Historical Restaurant Mirrors Change In Los Angeles' Food And Drink Scene

By: Matthew Paolini

Los Angeles has perhaps more restaurants per square mile than any city of its size. This article reveals the fate of a famous eatery that once played host to many Hollywood stars.

The City of Los Angeles' landmark Brown Derby restaurant played host to many stars during Hollywood's 'Golden Age.' The eatery was an example of novelty architecture, as it was built to resemble a brown derby hat. The Brown Derby was the first restaurant to serve chiffon cake, a recipe invented by an insurance salesman and later made famous by Betty Crocker.

However, the most lasting food legacy of the Brown Derby is Cobb Salad. The dish was created by and named after Bob Cobb, one of the restaurant's owners. Bob's wife tells that he raided the refrigerator late one night and just chopped up some leftovers for a meal. Later that night, some of his Hollywood friends visited the restaurant and joined Bob in sampling his concoction. When several of them began to ask for it on later visits, the rest was history.

The Brown Derby was named after a restaurant of the same name located in Malverne, New York that was a trendy vaudeville hangout. The initial Brown Derby in Los Angeles, known also as the Little Hat, opened its doors in February 1926, right across from the Ambassador Hotel. It was frequently the site of after-parties following events at the Coconut Grove nightclub. This was the only Derby that was actually constructed in the shape of a hat.

A second Los Angeles Brown Derby restaurant opened on Vine Street, near the famous Hollywood and Vine intersection, on Valentine's Day in 1929. Other restaurants were then constructed in Beverly Hills and in East Hollywood. The latter had a car cafe that followed the then-novel drive-in trend.

The Hollywood Brown Derby closed down in 1985. The shell of the restaurant was restored and placed atop a Wilshire Boulevard strip mall. The structure is now painted orange and known as the Cafe SheeRi.

In mid-2004, the Derby along with adjacent lots were purchased by a realty company and faced demolition to clear space for a condominium complex. A group of interested parties, called 'Save The Derby' sought to prevent the shell from being demolished by having it designated as an official historical landmark. Validating their efforts, in May 2006 the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to recognize the entire edifice as an official Historic Cultural Monument of the City of Los Angeles.

In one 'I Love Lucy' show episode Lucy, Ethel and Fred take in lunch at the Brown Derby. During the episode, Lucy accidentally causes a waiter to dump a plate of food on famed actor William Holden. Currently, there is a replica of the Hollywood Brown Derby at the Disney-MGM Studios in Florida's Walt Disney World Resort.

Matt Paolini is a gourmet writer for CityBook.com, the family-safe online yellow pages, which carries an extensive directory on Los Angeles beverages and liquor stores.

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