"Well, I'm going up and up and up—and nobody's going to pull me down!"
That was Lana Turner's famous line in the 1959 movie Imitation of Life, but it might as well apply to Turner's favorite watering hole, Hollywood's legendary Formosa Cafe. It survived a disastrous remodel and premature closure only to find itself on the cusp of resurrection at the hands of the 1933 Group.
The hospitality company—owned by partners Bobby Green, Dimitri Komarov, and Dima Liberman—has taken over operation of the classic Hollywood restaurant. It is owned by Clarion Partners, which also owns the adjacent West Hollywood Gateway shopping center.
The guys behind the Highland Park Bowl and the Idle Hour sat down with Curbed this week to detail some of their plans for the bar and restaurant, which includes restoring its interior to the way it looked to generations of celebrities, gangsters, and lovers of vintage Los Angeles.
The restoration will cost seven figures and take at least a year, Liberman says. In the meantime, the partners are doing their homework to ensure that their restoration is faithful not only to the cafe's history, but also to the memories of generations of customers.
"When I think of the Formosa, and my generation thinks of the Formosa, a lot of them think of L.A. Confidential, the movie," Green says, sitting in a red booth at the front of the cafe. He points to a metal plate in the floor: A safe used by gangster Bugsy Siegel to store cash, he says.
"A lot of them think of the way it looked in the late ’90s, when they were here,” Green adds. “That's how I remember it. And that's how it was portrayed as a 1950s, late ’40s, gangster Hollywood movie. So that's a strong identity.”
Green says Vince Jung, grandson of original co-owner Lem Quon, has saved 20 boxes of autographed celebrity photos and two storage units full of decor, Chinese lanterns, and other memorabilia from the cafe, including the signature lucky Buddha and Elvis decanters.
"We're working with [Jung] to get as much information as far as stories and also artifacts to bring back,” Liberman says. “Anything else, we're going to have to replicate, whether it's photos or stories or ideas and thoughts."
An employee is culling through the cafe's history, which dates back to the 1920s, when it was created around a former Red Car, Green says. "I’ve already scoured photographs of where John Wayne's picture was, where Elvis’s picture was. We want to get that detail-oriented with putting a lot of stuff back."
Among the plans:
- Restore the secret back room—at the end of the former Red Car—behind whose closed doors Turner and boyfriend Johnny Stompanato met with gangster Mickey Cohen.
- Keep the original copper-topped bar and tables that line both sides of the train car.
- Add new windows along the left side of the train car to match the ones on the right side, along Formosa Avenue.
- Add a wrap-around bar and renovate the rooftop patio, while obscuring the view of the adjacent mall.
- Improve the flow of the restaurant while preserving its historic elements. That includes enclosing a first-floor patio space and reconfiguring bathrooms and kitchen space.
- Return the cafe’s food offerings to dim sum-based Cantonese-style cuisine, “with new flavors,” Komarov says. “Yeah, let's not sugarcoat it,” Green adds. “The food was never good here. But it could be. It could be great ... Obviously, I think it will always be secondary to the cocktails and the stories and the history. But there's no reason the food can't be delicious.”
There are a few things they won't do. “To create the environment and the feel, I don't know a signed picture of Justin Timberlake is going to feel right,” Green says.
They also won't take the Formosa Cafe back to an earlier era, as depicted in this vintage post card:
“The people that remember this place as being painted white and with a green interior and being a steak-and-potatoes kind of place, they're not around anymore,” Green says. “So we don't want to change the place beyond what people who are living now remember the place to be, because that's who will remember what it should look like.”
(The cafe's current red exterior color, its prominent neon sign, the front entrance, the roof and any other important features of its exterior are protected under West Hollywood's preservation ordinance.)
Green says the company will also compile a book of cafe history and anecdotes, starting with the autograph book Jung kept behind the bar that features signatures from decades of celebrities and notables.
He says restoring the Formosa Cafe could be his company’s trademark development.
“I think this will be the most internationally recognized as far as preservation is concerned,” he said.
Adrian Fine, director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy, says the conservancy is pleased with the new operators.
“We're very encouraged and hopeful that they're the right people to take this project on,” Fine tells Curbed. “The Formosa's a legendary, beloved eatery [and] landmark, and them taking this on and bringing it back to life would be fantastic to see happen. I think if we were offering any advice it would be just to take a light touch to a place like the Formosa. That we want to have an authentic place.”
Fine adds that the conservancy is pleased with 1933 Group’s work on the Idle Hour and Highland Park Bowl, “two places that were on the brink of no one knowing about them and deterioration,” he says. “So to see both of those places come back and to be vibrant destinations again, that's what we would hope would happen with the Formosa as well.”