April 3: The Last Brown Derby Closes

Hollywood_Brown_DerbyIn 1926, Robert H. Cobb and Herbert Somborn opened a cafe on Los Angeles’ Wilshire Boulevard shaped like a hat and fittingly called the Brown Derby. Whimsical architecture was big at the time, and the Brown Derby quickly became a hot spot for celebrities, locals and tourists. The cafe’s success inspired the owners to open a few additional Brown Derby locations in some of L. A.’s finest neighborhoods. Tragically, it was on this day in 1985 that the last Brown Derby, the Hollywood location, closed.

Although the original Wilshire Boulevard Brown Derby’s look was iconic, the most famous location was the Hollywood Brown Derby (opened in 1929). As this location was near many major motion picture studios, it was not unusual to see actors, directors and studio bosses dining at the Derby. In tribute to their famous clientele the Hollywood Brown Derby began hanging celebrity caricatures on its walls, most of which were drawn by the restaurant’s resident artist, Jack Lane. Famously, the Cobb Salad was invented at the Hollywood Brown Derby by Robert H. Cobb when Sid Grauman (of Grauman’s Chinese Theater fame) came to the restaurant after having dental surgery and needed something that wasn’t too difficult to chew; thus the finely chopped Cobb Salad was created. In addition to the Wilshire and Hollywood restaurants, there were also Beverly Hills and Los Feliz Brown Derbys (opened in 1931 and 1940, respectively).

So, what happened to the Brown Derby? Well, the original got sold to a new ownership group in the mid-1970s and then the land was sold to make a strip mall called Brown Derby Plaza, with the original dome incorporated as part of the strip mall’s roof. The Beverly Hills location was closed in 1983 and the corner it once stood on is now the Rodeo Drive Bulgari (which fittingly sports a brownish round dome atop its entrance). As we said up top, the Hollywood location was closed in 1985. A fire soon damaged the property and now the land is a parking structure.

The Los Feliz one however had a fascinating history: It was only a Brown Derby for 20 years before it changed hands and it became Michaels [sic] of Los Feliz in 1960. In 1992, it became a nightclub called The Derby and swiftly became one of the epicenters of the late 1990s swing dancing revival. The Derby closed in the early 2000s, and briefly served as an outpost of the Los Angeles Italian restaurant chain Louise’s Trattoria and now it’s a restaurant called Mess Hall and is the only former Brown Derby building still standing.

Unsurprisingly, there is a Brown Derby cocktail. This drink was included in Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide, so it’s possible that there is a connection, but I cannot confirm it. There are a few variations to this drink, but today we’ll stay in Los Angeles and use a recipe that Marcos Tello, a bartender who’s worked at several of L. A.’s hottest bars including the Edison and The Varnish, gave to the Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Brown Derby

  • 1 ounce Woodford Reserve bourbon
  • 1 ounce grapefruit juice
  • ½ ounce clover-honey syrup (1 part water, 1 part clover honey)

Shake all ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Tomorrow: We look back on the Olde Internet.

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One response

  1. […] from the mountains, ribbons of concrete unwinding in the sky, stripmalls built around restaurants designed to look like hats, mechanical ballerina clowns looming above our heads, other people’s visions all over a spacious, […]

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