Title

Iconic Neighborhood Restaurants: West Hollywood

By the time Moses Hazeltine Sherman moved to California in 1893, he'd already been a teacher, State Superintendent of Arizona, a banker, and a railway developer. Seeing the potential to start a railway in Los Angeles, he scooped up a bunch of land. By the time of his death, he'd made millions. His family's name(s) are all over this city.

As for West Hollywood, it was originally named after Sherman, and was originally inhabited by railroad employees and citrus farmers. However, in 1925, the residents wanted props for being associated with the nearby fancy neighborhoods, and the name Sherman just didn't have the shine they were looking for. A lot of names were bandied about, including Magnetic Springs, before they settled on West Hollywood. It was a bit of an upset to those who found it distasteful to rename a town while the founding father was still alive.

"The Creative City" was a bustling place for a certain type of establishment. They fought annexation tooth and nail to avoid L.A. city laws when it came to gambling and night clubs. The area was known to be liquor-friendly during the Prohibition, and as socialites and movie stars started spending more time there, Santa Monica Boulevard boomed.

Known for its walkability and for having the best housing laws in the state, WeHo finally got its long held wish in 1984. Rent control laws were about to change in favor of landlords, and the residents of West Hollywood were largely renters. So, they banded together and were able to incorporate the area as the City of West Hollywood.

Through its history, WeHo has been a wild, progressive, and at times debauched pocket of Los Angeles. Spend any holiday (but especially Pride Week) dancing your way through the costume-heavy streets and you'll learn that WeHo never does a thing halfheartedly. That's also true of its restaurants, each of which has its own unique personality.

 

Formosa Café: What more can be said about Formosa Café that wasn't already covered in this historical piece by Hadley Meares? Ex-prize fighter Jimmy Bernstein's business smarts won out when it came to the location of this unassuming joint that's been bustling since 1925.

Stars of rock, screen, literature, and organized crime have all found themselves regulars at Formosa. They even managed to save the restaurant from being turned into a parking lot by Warner Bros. in the 90's by way of a patron-led protest.

Unfortunately, Formosa's recent renovations have been a real upset for longtime locals, and doesn't bode well for any new discoveries, either. Gone is the once beloved kitsch of it all, now replaced with a grey color scheme and gastro pub fare. Even the patio has been transformed into something unrecognizable, with lighting fixtures and a fireplace that are replicas of things you'd find in any moderately upscale bar in L.A. But word on the street is that Formosa is getting its act together and ditching its unappealing makeover. 7156 Santa Monica Blvd., (323) 850-9050.

UPDATE: Formosa Cafe is now closed. 

 

ginsengchickensoup.jpg

Ginseng Chicken Soup from Hugo's Restaurant

Hugo's: In 1975, Terry Kaplan purchased a butcher shop that specialized in Eastern Veal. His hippie philosophies drove him to create a familial atmosphere with exotic and rare dishes for the time. As the story goes, the macrobiotic, organic-focused customers of the '80s began eating their purchases right on the spot. This prompted Terry to put up a few chairs and tables, and that's how the place eventually became a restaurant. To this day, loyal followers who believe in his philosophy are called "Hugonauts."

With a vast menu meticulously labeled to depict which ultra-picky diet each dish accommodates, Hugo's is a place where anyone can find something to eat, and not sound like a jerk while ordering their vegan club sandwich on a gluten-free bun. They serve cocktails (you absolutely do need a pitcher of Cosmos), and their tea menu spans an entire page. From mung beans to chimichurri steak, there is not a single ingredient that they haven't painstakingly considered.

While Terry handed the place over to a new generation in 1994, he instructed that the mission, "We still value and respect each other, and the people we serve, spreading the kind of community we want to have take hold in the world," stay the same.

And here's a recipe for Hugo's Ginseng Chicken Soup that they were kind enough to share with us. 8401 Santa Monica Blvd, (323) 654-3993.

 

gardensoftexaco.jpg

Photo: Bun Boy Eats

Gardens of Taxco: Unlike the more noticeable Santa Monica Boulevard members of this list, Gardens of Taxco is tucked away on a side street, with no bright lights beckoning you towards one of the most uniquely joyous dining experiences in all of Los Angeles.

