The Historic Formosa Cafe Has Quietly Closed Down
The Formosa Cafe, a Hollywood icon, seems to have shuttered sans fanfare and the building is now up for lease.
According to L.A. history buffs including Vintage Los Angeles' Alison Martino and Esotouric's Kim Cooper, the Formosa Cafe shuttered in December. What’s to become of the cafe is apparently anyone’s guess.
Prize-fighter Jimmy Bernstein opened the Red Spot in 1925 inside a defunct red trolly car, near a film studio that would, in the late 1930s, become Samuel Goldwyn Studio. It was a simple lunch counter that slowly grew into a much larger operation, and was renamed the Formosa Cafe around the same time that Samuel Goldwyn moved in, according to KCET. They served Cantonese and American food courtesy of Chef Lem Quon, who took over the joint after Bernstein’s death in 1976. He then enlisted the aid of his stepson, William Jung.
The Formosa was not a fine dining establishment, but it was famous for its famous clientele, which included actors and rock icons from the Golden Age of Hollywood and beyond.
The waitstaff of the Formosa tended to stick around and like many service industry folk in Los Angeles, they had their stories. Long-time server Pat Edie once told the New York Times an anecdote about actor Clark Gable. She said he once handed her $25 on a $22 tab. She thanked him and went on with her work.
"A little while later, I came back by the table and he was standing there waiting for me and said, 'You didn't give me my change back.' I couldn't believe it," she said.
In 1991, Warner Bros. replaced Goldwyn Studio and foresaw the Formosa as a parking lot. As often happens in Los Angeles, a group quickly assembled to save the cafe. Their protest were successful, and the little building remained as the city grew around it.
Quon died in 1993. His obituary in the L.A. Times noted that even towards the end of his life, he would still drive from his home in Silver Lake to conduct his business in the booth that actress Ava Gardner had once named her favorite.
The reins were last passed down to Quon's grandson (Jung's son), Vince Jung. Jung was not a huge fan of the massive development that rose above the cafe, which includes a Target and a Best Buy. He told the L.A. Times in 2003, "The development is so big, it's hard to even tell we're open."
Others, however, seemed to think that the influx of shoppers would only help the little restaurant. Perhaps Target shoppers would pick up some laundry detergent and stop by for happy hour. Jung joked about charging Target shoppers $5 per bag. "You never know. This place just has a way of surviving. But nothing lasts forever," he said—a statement that now seems foreboding.
The Formosa was also favorite hangout of filmmaker John Waters, who doesn’t even live in Los Angeles. He said it was “exactly what Hollywood should look like,” and that “the worse it gets, the more I like it.”
The worse it got, according to many, came via a remodel in the summer of 2015. The restaurant was gutted and revamped, losing the charm Waters and its regulars loved and replacing its red and black interior, lined with numerous celebrity portraits, with gray walls and a loathed mural.
Because it turns out the Formosa wasn't quite the landmark that local preservationists—or even the city of West Hollywood—said it was. The previously-endangered building had been "saved" from redevelopment decades earlier, but apparently everyone involved in the preservation campaign was so busy celebrating their victory that they failed to actually file the paperwork required to codify the matter in law.
However, since everyone apparently hated the remodel so very much, Formosa owners decided to put it back to the way it was. The revert was apparently not enough to save the historic restaurant from closure. While its future remains unclear at the moment, you can enjoy a bit of nostalgia by checking out the Formosa Cafe in this fantastic scene from L.A. Confidential (1997).