West Hollywood’s famous Formosa Café is coming back to life.
In an interview, 1933 Group’s Dimitri Komarov said “In a time when beloved establishments are closing throughout Los Angeles it’s important for us as a company to breathe new life into places that can be saved.”
The group’s Bobby Green said it would keep the restaurant’s well-known neon façade and its bar and train-car style dining room and restore the original red vinyl booths and Chinese lanterns. “I want it to have the feel of the 1930s to 1960s,” Green told Los Angeles Magazine.
The Formosa closed in January after 92 years in which it served as a major dining spot for actors and actresses and other film industry professionals at the movie studio next door. That studio has gone through its own transition, with the studio opened in 1918 by Jesse Hampton and sold to 1922 the famous Mary Pickford and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, who later renamed it United Artists. It changed hands several times and now belongs to CIM Group and is known as The Lot.
Formosa Cafe opened as a tiny restaurant called the Red Post Café, which offered breakfast and lunch in its cramped space. New York prizefighter Jimmy Bernstein bought it in 1925, added a red train car to its side for more dining space and called it Formosa Cafe
In 1945, Bernstein brought on Hong Kong-born chef Lem Quon as his partner. It was a perfect business relationship, with Quon running the kitchen and Bernstein at the front of the restaurant, greeting customers and running the staff. The partnership lasted 31 years.
Over the years, the Formosa has changed its menu from bistro-style meals, to Asian cuisine, to California-style fare. If your grandparents had dined at the Formosa in their day, they would have eaten steaks and slow-cooked, braised meats; your parents, on the other hand, would have seen the introduction of Asian cuisine at the café, such as noodle bowls and raw fish dishes. Today, fresh farm-to-table ingredients are used in the Formosa’s kitchen.
The Formosa has seen its fair share of controversy. On October 23, 1944, with the war still going strong, the café was closed down for the night when sisters Francis and Betty Malson were arrested for selling “set-ups” after hours. On April 4, 1950, about an hour prior to opening, a “baby-faced” gunman (as Bernstein described him) came in through the café’s back door and demanded about $1,500 in cash and checks (the equivalent of about $14,000 today). For years, Los Angeles gangster Johnny Stompanato and his lover, actress Lana Turner, frequented the Formosa for their “back room” meetings with Johnny’s boss, mobster Mickey Cohen. In 1952, Cohen’s arrest for tax evasion put an end to those meetings.
When Bernstein died in 1976, Quon became the sole owner of the café. In the last years of Quon’s life, he arrived at the café every morning at around 5 a.m. to have coffee and breakfast, and worked until 9 p.m., managing the kitchen and staff from his favorite corner booth (which also happened to have been Ava Gardner’s favorite). In December of 1993, Quon died from chronic heart failure, leaving the cafe to his grandson, Vince Jung.
The Formosa has fought two major threats in its near-century of existence. In 1991, the Friends of the Formosa preservation group was formed to fight Warner Bros., which owned the property the café sat on at the time and wanted to turn it into a parking lot. Actors and other frequenters of the café got involved, and the Formosa was saved; the parking lot was constructed a few blocks down from the eatery instead. In 2001, another fight to save the Formosa ensued when the West Hollywood Gateway Center—a two-story shopping center that would take up a full city block—was proposed. Although the Formosa was left alone, it was suddenly in the middle of West Hollywood’s largest shopping complex.
Lacking customers, the Formosa paired up with the Red Medicine Restaurant team in early 2014 to revamp its menu, calling it “Red Med at the Formosa.” Although the café’s new offerings were well received, the partnership lasted only three months. The Formosa then brought in sixth-place “Top Chef” winner Brian Huskey, who added eclectic dishes to the menu like Korean brisket with Asian slaw and fried chicken sliders with sweet potato and sambal aioli. They also put “On the Rocks” winner Joseph Brooke behind the bar, where he whipped up tasty, Asian-themed concoctions like the Canton Iced Tea (which contained jasmine and black teas mixed with vodka, lemon, mint, and soda). This team lasted a few years.
In July 2015, the inside of the Formosa went through a complete transformation. All of the 8 x 10 glossies were taken down, the red interior was painted a battleship gray, and a rooftop garden bar was added. The menu changed drastically, featuring new items like microbrew beers and toasted cheese sandwiches. The shell of the red train car is all that remains of the original Formosa design.
Faced with pushback over that by long time Formosa fans, the restaurant had begun to slowly move back towards its earlier interior style.