Food & Drink

Formosa Café: Preserving an Iconic Piece of West Hollywood

From residential homes to plush hotels, the City of West Hollywood takes historic preservation seriously

From residential homes to plush hotels, the City of West Hollywood takes historic preservation seriously. Visitors and locals can even embark on guided walking tours that showcase architecture and legendary landmarks that are still thriving in present times.

The latest shining example of reviving an iconic 1939 structure not only to its former glory but also catapulting it forward to modern times, is the Formosa Café brought back to life by the 1933 Group in a $2.4 million-dollar endeavor. The 80-year-old Formosa Cafe was designated a local cultural resource by the city of West Hollywood. The decree comes two years after the City Council recognized it as one of nearly 60 properties throughout the city that are eligible for historic designation at the local, state or national level. 

Photo by 1933 Group

This perfect collaboration was a dream undertaking for Bobby Green, co-owner and lead designer at the 1933 Group, who spearheaded the Formosa Café project several years ago. The group has gained a solid reputation for riving landmark buildings from Highland Park Bowl to Idle Hour bar and restaurant in the valley.

 “We are thrilled to have revived the Formosa Café—a remarkable and historic institution—and are honored to have been given the chance to make a piece of old Hollywood history new again,” says Green. “This has been the most exciting restoration because the Formosa is such a beloved, iconic celebrity favorite, and we hope it has a long-term impact on historic West Hollywood.”

The historic 1904 red trolley car building on Santa Monica Boulevard and Formosa, located across from the old Samuel Goldwyn studio, is shrouded in palm trees with a vintage green neon sign evoking a speakeasy feel. Upon entering through a side door off the parking lot, the nostalgic feel is palpable with deep crimson leather booths, dimly-lit Chinese lanterns and shiny brass top tables where stars like Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, Lana Turner, James Dean, and Elvis Presley would pop in for a dry martini or a fruity Mai Tai.

You might have heard some of the legendary tales of Ava Gardner dancing in the booths, or John Wayne sleeping in one of those same booths the night after a binge and making eggs in the morning.  As far as other well-kept secrets of alleged mobsters having meetings (Bugsy Siegel’s floor safe is still intact under his old table in the corner booth), that old cliched expression “if these walls (or booths) could talk” is extremely fitting for the Formosa’s storied Hollywood past.

Green kept all of this in mind when collaborating with the family of the original owners, as well as local Los Angeles historians and various entertainment industry players to inspire the narrative for the new Formosa. Black and white studio headshots line the upper walls from the main bar and dining car, still intact, leading back to the new pagoda themed Yee Mee Loo back bar which was rescued from an old Chinatown venue, and dining room and a rooftop patio that will also be fully operational for events. There is also an intimate private room off the back main dining car with its own entrance an old-fashioned rotary phone to dial for drinks so you don’t have to leave the space.

Green and his team are keeping many of the original décor elements and paying homage to not only old Hollywood but the Chinese-American influence on the early days of movie-making and the dining culture. The Anaglyph printed Chinese patterns line the ceiling, and the wallpaper is a custom design by Green that is a synthesized combination of all the decades of Formosa wallpaper put up since the 1920s. Other meticulous details executed by Green include replicas of 1940’s napkins, stir sticks, matchbooks, and some glassware.

In addition, Oscar-nominated filmmaker and award-winning author of Forbidden City, Arthur Dong, was called in to compile an installation – a collection of photos, movie posters, and headshots to showcase every Chinese actor from a chronological standpoint from Hollywood’s Golden Age.  “I knew that Arthur was the perfect person to showcase the Chinese-American influence on early Hollywood and what better place to tell this story than the beloved Formosa,” says Green. “Additional Asian-American-Hollywood influences play a role in the new Formosa, and Green disclosed, “We were very inspired by the soundtrack of Crazy Rich Asians and want to throw many of those songs on our Formosa playlist. You know, much older Chinese cover songs of popular American tunes. We want it to feel very Tarantino.”

Photo by Maxim Shapolov

The menu has also gone through its own transformation. Little Fatty chef and owner David Kuo brings his classic Taiwanese-American cuisine into the kitchen vestiges to emerge with a modern take on classic dishes and dim sum that were found in the vintage menus. Kuo also mixes in a few signature dishes from his popular Mar Vista restaurant, such as the General Tso’s cauliflower and the XO noodles, along with a namesake chicken salad created especially for the newly revamped venue.

The drinks are still strong ranging from classic tipples to Tiki favorites in tall colorful barware with kitschy little paper umbrellas that we hope will stand the test of time, along with the Formosa, while they create a new legacy in the years to come. Maybe we will even spot Tarantino one night in a booth or at the bar.


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