Landmark Stands in Changing Neighborhood

Times Staff Writer

Step into the low-ceilinged joint, into the narrow back room that once was a Red Car trolley, and it’s easy to imagine -- Bogart bellying up to the bar, Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen huddling in the corner, John Wayne passing out on a banquette and waking in the morning to fry up his own breakfast.

The Formosa Cafe has never been famous for its food. It’s always been more kitsch than glam. With its black-and-white metal awning and chopsticky Chinese logo, it’s the sort of place you might think had gone by. But inside the little red building on Santa Monica Boulevard is one of old Hollywood’s best preserved haunts. For decades and decades, star after star has slipped out of the studio next door and into the cafe’s rounded red booths, dimly lighted with red-tasseled Chinese lanterns.

Really, said Vince Jung, the 39-year-old owner whose father and grandfather ran the place before him, very little has changed in eight decades.


Not so with the cafe’s immediate neighborhood, which is being transformed.

Adding up its outdoor and indoor space, the Formosa is about 3,400 square feet. Rising next to it, practically breathing down its small neck, is 250,000 square feet of pumped up, spanking-new shopping center, with underground parking for 1,200. The West Hollywood Gateway Project, at Santa Monica Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, will be home to a Target, a Best Buy, a Ben & Jerry’s, a Starbucks and a Baja Fresh. It is expected to open in March 2004.

The new neighbors could be Anywhere, U.S.A. They are part of a bigger, brasher world of super-sized products, fluorescent lights, high turnover and uniform standards.

In the Formosa, you can spot the place on the ceiling where one old shade of red paint meets another. Framed black-and-white glossies of stars line the walls just below the ceiling. Some stars are identified with raised-type maroon plastic labels. Some aren’t. There’s no rhyme or reason. The labeling was done by Jung’s grandfather Lem Quon, a Hong Kong native who started out as a cafe cook and became co-owner in 1945.

When location managers look for authentic Los Angeles noir, they often set their sights on the Formosa. It’s where a cop mistook Lana Turner for a hooker in the Academy Award-winning “L.A. Confidential.”

“It reeks of Old Hollywood,” said Jim McBride, director of “The Big Easy” and “Great Balls of Fire!” on a recent afternoon as he left a script meeting, conducted at a booth across from the bar.

Jung said he’s not sure how the development’s new world and the cafe’s old one will mesh, how the Best Buy shoppers who wander in will change the mood. He had no say. His family owns the cafe building and its contents, but it never owned the land, which is now the property of the developers.

“The development is so big, it’s hard to even tell we’re open,” he said, as he stood on the roof deck of the cafe, staring out at the steel frames smack in front of him to the east. A large barbecue joint is expected to fill the spot closest to the cafe, separated by a small park area.

The city of West Hollywood contributed about $10 million to the new mall, with help from grants. Officials have high hopes for the $75-million center to revitalize the city’s eastern border, provide jobs and bring in revenue.

“It used to be a really industrial area, but it’s become much more residential,” said Allyne Winderman, deputy executive director of the city’s redevelopment agency. “The people in the area really want a place for them, with cafes and restaurants -- just a place to hang out and go shopping.”

West Hollywood wanted a big development on the site, but it also wanted to keep the Formosa, which it has granted historical status. That’s something to be grateful for in Los Angeles, said the Los Angeles Conservancy’s Ken Bernstein.

“Obviously, it’s a large project adjacent, but given the real-estate pressures in that part of the city, we’re glad that a very small institution has been spared,” he said. “It’s a small place and a quirky place, but it’s wonderful.”

In 1991, when Warner Bros., which then owned the studio next door, suggested razing the cafe, industry types and cafe regulars screamed bloody murder. In this project, the city required J.H. Snyder Co., the developer, to incorporate the cafe.

The new complex was designed by the Jerde Partnership International, the architects responsible for Universal CityWalk and the Mall of America. Milton I. Swimmer, a J.H. Snyder partner, said every care has been taken to make the project much more than just chain stores.

“It’s going to be beautiful,” he said, describing its wide sidewalks, corner plaza, outdoor tables, lush greenery and art projected on large video screens.

The two-story Target, facing La Brea, will be 110,000 square feet. On Santa Monica, next to the Formosa, the scale will be smaller, he said.

“It picks up on a lot of the older buildings in the area, the scale of those buildings,” Swimmer said.

“The Formosa for so long was in the middle of nowhere. There was a studio parking lot next to it, a carwash, some broken-down buildings. This was a relatively high-crime area at one time. Some stores were closed. Others were abandoned. Now there’s going to be a huge amount of traffic -- not car traffic but people. It’s going to be wonderful for the Formosa.”

Some West Hollywood residents say they can’t wait for the shopping.

“It’s Target chic, absolutely, absolutely,” said John Miranda, a 38-year-old film producer, as he sat in a Starbucks on the western side of town. “I have a little gaggle of friends, and we do periodic trips to Target, and it’s an event. But the nearest one now is so far away. I think the new Target’s going to be our Grove. It’s going to be the molten hot center of West Hollywood.”

Miranda said he wasn’t sure the shopping mall would be pretty, but added: “On the one hand, I may lament what it may do to the character of the area. On the other hand, I’ll see my Neutrogena moisturizer for $5, not $8. You balance it out.”

When the Formosa’s first owner, prizefighter Jimmy Bernstein, opened the converted trolley car as a lunch counter in 1925, he called it the Red Spot. Then he tacked on the kitchen and the main room where the bar now sits and decided to name the expanded space the Formosa. The studio space next door changed hands over and over, from Pickford-Fairbanks Studio to United Artists, to Samuel Goldwyn to Warner Hollywood Studios to today’s “the lot.” Each movie filmed there, from “Some Like it Hot” to “Scary Movie 2,” brought new customers and often new framed photos to the Formosa, where the house rule is that the only shots displayed are of those who have visited.

The shopping center will probably bring new customers, too, gripping Target shopping bags as they sit under the photographs of Anthony Quinn, Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn.

“Maybe I can charge $5 a bag,” Jung said, laughing. “You never know. This place just has a way of surviving. But nothing lasts forever.”