Hollywood isn't exactly having its most glamorous moment this hobbled awards season. Even if the Academy Awards go on this month as planned, there will be no post-Oscars Vanity Fair bash at Mortons--because Mortons is no more (it closed in December). Soho House, the tony members-only club with locations in London and New York, plans to open here this year, but who knows whether it'll take off with any kind of glamour quotient? Or how the food will be?
What we do know is that old Hollywood ate well during its Golden Age, the 1940s and '50s. The Cocoanut Grove's glittering crowd ordered chicken breast under glass and shad roe en papillote with duxelles. Ciro's offered sardines Cote d'Azur. Chasen's scrupulously sourced its ingredients: Columbia River salmon, Colorado mountain trout, Minnesota veal, Michigan frog legs. Any place worth its salt served boula boula, a mixture of turtle soup and pureed green peas.
It hadn't always been this way. Not too many years before, many stars, like their fans, had frequented restaurants that offered simple dishes without much flair. The Brown Derby's original 1926 menu featured hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches, chili, tamales and pancakes. And when Chasen's opened 10 years later, it served chili, barbecued spareribs and . . . well, that was about it. These places were essentially simpatico hangouts, having been opened by colleagues in the biz--Derby founder Herbert Somborn was a producer, and Dave Chasen had been a comic's straight man.
But the stars had started to raise their sights. The restaurants responded: The Derby began offering sweetbreads Parisienne, Norwegian-style broiled fish and "unusual Chinese dishes served with their native wines."
No matter how Continental they became, though, Chasen's and the Brown Derby never entirely abandoned comfort foods. You could still get chicken pot pie, ham and Swiss on rye, matzo ball soup and pot roast. At the Brown Derby they were presented on Blue Willow china by a waiter in a monkey suit. Call it haute homey.
The best-known comfort food in town was Chasen's chili, which Dave Chasen had developed while traveling on the vaudeville circuit. In 1940, it dropped off the printed menu, but everybody knew you could still order it. (Years later, in a famous display of long-range food obsession, Elizabeth Taylor requested that the chili be sent to her in Rome, where she was filming "Cleopatra.") In fact, the recipe itself was a dark secret. When Eleanor Roosevelt asked for it, Chasen declined and sent her a complimentary order instead. To protect the secret, he would make the chili on Sundays, when nobody was around.
But because people yearned to know what celebrities were eating, the restaurants did divulge some of their recipes. One of the most famous was the Brown Derby's grapefruit cake. Owner Bob Cobb conceived it when gossip columnist Louella Parsons threatened not to return until he put a nonfattening dessert on the menu. He told his cooks, "Put grapefruit on something, because everyone knows it's slimming." The result was an original and outstanding cake. We've updated it a bit, using fresh grapefruit segments instead of canned and grapefruit zest and juice instead of lemon.
It's a sweet reminder of how Los Angeles restaurants, particularly the celebrity spots, have long defined us. *
Look back at eight beloved Hollywood haunts, plus peek at the original menus from the Los Angeles Public Library's archives. Go to latimes.com/magazinehotspots.
1/2 pound dried pinto beans
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes in juice
2 tablespoons oil
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
3 cups coarsely chopped onions
2 cloves garlic, crushed in a garlic press
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
2 pounds center cut beef chuck, completely trimmed of fat, chopped into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces
1 pound pork shoulder, chopped into 1/4- to 1/2-inch pieces
1/3 cup Gebhardt chili powder*
1 tablespoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
Rinse the beans and place in a Dutch oven with water to cover. Bring to a boil and boil for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat. Cover and let stand for 1 hour. Drain the liquid. Rinse the beans again. Add 11/2 quarts fresh water to cover the beans and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until tender, about 1 hour. Stir the tomatoes and their juice into the beans. Simmer 5 minutes over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Heat the oil in a large skillet and saute the bell pepper for 5 minutes. Add the onion, reduce the heat to low, and cook about 15 minutes until tender, stirring frequently. Stir in the garlic and parsley. Add this mixture to the beans. Using the same skillet, melt the butter and saute the beef and pork, in two batches if necessary, until browned. Drain. Add to the bean mixture along with the chili powder, salt, pepper to taste and cumin.
Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 1 hour. Uncover and cook to the desired consistency, about 5 minutes. The chili should not be too thick; it should be somewhat liquid but not soupy. Skim off the excess fat and serve.
Adapted from "Chasen's: Where Hollywood Dined," by Betty Goodwin (Angel City Press, 1996).
*Gebhardt chili powder is generally available at major grocery chains.
Brown Derby Grapefruit Cake
Serves 12 to 16
21/4 cups sifted cake flour
11/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
5 egg yolks
1/2 cup corn oil
1 1/2 teaspoons grated grapefruit zest
2 teaspoons vanilla
8 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into a medium bowl. Whisk together in a large bowl the egg yolks, oil, 3/4 cup water, zest and vanilla. Gently but thoroughly whisk the dry ingredients into the egg mixture until the batter is smooth. In another large bowl, whip the egg whites and cream of tartar until stiff peaks are formed. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter, a third at a time, until they are blended. Be careful not to overmix. Pour the batter into two 10-inch cake pans lined on the bottom with parchment. Bake the cakes at 325 degrees for 55 minutes until golden and the tops spring back when touched. Invert the cake pans on a rack to cool. When cool, loosen the sides and remove the cake layers.
Makes 3 2/3 cups frosting
4 large ruby red grapefruit, sectioned, with membranes and pith removed (reserve 16 sections for garnish)
24 ounces (3 8-ounce packages) cream cheese, softened
4 teaspoons grapefruit juice
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
2 teaspoons grated grapefruit zest
Mash six grapefruit sections into small bits with a fork and reserve. Beat the cream cheese with the grapefruit juice until fluffy. Gradually beat in the sugar and blend well. Mix in the zest and crushed grapefruit. Place one cake layer bottom side up on a serving plate. Spread with the frosting and top with grapefruit sections. Cover with the second layer, bottom side down, and frost the top and sides. Garnish with the 16 remaining grapefruit sections.
Adapted from "The Brown Derby Restaurant: A Hollywood Legend," by Sally Wright Cobb and Mark Willems (Rizzoli, 1996).