Formosa Cafe: The Story of an LA Icon

The landmark Formosa Cafe reopened on June 28 after a $2.4 million renovation

Main room of the Formosa Cafe | Photo: Maxim Shapovalov


Celebrating its 80th anniversary in 2019, the landmark Formosa Cafe reopened on June 28 after a stunning $2.4 million renovation. The Formosa's new operator, the 1933 Group, has garnered widespread acclaim for its previous restoration work on high profile projects like Highland Park Bowl and Idle Hour.

Bobby Green, co-owner and lead designer at the 1933 Group, worked closely with the family of the Formosa's original owners, as well as Los Angeles historians and various entertainment industry players, to bring the Formosa back to its glory days during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

 

Vintage photo of the Formosa Cafe interior

Vintage photo of the Formosa Cafe | Photo: 1933 Group

Designated a local cultural resource by the City of West Hollywood, the Formosa had the good fortune of being located just steps from the Pickford-Fairbanks Studios, which was founded in 1919 and was later known as United Artists Studio, Samuel Goldwyn Studio, Warner Hollywood Studios, and currently The Lot since 1999.

Icons like Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, and Elvis Presley would pop into the Formosa, adding to its reputation as one of Hollywood's most infamous and longest-running celebrity hangouts.

"This has been the most exciting restoration because the Formosa is such a beloved, iconic celebrity favorite." - Bobby Green, 1933 Group

Green says, “We are thrilled to have revived the Formosa Cafe—a remarkable and historic institution—and are honored to have been given the chance to make a piece of old Hollywood history new again. 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 main bar of the Formosa Cafe at night

Main bar of the Formosa Cafe | Photo by Maxim Shapovalov

The Formosa is a star in its own right - in a memorable scene from L.A. Confidential (1997) set inside the Formosa, Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) mistakenly accuses actress Lana Turner (Brenda Bakke) of being a prostitute “cut to look like Lana Turner.” The Formosa has also appeared in Swingers (1996) and more recently, the Season 3 episode of Bosch, "Blood Under the Bridge."

Formosa Cafe custom wallpaper designed by Bobby Green

The Formosa's custom wallpaper was designed by Bobby Green | Photo by Maxim Shapovalov

Longtime Formosa regulars will recognize design elements like the dozens of black and white celebrity headshots that line the main bar area, and the glass case with Elvis porcelain figures.

As part of the revamp, anaglyph printed Chinese patterns line the ceiling, while the new custom wallpaper designed by Green melds decades of Formosa wallpaper that decorated the interior since the 1920s.

Other touches include napkins, dragon swizzle sticks, matchbooks and glassware that are replicas or inspired by items that were used at the Formosa in the 1940s.

Formosa Cafe main bar floor with terrazzo tiles

Main bar floor with terrazzo tiles and Chinese knot pattern | Photo by Maxim Shapovalov

The floor in the main bar features the same terrazzo tiles as those that line Hollywood Boulevard and the Walk of Fame. For the Formosa installation, Green hired one of the longtime contractors that have been laying down the terrazzo on Hollywood Boulevard for years. The floor also includes inlays of brass trim that form a starburst design with Chinese knot patterns - one section spells out “Formosa” in brass with its original typeface.

Bugsy Siegel's floor safe at the Formosa Cafe

Bugsy Siegel's safe is embedded in the floor of the Formosa Cafe | Photo by Maxim Shapovalov

The red vinyl booths along the front bar area are all originals that have been recovered and restored to their original glossy style. Each booth is named for the legendary figure who once claimed it as a Formosa regular - Ava Gardner, Bugsy Siegel, Lana Turner, John Wayne, and Elvis. Bugsy Siegel’s floor safe is exposed and illuminated in its original location, embedded under his favorite table.

Interior of the Pacific Electric Red Car trolley at the Formosa Cafe

 Interior of the Pacific Electric Red Car trolley at the Formosa Cafe | Photo by Maxim Shapovalov

Located just beyond the main bar, the fully revealed and restored Pacific Electric Red Car trolley dates to 1904 and is confirmed to be the oldest surviving Red Car in existence. Like the main bar, the 36-seat trolley is lined with celebrity photos installed above two- and four-seat banquettes.

