October 10, 2017

The Formosa Cafe Gets Ready To Step Back Into the Spotlight

One of the most stalwart mainstays of Hollywood nightlife has been the Formosa Cafe...

... located along Route 66, across the street from the movie lot that was, at one time or another, Pickford-Fairbanks Studios, United Artists Studio, or Samuel Goldwyn Studio.

That is, until recently.

The Cantonese-themed bar and restaurant, known for its appearance in the Lana Turner scene in L.A. Confidential, has been closed since January.

But the closure is only temporary, as the 1933 Group—also known for its restorations of Highland Park Bowl and the barrel-shaped Idle Hour—has taken over ownership of it, under the leadership of co-founder Bobby Green. In addition to saving old buildings, Green has relatively quickly established himself as the King of LA Theme Bars (Bigfoot Lodge, Bigfoot West, Sassafras, etc.).

Although the condition of the Formosa Cafe appears to be pretty good, Green says that a lot of the work that needs to be done is on stuff that you can't see.

But the one thing you can see is the old Pacific Electric Red Car trolley-turned-dining room, which needs a little TLC.

That's why the Formosa Cafe is in the running to win preservation funding from the "Vote Your Main Street" competition as part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Partners in Preservation program...

...which is being co-sponsored by National Geographic and American Express.

First opened in 1925, Formosa Cafe was more or less family-run from 1945 to 2014. But it's always been kind of a bumpy ride for the movie star haunt.

It was preserved as a historic landmark in the early 1990s when its lease expired and it was threatened with demolition as plans to expand The Lot attempted to encroach on the restaurant's footprint.

In 2004, the developer of the "Gateway" shopping mall next door agreed to build around it after being wooed by its charms.

A decade later, new management took over with a major overhaul of the menu. It was OK then, but it wasn't great.

And then in 2015, the interior was—as its biggest fans claimed—"gutted," with the ceiling having been painted black and the walls being covered with new faux Chinese (but more like Victorian bordello) red velvet wallpaper.

Maybe those in charge thought that they were "modernizing" the vintage eatery.

But these days, everything old is new again. We Angelenos prefer vintage—so much so that even when a new place opens, it does its darnedest to look as though it's been there for ages.

And the Formosa has been there for ages—so why not celebrate that?

As the oldest section of the restaurant, the train car—PE #913, in service from 1902 to 1906—is key to preserving the history of the Formosa.

In fact, when it first opened, the Formosa—then known as The Red Post Cafe—was just that old red streetcar!

Now, of course, the ravages of time are a little more than visible. Its grey roots are growing in, and the crevices of its wrinkles are deepening.

It happens to the best of the Hollywood starlets—but there's no reason that the Formosa should retire from the spotlight.

Not only is there so much history here—including past ties to organized crime (including regulars Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel)—but a lot of what's been done to its interior can be undone. (And fortunately, the infamous safe in the floor still peeks through the laminate flooring that was recently slapped down on top of the original hardwood.)

And Green reports that much of the original decor and memorabilia—including all those photos of all those celebrities who've passed through the doors of the Formosa—were saved from the last (historically inappropriate) renovation.

He's just got to get them back from the last owner.

The fundraising campaign runs through October 31—and, until then, fans of the Formosa can give it up to five votes on a daily basis.

Sure, the Formosa's heyday is long gone—and was so way before I moved to LA in 2011. But I'm hoping that, if its other projects are any indication, the 1933 Group can bring a new heyday to the Formosa.

After all, Hollywood loves a comeback story. And there's still a lot of life left in this ol' girl.

Click to Vote!

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: A Hollywood Diner Campaigns for a Hollywood Candidate
Photo Essay: A Vintage Drinking Den In a Historic Irish Cottage
LA's Grand Central: Where Old and New Neon Collide
Scenes From An Italian Restaurant

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