Brown Derby to Crown New Shopping Plaza

Times Staff Writer

Hats were off last week at the original Brown Derby, which capped the famous restaurant at 3377 Wilshire Blvd.

Community, civic and business leaders toasted developers and architects as giant cranes and construction crews moved in to remove the landmark to make way for construction of a $20-million shopping plaza, which will include 43,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space.

The 32-by-33-foot hat will be restored and returned to the site in a few months.

The landmark was spared when the building it identified was razed. The famous restaurant was closed abruptly in 1980 after serving customers for years.

Operating Four Restaurants

The original Derby was built in 1926 by Herbert K. Somborn, actress Gloria Swanson's husband, to win a bet. The challenge: If he knew anything about food, he could sell it out of a hat. Within a few years, he was operating four restaurants.

The first was built in what was a fashionable residential neighborhood. The property is now surrounded by tall office buildings. Dennis Bass, one of its current developers, acknowledged this, saying: "This is one of the few areas of Los Angeles that approaches the density of Mid-Manhattan. We're trying to meet the needs of the area's office workers and local residents in a project with a New York-style cosmopolitan flair."

In the past, the residential surroundings apparently worked against the restaurant, because it took a back seat to the Hollywood and Beverly Hills branches that opened in the 1930s. They drew more movie stars and high society. A Los Feliz location was added later, and the original Derby, opposite the Ambassador hotel, was rebuilt once.

As fame of the restaurants spread, the Brown Derby was featured in films and gossip columns, and Brown Derby cookbooks were sold at $3 apiece in 1948.

Last month, the last of the Brown Derbys shut its dark-brown doors at 1628 N. Vine St. in Hollywood, but the name and the symbol will live on at the Brown Derby Plaza.

Designed by Maxwell Starkman AIA Associates, it will feature a contemporary style with an Art-Deco flavor reminiscent of the Brown Derby's heyday. There will be some outdoor cafes in a ground-floor outdoor plaza of nearly 6,000 square feet, an escalator to the second floor, and second-story balconies.

Christmas Completion

At one time, former owners planned a high-rise on the site. By 1952, Gloria Somborn Anderson, daughter of Gloria Swanson, had relinquished her holdings in all but the original Brown Derby, which she later sold. About six months ago, Inner City Equities--a partnership of Bass and W. E. and Glenn Hartman--bought the property from Charlbury Investment Ltd. Cathy Ferraro of Ferraro Realty represented the sellers and the buyers.

Scheduled for completion in time for the Christmas holidays, the building will be sheathed in peach-tone glass with blue accents.

And it will be crowned by none other than the hat-shaped landmark, which will be stored on a nearby parking garage before being restored and then placed in a position rising nearly 20 feet above the plaza's second floor.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World