Don't bother asking for a menu. The day's offerings will be recited for you with much rollings of the Spanish "r." Ask for the chicken choices and you'll be treated to the signature line "Tastes like it was boooooooooorn in the sauce." All meals are five courses served with the chips and salsa and a chalice of Escabeche (pickled peppers and vegetables). The food is notoriously outstanding, and the warm atmosphere inspires giddiness. You'll probably also enjoy a lovely serenade by Jaime, who will sweetly, but persistently demand your participation. 1113 N Harper Ave, (323) 654-1746.

 

theabbey.jpg

Photo: The Abbey

 

The Abbey: This favorite spot of Elizabeth Taylor began as a simple little coffee shop in 1991. David Cooley wanted to open a place where the under-21 gays could hang out and play board games. From that wholesome beginning sprung what is now known to be one of the best gay bars in the world.

The building sprawls over 16,000 square feet of room to drink, dance, and dine. The Sunday brunch is a day-long affair with no pressure to hurry through it. For a time, during the skirmish involving Chick-fil-A's COO support of anti-same-sex marriage policies, a much more palatable sandwich, the Chick-For-Gay was offered.

If you ask the local regulars what exactly makes the Abbey so special, they'll detail their own personal L.A. stories peppered with moments at the bar and people they've met here. Then they'll wave an arm around, presenting the vast patio and say, "Plus, you can still smoke here." And sure enough, each table outside is equipped with an ashtray.

In my opinion, what makes the Abbey a truly iconic part of West Hollywood isn't the ashtrays, the dance floors, or the way you suddenly become friends with everyone there. The Abbey has a quality of total inclusion about it. It opens its arms, invites everyone in, and even calls itself the best gay bar to take your straight friends. Anyone can feel comfortable at the Abbey, and that's the first step towards having a great time. 692 North Robertson Boulevard, (310) 289-8410.

 

Barney's Beanery: When it comes to West Hollywood, Barney's is a tough one. Is it iconic to its neighborhood? Absolutely. However, there are some things about the place that make it an odd fit in such a beloved LGBTQ-famous neighborhood.

A "beanery" is simply a cheap eatery. This one in particular was opened and run by a Navy chef who tried his hand as a boxing manager. When that didn't work out, he opened his men's-only beanery in San Francisco with heavy focus on the onion soup he perfected in wartime. Favoring the temperature of Southern California, he moved to L.A. in 1927.

There's a bit of a past with Barney's Beanery that really stands out given the location. For many years, even after the original owner retired, a crude sign hung over the bar that read "FAGOTS- STAY OUT." Patrons generally accepted this, based somewhat on a rumor that the sign was installed to avoid harassment by local law enforcement. It wasn't until the '70's that the community put their rainbow platform boot down and picketed for the sign's removal.

Today, though no longer just a rickety shack, Barney's maintains the same country western atmosphere and is L.A.'s version of a Sports Bar. They have plenty of chili and plenty of space, and this is exactly where you are just as likely to see a celebrity as you are to see your garbage man. There are now six locations across L.A., but in this case, it's totally worth it to visit the Southern California original. 8447 Santa Monica Blvd, (323) 654-2287.

Dan Tana's: If you're going to eat at Tana's, you're going to want to make a reservation. This elite Italian eatery's list of famous friends is perhaps no more impressive than any other in the area. However, the exorbitant dinner prices make good and sure that the main clientele are the most famous of the famous, night after night. Many of the paparazzi shots you'll see of stars pulling into a restaurant valet are taken outside of this particular dining spot.

Tana's is a rite of passage, sort of a first stop along the way to mega-stardom, and a stop that will often be revisited. With dishes named after the famous people who regularly ordered them, such as the perfect mastered "Dabney Coleman" (a New York Strip Steak), this place manages to play off the extravagance of fame without the tackiness. While they claim that anyone who comes through the door is family, let's be honest. That's a very elite family. 9071 Santa Monica Blvd, (310) 275-9444.

Honorable mention: Hamburger Mary's (Yes, we know that they're a chain from San Francisco, but West Hollywood wouldn't be the same without Mary.)

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading