Lem Quon, the Hong Kong-born chef who rose to own Hollywood’s fabled Formosa Cafe and ran it for half a century, has died. He was 83.
Quon died Sunday at the Veterans Administration Hospital in West Los Angeles of chronic heart problems.
Revered by film stars, wanna-bes and fans, Quon earned widespread publicity two years ago when he led a fight to maintain the Formosa at 7156 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood. Warner Bros. owned the land and wanted to flatten the Formosa to build a parking lot.
Quon and cafe regulars calling themselves Friends of the Formosa got the restaurant declared a cultural and historical landmark, and the Formosa was preserved.
Until his last days, Quon daily drove his Cadillac from his Silver Lake home to “my home away from home” and supervised the cafe from a corner booth that was Ava Gardner’s favorite.
“She used to sit right there,” he proudly told The Times a couple of years ago. “She was a beautiful lady. We would talk and share stories. She was a good friend.”
The cafe serves Cantonese food under the gaze of 1,000 photographs of film personalities--Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Lucille Ball, Clark Gable, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, Pearl Bailey, Elvis Presley--and Quon knew them all. He had his favorite anecdotes, such as billionaire Howard Hughes borrowing $20 to pay a debt to a drinking buddy.
But you didn’t have to be a star to earn Quon’s friendship.
“I never look down on people,” he once explained of his popularity. “Here at the Formosa, we always make small people feel like big stars. We are all the same.”
Quon emigrated to the United States on a cargo ship when he was 12, joined his parents who had already come to Los Angeles, and began working for his father in Tuewfar Lowe, one of a handful of Chinese restaurants in the city.
He joined the Army during World War II and worked as a cook. Returning home, he worked briefly as a cook at the Shanghai-Gin, and when it lost its lease, he moved to the Formosa.
It was owned by former prizefighter Jimmy Bernstein, who had bought an old red trolley car in 1925 for use as a luncheon counter dubbed the Red Post. Bernstein added the main dining room, bar and kitchen and changed the name to the Formosa Cafe. The trolley car still stands as the restaurant’s Star Dining Room.
In 1945, Quon became Bernstein’s partner.
“I ran the kitchen and he ran the front,” Quon told The Times. “When Jimmy died (in 1976) I became the sole owner.”
Quon married twice and lost both wives to cancer, the first in 1955, the second in 1976. He is survived by a son, Jimmy Quon; the stepson who now runs the Formosa, William Jung, three stepdaughters and several grandchildren.
Memorial services are scheduled at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 18, at Little Church of the Flowers in Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Glendale.