This week’s Asian American history adventure is a visit to the Formosa Cafe, a Chinese American fusion cafe and bar in West Hollywood, which first opened in 1939. Located across from the then Samuel Goldwyn studio, stars like Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, John Wayne, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley regularly popped in back in the day. Many of the booths are named in their honor.
In 1991, the restaurant faced demolition when its lease expired, and what would later become the West Hollywood Gateway shopping center threatened to encroach. Thankfully, concerned citizens and preservationists successfully lobbied for its preservation as a landmark. (Yay preservationists!)
Today, photos, lobby cards, and headshots from the collection of Arthur Dong, Oscar-nominated film-maker and author of “Hollywood Chinese,” are on display throughout the restaurant. They tell a fascinating story about the influence of Chinese Americans in early Hollywood.
Prize-fighter Jimmy Bernstein opened the Red Post Cafe on the site in 1925; it later closed down, then reopened in 1939 as the Formosa Cafe with Bernstein’s chef, Lem Quon, giving it its theme. In 1940, Bernstein incorporated a decommissioned 1904 Pacific Electric red trolley car as an inexpensive way to add space to the cafe. In 1945, Lem Quon went into partnership with Bernstein, taking full ownership in 1976 when Bernstein died. The restaurant remained in the Quon family for generations.
In 2017, the 1933 Group, which invests in historic Los Angeles restaurants, took ownership. While at the Cafe, I chatted with the group’s historian, who waxed poetic about how much he loves the Cafe’s old Hollywood stories and Chinese-inspired decor. He is working on a book about the Cafe’s history called “Meet Me at the Formosa.”
Hollywood Chinese at the Formosa
Given the Cafe’s “Hollywood Meets China” theme, the 1933 Group invited Arthur Dong to curate displays about the Chinese in Hollywood. Dong has posted photos in chronological order of every Asian American Hollywood actor and actress from about 1910 to 1970.
There are also fascinating displays of old movie posters organized by theme, such as westerns, crime dramas, and musicals. Dong’s placard for the East Meets Western displays reads, “Chinese characters in American westerns have often been depicted as servile cooks, laundrymen, and coolies. But amid the civil rights movement, two films spotlighted defiant Chinese immigrants as main stories.
“In “Walk Like a Dragon (1960), James Shigeta confronts racial bigotry, culminating in a shootout with Jack Lord. And in Rider on a Dead Horse (1962), Lisa Lu gives John Vivyan a tongue-lashing about sexism: “Yellow man, white man, red man — all the same…think you’re better than women.”
Cuisine and Cocktails
The menu is a modern take on vintage Chinese American cuisine. We dined on Asian greens, spicy wok-fried rice, veggie chow fun, walnut shrimp, and potstickers. I especially appreciated the crunchy fresh vegetables. In some cases, dishes were simply “Chinese influenced,” such as the desserts of Taro ice cream topped with coconut lime sauce and the crispy wontons over vanilla ice cream — hardly “Asian cuisine,” but delicious!
We sat in the John Wayne Booth. The story goes that he often nursed a late-night scotch there and was reportedly caught making scrambled eggs in the kitchen one morning, after passing out in a booth the night before. As a result, the “Duke’s All Nighter,” made with Milagro Blanco Tequila, RumChata, Fair Goji Liqueur, passionfruit, and lime, is on the cocktail menu.
As a biracial person, I appreciate that this restaurant began as a friendship and business partnership between Jimmy Bernstein and Lem Quon, with Bernstein providing the up-front capital and credibility and Quon providing the vision. Often, we see historical examples of bias that held Asian Americans back, but here is an example of a beautiful friendship that benefitted both parties financially and created something unique and iconic for the community, which is still beloved today.
And I appreciate that the 1933 Group gave free rein to Arthur Dong to curate the current displays. Given Hollywood’s tangled history of depicting “Asianness”, the restaurant’s decor could have lapsed into disrespectful caricature. Inclusion is the solution to caricature!
I recommend the Formosa Cafe as fun living history experience, a special place where you learn about history while enjoying a delicious meal, cocktails, and a beautiful setting that evokes the period.
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