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The Formosa Café: The Grungy Glamour of a West Hollywood Icon

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It's dark in the daylight, you can't see very far / Past the ghosts of Sam Goldwyn in the old train car. - Bono

It may be a tiny place, but since its beginning the Formosa Café was packed with big personalities. Elvis Presley once gave a waitress a Cadillac as a tip, while Clark Gable barely tipped at all. Pearl Bailey sang her heart out at the bar, and Lana Turner danced the night (and day) away. Lee Marvin was thrown out for being too drunk. Howard Hughes, Tyrone Power, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, and Ava Gardner were all regulars.

"I've stepped on all the most famous long legs in the world," longtime waitress Mary Kay Moore remembered. "I've stepped on people like Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, and Buddy Ebsen, because they would lean back and stretch their legs out. We've had lots of lovely, long-legged gentlemen in here and I managed to step on all of them."

In 1925, a rough and tumble ex-prizefighter named Jimmy Bernstein decided it was time for a career change. He re-purposed an old red trolley car into a lunch counter. He stationed it right across from a bustling movie studio in relatively rural West Hollywood. Bernstein named his joint the Red Spot. The place was a success, and he eventually added on a kitchen, dining room, and a bar.

Photo: Formosa Cafe

According to his future chef and partner Lem Quon, the Red Spot was a "favorite hangout of boxers -- Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey -- promoters, bookies, even some gangsters." These underworld characters were soon joined by a bevy of movie professionals escaping from grueling hours across the street at the studio, which would be owned in turn by Jessie D. Hampton and United Artists, until it finally became Samuel Goldwyn Studios in 1938.

Around the time that Goldwyn moved in, Bernstein changed his establishment's name to the Formosa Café. In the early '40s, he hired Quon as his chef, who cooked up comforting yet greasy Cantonese food. Not that the food mattered all that much -- people came to the Formosa to drink. By 1945, Bernstein had asked the congenial Quon to be his partner. "I ran the kitchen and he ran the front," Quon remembered.

The two charismatic partners fostered a democratic attitude that appealed to clients from all walks of life. I never look down on people," Quon once told a reporter. "Here at the Formosa, we always make small people feel like big stars. We are all the same."

Waitresses and bartenders were apparently no exception to this rule -- several employees would stay with the Formosa for over forty years. Bernstein was also engaged in the community and became famous for throwing annual Thanksgiving dinners for disadvantaged youth:

A number of years ago a kid named Jimmy Bernstein was battling his way up through life on the east side of New York City, making out the hard way. Which is the principal reason 70 kids, all from the Eastside Boys Club, were hauled in a chartered bus last Thursday to the Formosa Café on Santa Monica Blvd., stuffed with turkey and showered with toys.
Ava Gardner | Photo:Lexinatrix/Flickr/Creative Commons License

But there is no doubt that the Formosa held a special appeal for that most privileged of creatures -- the movie star. With its red and black "oriental" accents, low lighting and deep booths, the Formosa was pure Hollywood cheese, and the perfect setting for celebrities to let their hair down with little fear of being ratted out. Quon became particularly close with screen siren Ava Gardner, who had her very own booth.

"She was a beautiful lady. We would talk and share stories," he said. "She was a good friend." One night in 1959, the Formosa hosted a party that included Hoot Gibson, who had appeared in The Squaw Man (the first feature-length movie made in Hollywood) and Bronco Billy Anderson, who had appeared in The Great Train Robbery. A 1963 profile in the Los Angeles Times read:

Speaking of movie stars, they ALL don't go to the Brown Derby. You can find almost as many any noon at a funny and crowded little place called the Formosa. It's on Santa Monica Blvd., one block west of La Brea, across from the Goldwyn has a complete menu. But, being called the Formosa, it specializes in Cantonese food with Chef Quon Lem in charge of the noodles and bean sprouts. It caters to cowboys, directors, glamour queens and composers. Naturally, it is run by a famous Oriental, that Sherman Billingsley of Santa Monica Blvd. - Jimmy Bernstein

When Bernstein died in 1976, Quon became the sole owner. He brought in his stepson, William Jung, as partner, but Quon was the restaurant's heart and soul. Every night he managed the restaurant from Ava Gardner's booth (she had moved to Europe in the 1960s). As the old guard of Hollywood died and moved away, an even edgier crowd moved in. Rockers like INXS, uns N' Roses, and members of U2 became the bar's new regulars. So did new stars of the '80s and '90s like Christian Slater, Christopher Lloyd, Johnny Depp, and Shannon Dougherty. One patron remembered a strange night when the past and future collided:

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 [Brewerton, longtime bartender] 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."

In 1991, the Formosa Café almost went away. Warner Bros., who bought the old Samuel Goldwyn Studios in 1980, wanted to turn the site into an employee parking lot. However, a grassroots group of patrons formed a group called "Friends of the Formosa." Bono called Quon, voicing his support. A two-hour protest brought out several hundred people waving signs reading, "Let the Formosa Live" and "Don't Scud the Formosa."

"We don't have an Eiffel Tower in Hollywood," a protester named Steven Gaydos explained. "We have things like the Formosa."

Eventually, Warner Bros. backed out of its plans, and the Formosa was saved. Quon died two years later and ownership passed to his stepson (it is now run by third generation owner Vince Jung). In 2003, the Formosa found itself literally surrounded, when a giant shopping complex including a Target was built on its lot.

Recently, the Formosa has struggled to find its footing. A deal with the folks at Red Medicine to update its menu was unsuccessful, as was a much maligned redesign in the spring of 2015. The most despised aspects of the redesign were quickly changed, and on a recent visit to the Formosa it seemed much as it ever was, with its red and black walls covered with portraits of the stars of yesteryear.

In the words of director John Waters, "I always thought this is exactly what Hollywood should look like."

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