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The Formosa, Legendary Hollywood Hangout, Gets a New Life

From Bugsy Siegel to Marilyn Monroe to Brad Pitt, Hollywood’s Formosa Cafe has long attracted movie stars, musicians and gangsters, as well as serving for the setting of an iconic scene in “L.A. Confidential.”

The Chinese-themed bar and restaurant was a favorite of River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, Slash and before that, John Wayne, Howard Hughes and Elvis Presley – many of whom found it conveniently close to Warner Hollywood and the Samuel Goldwyn studios across the street. Showtime, OWN and Funny or Die are currently based at the studio now known as the Lot.

The restored Formosa re-opened Friday with an impressive $2.4 million restoration by the 1933 Group, which brought classic spots like North Hollywood’s Idle Hour and the Highland Park Bowl back to life. The complete reconstruction included the historic front room and streetcar as well as a new lounge area and the rooftop patio.

At a pre-opening event, documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong showed off a new display of historic lobby cards and movie stills featuring Chinese and Chinese American actors that he curated for the Formosa.

Formosa Cafe train car
CREDIT: Maxim Shapovalov

In another corner, Terry Moore, an Oscar-nominated actress who was said to be secretly married to Hughes, remembered how she and the reclusive millionaire used to pop over to the Formosa after long nights of screening movies at the Samuel Goldwyn studios across the street. The faithful restoration made her heart swell, the 90-year old performer said.

The Formosa was nearly torn down several times, with countless remodels. The last revamp was one of the most misguided, when the vintage Chinese decor was put into storage and everything was painted grey. The 1933 Group’s Bobby Green got involved soon after that, when Vince Jung, the grandson of longtime owner Lem Quon, ended up losing the bar. Green started talking to the property owners of the Gateway mall, who realized they needed to find the right people to take care of the space and care for it. “I was ecstatic,” Green says, when he finally got the job after the property owners toured his previous projects. “I first went when I was 19 or 20 years old. I later made a career of vintage bars, but this was the first place I got the inspiration for it.”

In the past, the Formosa wasn’t known for its Americanized Cantonese food, but that is likely to change with the entirely new menu from chef David Kuo of Mar Vista’s Taiwanese restaurant Little Fatty.

“We wanted to make it more appetizing by today’s standards, but not stray too far away,” Green explains, “We tried David’s food, it was so good and homey, perfect bar food.”

Spicy wontons, Asian greens, General Tso’s cauliflower, dan dan noodles and honey walnut shrimp are full of flavor from chilies and garlic, helping them stand up to tiki-style cocktails like the blue-tinted Yee Mee Loo or the Ghost of Sam Goldwyn.

Formosa Cafe ad, Feb. 25, 1955
CREDIT: Variety archives

Green says an archivist and architect were hired to determine that the streetcar was the oldest surviving Red Car, dating to 1902. The false ceiling from the streetcar was removed to reveal colored glass windows along the top. Diners now have a view through the streetcar windows into the new back room, where the elaborately carved bar from beloved Chinatown bar Yee Mee Loo has been brought out of storage to become the centerpiece of the new addition.

The streetcar’s tiny back room is now a VIP room – the same space where Mickey Cohen ran a bookie operation, Green recounts. “Also, Bugsy Siegel had a little office set up there,” he notes.

Green says restoring the 80-year old classic required a careful touch. “We knew how revered it is with Angelenos, so we had to ride a fine line between our memories and other peoples’ no matter what decade they went,” he says.

“We were extremely careful about getting every single detail right with the main bar. We got all the photographs and the Buddha and things out of storage and put them in the same locations. There’s so much photo documentation – lots of people took pictures,” he says. The Elvis liquor decanters brought in by his manager Colonel Tom Parker also have a dedicated showcase in the front room, while other historic touches include Siegel’s safe and a vintage telephone to signal the bartender.

What historic local landmark will Green tackle next? He’s still looking for the right central spot for Tail ‘o the Pup, the iconic hotdog stand that’s currently in storage. “It has to be really visible,” he says.

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