Brown Derby
3427 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA  28403

“Meet Me At The Derby”

If Hollywood handed out Oscars to restaurants, the Brown Derby would win the “Most Inventive, Humorous Eatery” hands down.

If the archives are correct, its origins would make a great comedy.  Whether real or apocryphal, the story goes that while lamenting the dearth of fine dining in the ‘20s,  the sharp-tongued playwright and raconteur Wilson Mizner reportedly quipped to Herbert Somborn (Gloria Swanson’s second husband),  “If you know anything about food, you can sell it out of a hat.”

Illustrating his point, they did indeed open the Little Hat restaurant on Wilshire Blvd. in 1926 with theatre owner and showman Sid Grauman.   Mizner insisted that the place was big enough to accommodate the “swelled heads” of its clientele, which included the likes of Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford and Will Rogers.

A decade later the Brown Derby, as it was renamed,  moved down the block into its famously quirky hat-shaped building, an example of Programmatic architecture, some of which still exists in L. A.

A big neon sign “Eat in the hat” beckoned stars like Harlow, Chaplin and Barrymore. Jack L. Warner bankrolled the move to the neighboring property  which Somborn owned.  Wilson Mizner sat up shop daily in booth 50.   A  legendary establishment was born and  dominated the Hollywood social scene for half a century.  The Brown Derby was where many a studio titan reigned: contracts were signed, careers launched and hearts broken there.

The derby concept, while unique, was not original.   A similar eatery in Malverne, New York,  a favorite gathering spot for vaudevillians in the 1920s.  preceded the Brown Derby and perhaps it inspired the West Coast establishment.  Who knows?

The Brown Derby’s location across the street from the glamorous Cocoanut Grove night club in the Ambassador Hotel guaranteed success.  With its popularity among early stars who liked to pop over to grab a bite after their clubbing,  Somborn realized he needed help.   Anybody who was anybody in movies dined there to see and be seen.  And the general public came to gawk at them.

Sondborn met Robert Cobb, who had been flipping burgers at a stand on Wilshire near LaBrea, when the two were competing for the attention of the same young lady over at the Ambassador Hotel.  The 26-year old transplanted Montana cowboy’s knowledge of restaurants impressed Somborn, so he hired him to manage the Derby.   Cobb paid his dues as headwaiter, dishwasher, purchasing agent, assistant chef, bookkeeper, bouncer and banker. When Somborn died in 1936, left the restaurant to Cobb.

Cobb had a knack for innovation, buying produce and other products from stars who had farms and ranches. emblazoned swizzle sticks, match books with the hat logo to be handy souvenirs. Cobb kept the celebrity mystique alive by lining the walls with framed whimsical,  black and white caricatures of Hollywood’s biggest and brightest stars for several generations.   The practice was great advertising for the Derby, and sort of a calling card for his patrons.

Perhaps his greatest strength, Cobb understood that personal service kept his famous clientele happy.  He learned the favorite dishes of the stars and prepared them in exacting detail.   He  hastily invented the signature Cobb Salad for theatre owner Sid Grauman,  and the Grapefruit Cake for Louella Parsons,  who was dieting but wanted dessert. The Brown Derby cocktail of whiskey, grapefruit and honey was a popular signature creation.

The Brown Derby  continued to thrive over the years, opening in three more locations as new generations of stars arrived.  It was THE place to see and be seen.  The dueling  gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons faced off at separate booths,  sparring with ever-ready publicists eager to get their clients a mention.  Movie execs negotiated contracts; promoters pitched ideas;  aspiring actors preened for attention, and they all enjoyed the food and beverages while they did their business.

Colorful stories are too numerous  to recount here, but a few lend themselves to the notion that on many days,  life at the Brown Derby played out like a mad-cap movie.   A few are worth recalling:

  • Marlena was refused service by Cobb because she arrived in scandalous trousers!
  • John Gilbert and a critic had a fist fight over an unfavorable review.
  • Clark Gable proposed to Carol Lombard there.
  • Several movies immortalized the Derby with scenes, and a star-struck Lucille Ball pursued William Holden and Eve Arden in a tv episode of I Love Lucy.

Though prominent for decades, the Derby had begun to fade by the time Cobb died in 1970.

The business was sold in 1975,  and despite a comeback attempt, all locations were eventually closed. Regrettably, the original Wilshire Brown Derby  building was demolished in 1980; the Hollywood location, in 1995.  The other two restaurants have changed hands several times and operate under different names.

Fortunately for movie and architecture buffs,  a restaurant group bought the Brown Derby franchise and replicated the original Wilshire Blvd restaurant at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, FL  and other Disney theme parks in Anaheim, CA and Tokyo, Japan.  Diners today can savor a contemporary menu, but a few of Cobb’s iconic dishes are still served.

In 1996  the MGM Grand inked 10-year contracts to operate the franchise in Las Vegas, NV and Detroit, MI.

Edesia: A Palisade Culinary, Wine & Spirits Adventure would like to tip its hat to the Brown Derby and historical importance by including its most famous dishes on the menu for the Hooray for Hollywood VIP Luncheon.

Chef  Instructor Wayne Smith, Western Colorado Community College’s Culinary Arts Department, has reimagined the famous Cobb Salad with Butter Lettuce, Romaine and Watercress topped with Fra’ Mani Turkey Galantine, Nueske’s Cherry Wood Smoked Bacon, Hook’s Tiltson Point Blue Cheese, Ripe Pear, Black Pepper Walnuts and Custard Egg, Served with Citrus Vinaigrette.

Executive Chef Michael Deremer, Wine Country Inn, and his pastry chef and recreated the intriguing Grapefruit Cake,  a Vanilla Sponge Cake soaked in Grapefruit Syrup with Grapefruit Cheesecake and Grapefruit Jam.   Kennedy and Baldwin-Eaton have paired the Derby original with a citrus-forward honey wine from The Meadery of the Rockies.

We think Mr. Grauman and Ms. Parsons would approve.

Hollywood Brown Derby