The Formosa Cafe doesn't look like much from the outside. An unimpressive, brick-red building with white & black striped awnings, it sits in a particularly faded section of Hollywood, near the corner of Santa Monica & La Brea Boulevards - a corner where hookers have been known to peddle their services even in broad daylight.
But the key to the Cafe's good fortune can be seen just to the west of the place, right across Formosa Avenue (from which the Cafe takes its name): that walled, beige complex next door is none other than Warner Hollywood Studio.
Since the Formosa Cafe is the nearest bar (and restaurant) to that historic movie studio, the little café (which used to be a trolley car) was frequented by just about every movie star in Hollywood. In fact, Formosa still bills itself as the place "where the stars dine"...
The walls of the Cafe are lined with over 250 black & white photos of the stars who dined here in the past, a virtual "Who's Who" of Hollywood: James Dean, Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, Humphrey Bogart, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Jack Benny, Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Webb, Martin & Lewis, Grace Kelly... and these aren't store-bought photos - these pics were autographed and hand-delivered by the celebrities themselves.
The place has been open since 1925, when the studio next door was named United Artists. The Formosa was already almost three decades old when 'Old Blue Eyes' enjoyed their chicken chow mein the day after he won an Oscar for his performance in the film "From Here to Eternity." Marilyn dined here while making the classic "Some Like it Hot." Elvis dropped by while making "Kid Galahad." Bogart was known to favor the bar.You might even be seated in the same red leather booth where Marilyn and Clark dined together while making "The Misfits."
Today, the studio next door is still active in both TV and movie production, and apparently, the Cafe is still a popular "industry" watering hole, especially after dark, serving passable Chinese, American and seafood dishes, plus a mean cocktail. It's not all history here. The stars still show up at the Formosa, and not just when they were filming ""L.A. Confidential" here. Bono of U2 has been spotted here, as have Michael Douglas, Nicolas Cage, Jodie Foster, Matthew Perry, Rod Steiger, Richard Dreyfus, Christian Slater, Karl Malden, Robert Wagner, even Britney Spears. A while back, Shannen Doherty smashed a bottle against a man's car in the restaurant's parking lot (she got two year's probabtion for the incident).
But don't expect
glitz; it's a down-to-earth, some might say gritty, slice
of L.A. history, with an ambiance straight out of a Raymond Chandler paperback.
Johnny's associates in crime, Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel (*) were also regulars at the Cafe. In fact, Cohen hid his gambling winnings in a secret floor safe at the restaurant. The Formosa's "Star Dining Car," a former railroad car, once served as the center of a thriving bookmaking operation.
And speaking of crime, the Formosa was also a hang-out for Elizabeth Short, the victim of the famous "Black Dahlia" murder case.
In the Jim Carrey movie, "The Majestic", Carrey's character (a screenwriter) is seen in the bar at the Formosa, on the day he learns he's been blacklisted and that his his girlfriend has dumped him.
Other recent movies shot on location at the Formosa include 1996's "Swingers" and 1998's "Still Breathing."
The Formosa played a key role in "Still Breathing," where Brendan Fraser has recurring dreams of meeting his future wife in "Formosa." He assumes this means the island nation off China, but winds up instead in L.A., where he meets Joanna Going at the Formosa Cafe.
The Formosa is still the scene of many Hollywood meetings. It was here that "L.A. Confidential" director Curtis Hanson sat down with Kevin Spacey and Kim Basinger and offered them their roles in the 1998 movies. Hanson told USA Today: "The thing that was neat about meeting people here is that even though the place is old, it's still real, it's still functioning. It doesn' t feel tricked up like it's for tourists. It is what it is.'' Likewise, "Fargo" star William Macy was sold on his recent role in "Boogie Nights" during a meeting at the Formosa.
In 1991, when its
lease expired, the Formosa was almost torn down to make room for
a studio parking lot. Fortunately, the city declared it a historic landmark,
and it was saved.
there: From Hollywood & Vine,
go south (three quarters of a mile) to Santa Monica Boulevard. Turn right
(west) on Santa Monica Boulevard, and go about one mile west, to just past
La Brea Avenue. The restaurant will be on your left (south) side. (Rumor
has it that the Formosa Cafe may soon be moved a short distance away from
its present location, to make room for a studio parking lot.)
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