The Brown Derby: Hollywood's 24-Hour Office Party

Photo courtesy The Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection
Photo courtesy The Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

"Call for Lew Pollack! Call for Lew Pollack!"

Legend has it that if you happened to be lunching at the Brown Derby on Vine Street in the 1930s and '40s, you were sure to hear this phrase over a loudspeaker at least 25 times as you ate your Cobb salad. You would then see a tuxedo-clad waiter walk past the walls adorned with caricatures of famous patrons to a high backed booth, where the dark haired songwriter sat, and then hand him a gleaming black telephone.

Photo courtesy The Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Lew Pollack was perhaps the most egregious competitor in what Hollywood insiders called the "Derby Derby." As soon as the Brown Derby restaurants started offering tableside phone service, industry veterans, hopeful newbies, and movie stars still in costume all clamored to see who was so hot they couldn't even eat their medallions of lobster without someone needing to speak with them.

From the opening of the first Brown Derby (the famous hat building) on Wilshire Boulevard in 1926, it was a decidedly Hollywood establishment. Owners Herbert Somborne and Bob Cobb both had movie industry ties -- Herbert was one of Gloria Swanson's six husbands -- and they were quickly patronized by bold-faced names like Mary Pickford, Loretta Young, and Cecil B. DeMille (who was a part owner). Soon the Vine Street location opened, as did locations in Los Feliz and Beverly Hills.

In David Niven's "Bring on the Empty Horses," he describes lunching with Errol Flynn at the Beverly Hills Derby:


This restaurant was designed so that everyone could see everyone else; the tables were set at a series of semicircular brown leather banquettes, the backs of which fitted uncomfortably into one's lumbar region. The waitresses, all would-be actresses, wore very short bell-shaped and highly starched skirts and spent much time dropping and provocatively retrieving forks and spoons before the tables of producers and directors.


Photo courtesy The Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Unlike many Los Angeles eateries, where reverential service mattered more than sustenance, the food was considered to be excellent. The menu was filled with typical mid-century French inspired food. But over time it added many comfort foods to the menu to make its many displaced denizens feel at home. Dorothy Lamour supplied the recipe for Shrimp Creole, and the director Michael Curtiz supplied his family's recipe for Veal Paprika. It is said that Gracie Allen had such a hankering for a Derby hamburger on rye that George Burns trudged through a rare L.A. blizzard to fetch her one.

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The Vine location was not only centrally located to the studios, it was also open 24 hours a day, making it a favorite of transplanted New Yorkers. It became the unofficial office of gossip mavens and bitter rivals Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. At dinner time photographers would crowd in, as would tourists, hoping to see their favorite star. Late at night it became a sort of A-list boys' club with producer Darryl Zanuck holding court, his dog tied up outside, while a drunk John Barrymore gobbled down the Derby's famous hot cakes with sausage.

Photo courtesy The Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

The Derby's fortunes declined along with that of the studio system who had patronized its locations so diligently. By the 1980s all the original locations had closed, and in 1987 the brand was licensed to the Walt Disney Company. A replica of the original Wilshire location is now in Disneyworld and other Brown Derbys can be found at Disneyland Paris, Disneyland, and Tokyo Disneyland. It is perhaps fitting that this bastion of the old Hollywood system has been swallowed up by the new entertainment world order.

Luckily, those famous recipes have been saved for posterity, and we have two of the best for you: Cobb salad -- said to be invented at the restaurant -- and the near-mythological grapefruit cake. We're thinking Mother's Day lunch.

Photo by Ryan Kellman

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