Legendary Celebrity Haunt Formosa Cafe Reopens in Los Angeles
Little Fatty chef David Kuo is serving squid-ink xiao long bao and his version of Chinese chicken salad at a place once frequented by Elvis Presley, Ava Gardner, and John Wayne.
Formosa Cafe, an iconic former mobster den and longtime celebrity hangout in West Hollywood, reopens on Friday after an extensive restoration that took more than a year. This is a bar and restaurant that dates back to 1939 and has stories to spare. It’s where Elvis Presley tipped a waitress a Cadillac. It wasn’t uncommon to see Ava Gardner dancing around the red leather booths. Brad Pitt liked to come by dressed like a “homeless person” and often sat at the bar drinking without being recognized by other customers, says Bobby Green of 1933 Group, the hospitality firm that acquired Formosa Cafe in 2017.
Formosa Cafe is across the street from the location of what was the Samuel Goldwyn Studio, which became the Warner Hollywood Studio (also gone now). Countless superstars, including Frank Sinatra, Lana Turner, James Dean, and Humphrey Bogart, visited over the years. A lot of this has been well-documented publicly, and Green also worked with a historian and ended up getting a diary of a bartender who worked at Formosa Cafe for 40 years. The diary was full of information about who came in, what they drank, who got kicked out, who fell asleep in the bar.
“One of my favorite stories is John Wayne; he was a mad regular here,” Green says. “A lot of these guys would be regulars for like a year straight if they’re filming a movie across the street. John Wayne was notoriously a whisky drinker, and he would just get completely blotto. So in this diary, it talks about how John Wayne on several occasions got passed-out drunk and was in the booth asleep. They would just lock him in at the end of the night and close the door and leave him. They’d come back the next morning, and he’s making eggs in the kitchen.”
Green is the lead designer of the renovated Formosa Cafe, and so much of the restoration has been about preserving the past. Green shows me the safe that crime boss Bugsy Siegel had installed here. Green also takes me into the converted Pacific Electric Red Car trolley where Mickey Cohen used to run a bookie operation. Formosa Cafe is such an important L.A. landmark that 1933 Group received a $150,000 National Trust for Historic Preservation grant (after a nomination from the Los Angeles Conservancy) to renovate the train car.
“With that grant, we were able to not only restore the train car but also do tons of research,” Green says. “So we found out some fascinating stuff about this car. It was Car 913, the original Pacific Electric 800 series. These were built between 1904 and 1906. That was the first Red Car series train ever done. So we found out that this is the oldest surviving Red Car in existence, which is pretty damn cool for L.A. history.”
After the era of organized crime in L.A. ended, the back of the train car became a VIP room for actors and bands like Guns ’N Roses. Green has installed a vintage rotary phone there, next to a window that opens into the main bar. Pick up the phone, and a red light goes on, and a bartender will know you want to order something.
During our tour of Formosa Cafe, we also walk by lucky Buddhas and celebrity photographs that have been here for decades. There are lamps from L.A. Confidential, one of the movies that has shot scenes in the bar. (You might also remember Formosa Cafe from Swingers.) There’s an “Elvis box,” a display case with pictures and other assorted items above the booth where Presley and Colonel Tom Parker spent a lot of time.
What’s on the menu at Formosa Cafe, though, has gotten a 21st-century upgrade. You can still order mai tais and Singapore Slings, but the recipes are different now.
“The problem is, if you came here 30, 40 years ago, you were getting straight-up sugar syrup,” Green says. “It wasn’t what our palates are used to now. Our palates are more complex now.
It’s about capturing those flavors with much better-quality ingredients. It’s like the glossed-over memory of a mai tai you had in the ’80s, but you’re like, oh, this tastes so much better.”
For the food, 1933 Group enlisted respected L.A. chef David Kuo, who runs modern Taiwanese-American restaurant Little Fatty and Accomplice Bar. At Formosa, Kuo is serving Little Fatty crowd-pleasers like dan dan mian, scallion pancakes, squid-ink xiao long bao, orange chicken, and walnut shrimp. He’s also updated old Formosa favorites like beef and broccoli as well as a Chinese chicken salad.
“We tried to lighten it up,” Kuo says of the salad. “The dressing, we aerate it. We have to make it in a blender. So the dressing is light and refreshing. Obviously, we went with the classics with the mandarin oranges, the crispy noodles. But they’re rice noodles, so they’re gluten-free. We always think about vegans, gluten-free, that kind of thing.”
Kuo and Green laugh when we discuss how food restrictions weren’t a consideration in the old days of Formosa Cafe. So much has changed in L.A. since Formosa opened. We’re standing in what used to be a smoking patio and has turned into a dining/bar area because people smoke a lot less now. Green found the original bar from Chinatown landmark Yee Mee Loo and installed it in this back room. (You can order a rum-based Yee Mee Loo cocktail at Formosa Cafe.) Filmmaker Arthur Dong curated this room with images of Chinese-American actors from the 1920s to the 1970s. Dong is working on a book about the influence of Chinese-Americans in old Hollywood, and Formosa Cafe plans to have a book party for him here.
Another update is the conversion of the upstairs patio into a rooftop bar. Now it’s time for 1933 Group, which also runs spots including Idle Hour and Highland Park Bowl, and Kuo to oversee the next chapter of Formosa Cafe’s story.
“This thing’s been a long process,” Kuo says. “I always tried to imagine how it’s going to look. And it actually came out how I imagined, like being in a movie set. We try to make food that goes along with the movie set.”
The bar and restaurant is now across the street from The Lot, a creative complex where Showtime has its new headquarters and where OWN and Funny or Die also conduct business. Chances are, Formosa Cafe is still going to have a significant celebrity clientele.
“I just ran into Alden [Ehrenreich], who’s the new Han Solo,” Green says. “He’s walking out the door across the street. I said, ‘I’m just about to reopen this place.’ He’s, ‘Awesome. I can’t wait. Everyone on The Lot’s talking about it.”
Green wants to make it clear that this is a place where A-listers will be left alone if that’s what they want.
“The policy that Formosa always had is what we’re going to always have,” Green says. “We’ve always had that policy with the 1933 Group. We never post that celebrities are here. We never have TMZ over. Celebrities are safe at our places.”
Formosa Cafe, 7156 Santa Monica Blvd,, West Hollywood, 323-850-1009