mind - it had a Taj Mahal-style dome and a "tropical" theme, and was located somewhere in the West LA/Palms/Culver City area, but I couldn't for the life of me remember its name, making for a frustrating search. Then it just came to me - pop - and a quick google identified it - King's Tropical Inn.



Don't mean to hijack your thread, but remembering the name was an achievement!
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Old Jun 23rd, 2020, 12:28 PM
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Thanks for the update! I've only been to the Formosa Cafe to hang out at the bar . . . back in the late '70's, early '80's as my after law school hangout. We'd also cross the street to Jones's bar, which at that time didn't even have its name up (the name is now on the awning). So I guess you could say the Formosa got me through law school!
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Old Jun 23rd, 2020, 02:02 PM
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Wow Gardyloo, never saw that one. Cool list. By the way, I used to eat at Cole's all the time when I worked in DTLA in the early 80s, Like their french dips better than Philippe's.

Surfergirl, you would not recognize the Formosa now. Spectacular interior.
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Old Jun 25th, 2020, 01:01 PM
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Nice essay and photos!

I used to hang out in that area quite a bit in the late 70s and 80s some as I had a boyrfriend who lived in W Hollywood and I worked in Hollywood. We never went to that place, though, I don't even remember it. We were young, though. I worked in Hollywood across from the Chinese Theater, also, but that wasn't the kind of place we'd go for lunch or with colleagues (we did go to Musso and Frank's sometimes).

Now what I remember is Barney's Beanery-- back in the day, the Doors, Jack Nicholson, everybody would go there. I moved away some years ago and I think it sold out to some chain and isn't the same at all now, right? Some sports bar thing. You can never go back, whenever I do, LA has changed so much, kind of ruins my memories. There was also some bagel or breakfast place around there which I can't remember the name of (nothing special, some small chain, I think), and I remember we'd go in there for breakfast and Andy Kaufman was working there as a waiter. I think he was doing some weird performance art thing, not sure, as he would do some really goofy things as a waiter. Or else he was a really bad waiter.
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Old Jun 28th, 2020, 09:05 PM
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Thanks, Maitai for the write up. I was so glad when the restaurant had been saved from tear down. Now that it's been renovated, I might eventually drop by, but get take-out food. Right now, I'm cooking up penang curry to make chu chee salmon tomorrow. I've been one into all types of Asian food since a young child. It's really good to know that the food at the Formosa is really good. I'll have to pull up the menu.

Another restaurant that I have been claiming to go to since it opened here in L.A., some years ago, is Rao's . It's a NY restaurant with a long history. For many years, I've only bought Rao's (Arrabbiata) pasta sauce. When Rao's opened here in L.A., I was really excited. But, I still haven't gotten to it as we have so many really good restaurants here in L.A. County that it takes time to make all the rounds.

Happy Travels!
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Old Jun 28th, 2020, 09:19 PM
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Forgot to post the link. Hope you review Rao's one day, Maitai.

https://www.raoshollywood.com

Happy Travels!
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Old Jul 3rd, 2020, 07:21 AM
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Hi Guenmai, I had not heard of Rao's, but it is now on our list ... if we are ever able to dine out again ): Thanks for the info!
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Old Jul 4th, 2020, 07:25 PM
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Originally Posted by maitaitom View Post
Hi Guenmai, I had not heard of Rao's, but it is now on our list ... if we are ever able to dine out again ): Thanks for the info!
I hope you do get to try it one of these days and report back. I put it off too long and now I really don't know when I'll get there. But, in the meantime since I've bought Rao's arrabbiata pasta sauce forever it seems, I just continue to make pasta dishes here at home with the sauce. Rao's makes a variety of sauces.

https://www.raos.com/product-category/sauces/

Have you eaten at Amici at Americana and directly across the front door from Nordstrom? That's my favorite Italian restaurant. I love the swordfish dish and I also have them make me up penne with arrabbiata sauce which used to be on the menu, but was taken off some years ago. But, they know that I love it and it was that dish that got me coming back there regularly many years ago. The last time I was there, I got both the swordfish and the penne arrabbiata to go and it was right before the shelter-in-place mandate. It was the first time that I had ordered food to go as I always actually eat inside the restaurant.

http://amicila.com

Happy Travels!

Last edited by Guenmai; Jul 4th, 2020 at 07:35 PM.
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Old Jul 5th, 2020, 09:14 PM
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Love swordfish. I hope the restaurant survives.
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Old Jul 6th, 2020, 08:36 AM
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Originally Posted by maitaitom View Post
Love swordfish. I hope the restaurant survives.
I also hope that they survive. The swordfish comes with sautéed leeks and kale and is topped with, I think, crispy-fried onions pieces. I keep forgetting to ask them what the crispy pieces are. Then, I order a side of the penne arrabbiata and eat about half of it and bring the other half home.

The last time I was at (Trattoria) Amici and ordered take out, right before the shelter-in-place mandate, I nearly finished eating the entire take-out order before I even got home. LOL! The intoxicating smell of their food in my car was so good until I just couldn't resist opening up the containers and taking bites of food.

A few years back, there was a show on TV with some of the top chefs around L.A. and the show was about them naming their favorite restaurants that they go to when not working/ eating at their own restaurant(s) and two of the chefs named (Trattoria) Amici restaurant as their favorite and showed it on TV. By then, I had already been eating there for many years.

Oh....I just found the TV show segment. I didn't realize that it was in 2015. I thought maybe 2016 or 2017. There are a lot of restaurant recommendations there.

https://abc7.com/society/eye-on-la-f...s-eat-/307798/

Happy Travels!

Last edited by Guenmai; Jul 6th, 2020 at 09:27 AM.
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Old Jul 6th, 2020, 04:51 PM
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Thanks Guenmai for the recommendation. Of course, I'd heard of Rao's as their sauce is on our grocery shelves (the $8.99 bottles!). Love their spicy sauce. We'll have to go when they open up!

Christina, I know exactly what you mean . . . but Barney's, in the Trashy Teddy days, was fabulous back in the day, although I'm glad they finally took down the offensive sign. We used to go there back in the day after law school, or after an evening at the Starwood. Eric Burdon and Michael Sarrazin used to hang out there . . . Eric Burdon (of the Animals) had a spot at the end of the bar. We still periodically stop in . . . last time was at last year's WeHo Halloween Carnival. I'm curious about the breakfast place. I remember at La Cienega and SM Blvd. there was a restaurant called the Great American Food & Beverage Company with the singing waiters. I had a friend who worked there.
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Old Jul 6th, 2020, 09:43 PM
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You're welcome, Surfergirl. And that $8.99 for arrabbiata sauce to me is worth every penny. . After I open a jar, I freeze the rest in either ice cube trays or soup-cube trays as for it not to get moldy before I can use it all up. Then, I just pop out a few cubes and put them into a double boiler and let them melt back down to sauce texture which works like a dream.

Happy Travels!
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Old Jul 9th, 2020, 08:59 AM
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Surgergirl, I don't remember any offensive sign at Barney's but it was a long time ago. The chain breakfast place didn't have a theme like singing waiters, Andy Kaufman just was doing his own shtick. It may have been a local "chain", not sure. It was small. We just got simple breakfasts, bagels, etc. there.
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Old Jul 9th, 2020, 05:08 PM
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It's a treat to read about eating in a restaurant! Thanks, Tom.
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