A discreet VIP room at the rear of the Red Car can host an additional 20 guests. Mickey Cohen reportedly ran his operations and called bookies from this back room, which has its own entrance. As an homage, Green installed a vintage rotary phone for guests to call in drink orders, which are served through a private window.

The Yee Mee Loo bar at Formosa Cafe

Yee Mee Loo at the Formosa Cafe | Photo by Maxim Shapovalov

Named for Yee Mee Loo restaurant and bar in Chinatown, the newly-built back room - previously the Formosa's smoking patio - is the epitome of Green's creative and thoughtful approach to the restoration. 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 Green in September 2018. The pagoda roof tiles that cover the new Yee Mee Loo bar were sourced from the Warner Bros. Design Studio.

"Hollywood Chinese at the Formosa" exhibit curated by Arthur Dong

Hollywood Chinese at the Formosa exhibit curated by Arthur Dong | Photo by Maxim Shapovalov

There are black and white celebrity headshots in Yee Mee Loo as well, but there's a significant twist. Beginning with Marion Wong, who directed the earliest feature film by an Asian American in 1917, the 60 photos displayed on a ceiling beam trace a timeline of pioneering Asian American film, TV, stage and radio performers. The timeline was created by Arthur Dong, an Oscar® nominated filmmaker and author of Forbidden City, USA: Chinatown Nightclubs 1936-1970 and the upcoming Hollywood Chinese: The Chinese in American Feature Films.

Dong's new book is the inspiration for Hollywood Chinese at the Formosa, an exhibit of photos and lobby cards from his collection of movie memorabilia centered on the depiction of Chinese in American feature films. Throughout Yee Mee Loo, guests can view artifacts from Dong's archive, organized by themes such as westerns, crime dramas, and musicals. Green says, "The Formosa in many ways is Hollywood Chinese, so we decided to really tell a story about the influence of Chinese Americans in early Hollywood."

Formosa Cafe Yee Mee Loo cocktail

Yee Mee Loo cocktail at the Formosa Cafe

 |  Photo: Daniel Djang

The cocktail menu is a mix of classics and signatures inspired by the Golden Age of Hollywood and the Formosa's storied history. A standout in the Tiki-inspired section is the potent Yee Mee Loo: Clement Agricole rum, Giffard Blue Curaçao, pineapple, orgeat, crème de cacao, and Worthy Park Rum-Bar White Overproof Rum.

According to legend, John Wayne passed out in a booth after a night of imbibing at the Formosa and was caught making scrambled eggs in the kitchen the next morning. The story inspired the Duke’s All Nighter, made with Milagro Blanco Tequila, RumChata, Fair Goji Liqueur, passionfruit and lime.

Formosa Cafe dishes created by David Kuo of Little Fatty

L to R: Formosa Chicken Salad, Chow Fun, Squid Ink Xiao Long Bao, General Tso’s Cauliflower, Dan Dan Mian | Photo by Maxim Shapovalov

Little Fatty chef-owner David Kuo has created a menu of modern takes on the Taiwanese American cuisine served during the height of the Formosa's fame. Little Fatty favorites like Dan Dan Mian and General Tso’s Cauliflower are offered alongside new dishes such as the Formosa Chicken Salad and Kuo's version of Beef with Broccoli, inspired by Little Fatty's signature sizzling black pepper beef.

Pacific Electric Red Car trolley and chinoiserie booth at the Formosa Cafe

Pacific Electric Red Car trolley and chinoiserie booth at the Formosa | Photo by Maxim Shapovalov

Bobby Green and 1933 Group have outdone themselves with the extraordinary restoration and expansion of the Formosa Cafe. For longtime regulars and newbies alike, one of LA's crown jewels from the Golden Age of Hollywood is once again ready for its close up.

 

Formosa Cafe
7156 Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood 90046
(323) 850-9050
www.theformosacafe.com