The Formosa Cafe at Formosa Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood has been an unofficial clubhouse for Hollywood stars, writers and film crews for more than 50 years. John Wayne, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart are just a few of its illustrious past customers, and it continues to be frequented by the stars and crews working across the street at Warner Hollywood Studios.
But if Warner Bros. has its way, next month Formosa owner Lem Quon will switch off the classic ‘30s neon signs that light the familiar Chinese restaurant/bar, lock up its padded green leather doors and close for good.
Four years ago, Warner Bros. purchased the Formosa property for the possible expansion of its adjacent studio--once the headquarters of both United Artists and Samuel Goldwyn--but now is planning to use it for additional parking space, according to a source at the West Hollywood Planning Commission. Quon has been told to close shop by the end of February.
It is this grim fact that has upset Formosa regulars--and more than a few preservation-minded Angelenos who have never set foot inside the restaurant, built half-a-century ago around a retired Red Car from Los Angeles’ once-bustling electrified mass-transit system.
When U2’s lead singer, Bono, heard of the Formosa’s possible demise, he dispatched rhyming verse that he’d composed on a coaster in an Irish pub: “It’s dark in the daylight, you can’t see very far/Past the ghosts of Sam Goldwyn in the old train car.”
An organization called the Friends of the Formosa is holding what it calls a “peaceful demonstration of outrage and support” Thursday at 4 p.m. in the Formosa parking lot to protest the cafe’s closing. But this grass-roots battle will need more than celebrity poetry to help its cause.
Realizing this, the group is attempting to protect the cafe by securing its status as a West Hollywood cultural heritage landmark. The group is hoping that Warner Bros. will follow the lead of the owners of other historic West Hollywood properties who plan to build around such structures as the 1920s roadhouse, Barney’s Beanery.
“I think the voters of West Hollywood are aware that part of what makes the city economically viable as well as livable are the ties to the past that still exist here,” said Jamie Wolf, a member of the West Hollywood Urban Conservation League.
But even though West Hollywood zoning regulations require that Warner Bros. include ground-level retail stores or restaurants in whatever structure it builds, the film corporation’s plans are unlikely to include the Formosa. A member of West Hollywood’s Community Development Department said that Warner Hollywood had successfully lobbied to make itself exempt from West Hollywood’s preservation ordinance before it was put into effect in 1989.
And, he pointed out, the bulldozing of the historic cafe for a parking structure is only the first part of Warner Bros.’ own five-phase development plan, which will raze some of the studio’s own Mission Revival buildings, built for United Artists co-founders Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in 1922.
According to the Conservation League’s Wolf, Warner Bros. has yet to file for a development permit or complete an environmental impact report.
“I feel that Warner Hollywood is operating under a lot of mistaken assumptions,” she added. “It is doubtful at this point that a demolition permit could even be issued much less upheld.” Wolf pointed out that since the Friends of Formosa have started the application process to grant landmark status for the restaurant, Warner Bros. must wait for a finding from the city planning commission. “And if you don’t win at the city Planning Commission you can still go to the City Council.”
Wolf also said that if Warner Bros. reworked its plans to include the Formosa as a historic building, it might be eligible for a Floor Area Ratio Bonus, which would allow greater building height and density in the structure to be built around the site.
“Warners is awfully good at exploiting its own colorful past,” said one Friends of the Formosa member. “It seems to me that they could reconsider their position and recognize the advantages of preserving the Formosa and all of the history that goes with it.”
“We’d like to see the Formosa saved,” said Formosa co-owner Bill Jung, Quon’s stepson, “but we are only small operators and we cannot fight a billion-dollar corporation.”
Warner executives declined to comment on any aspect of the project.
According to Formosa regulars, there is nothing particularly elusive about why people are so strongly attached to the restaurant. As one old-timer put it, “There is a comforting unchangeability about the Formosa. The bar area is full of cigarette smoke and there’s no piped-in elevator music, just the sound of people chattering.”
The menu is mammoth-sized--you can order everything from Woh Siu Yoke Bine (pork with pineapple and vegetables) to pears with cottage cheese. But to many people, food isn’t the main attraction.
“People come to the Formosa to drink,” said one woman matter-of-factly. Nighttime bartender Lindon (Lindy) Brewerton “makes the best mai tais and margaritas in town, and he pours the best shots in Los Angeles.”
Fans of the Formosa cite Brewerton’s ability to log the first names and, even more crucially flattering, the specific drink orders of everyone who has ever settled into the Formosa’s red leather tuck-'n'-roll booths. They like that the waitresses often greet customers with a happy hug. People talk about the Formosa with an intense sense of possessiveness.
Most of the men and women who work at the Formosa have been employed there for at least 20 years. Brewerton has been there 42 years; waitresses Mary Kay Moore and Catherine (Cass) Marples for 38 and 20 years, respectively.
All of them know the story of how, in the late ‘30s, a prizefighter named Jimmy Bernstein got the idea of purchasing a renovated Red Car that was serving as a luncheon counter called the Red Post. He tacked on a concrete-and-stucco main dining room, bar and kitchen area, and decorated the rooms with an offhand Cantonese theme. The Red Car is still there--the narrow back dining room long since dubbed the “Stars Dining Car.”
Formosa staffers talk of how it was Bernstein who turned the Formosa into a day-and-night, police-protected drinking spot for bookies, boxers and promoters. Quon, once the Formosa’s head chef, threw in with Bernstein in 1945. He remembers how the film stars began drifting into the restaurant when United Artists moved across the street. Pearl Bailey serenaded diners on a borrowed piano. Frank Sinatra sent over for Chinese takeout.
These days, Quon, now 85, mostly stands--silent, by the Formosa’s fish tank--and watches the ebb and flow of customers.
One evening several years ago, a regular remember, an older woman appeared at the bar--still beautiful, but in a fuzzy way, as if you were observing her through the bottom of a shot glass. Wordlessly, Lindy passed her a J&B; Scotch on the rocks. Quickly, the woman drank up and departed. Lindy leaned over to the regular and whispered: “Ava Gardner.”