Inside Look: The Formosa Café, Los Angeles

“I feel like spirits can truly live in places, especially in places where they had fun,” says 1933 Group co-owner and lead designer Bobby Green. “If there’s some type of afterlife and people can choose where they’d want to be, I imagine a lot of people would choose a place where they partied.” And among the places where plenty of good times were had was the legendary Formosa Café in West Hollywood. The Los Angeles landmark opened in 1939, and over the following decades, it compiled a seemingly endless celebrity guest book, with regulars like Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Clark Gable and James Dean among its famous clientele. Movies like L.A. Confidential and Swingers were filmed there, and Green, who was commissioned to renovate the historic property in 2017, made his own memories at the bar. “I spent a lot of my twenties there, or rather I started going in my late teens because they never carded,” he recalls. “You knew when you went there you would see rock stars, and that young ’90s celebrity crowd was always there and the place was always packed.”

But the Formosa endured some hardships as it aged in its later years, with periodic threats of demolition and doors formally shuttering in 2016. “When the decline started, it was the bridge and tunnel crowd on the weekends and there would be a lot of fights,” Green says. “At some point they were serving everything in plastic cups, and once that happens you kind of walk away from it all. I was lucky to experience the Formosa as a young person and see how it was for many decades prior.”

With other historic bar renovations already under his belt (the 1933 Group also revamped Highland Park Bowl, Idle Hour, Sassafras Saloon, Harlowe and more), Green was a natural fit for taking on Formosa’s restoration. The project cost $2.4 million and took two years and four months to complete. For Green, there was a lot of self-imposed pressure to get all of the details right. “I knew how insanely important this place was to Angelenos, so I knew I had to tread very lightly,” he says. “It needed to feel like you’ve traveled back in time. It’s L.A. Confidential and that famous scene with Lana Turner—that has to be what the Formosa feels like.”

To bring the interior’s design back to its former glory, Green drew on his memories and research from the city historical archives, plus a few sessions rifling through storage units owned by Vince Jung, grandson of Formosa’s original owner Lem Quon. Green needed to make sure every detail stayed true to the history and soul of the place. The celebrity photos, many of which are signed, had to stay, as did the bar’s collection of ’70s-era Elvis decanters. “When I was hanging out at the bar, I thought it was the cheesiest thing ever—that just because it was Elvis’ booth, they collected these decanters,” Green says. “It turns out, Elvis’ manager Colonel Tom Parker was a regular there after Elvis died. Every time he was in town he would bring the newest decanter and give it to Lem Quon. They don’t look cheesy to me anymore; it’s actually an incredible collection with an incredible story.”

It needed to feel like you’ve traveled back in time. It’s L.A. Confidential and that famous scene with Lana Turner—that has to be what the Formosa feels like.

One of the most impressive parts of the renovation was the transformation of the bar’s iconic train car. Built between 1904 and 1906, the cab was originally part of Pacific Electric’s Red Car rail network, a system of trolleys that functioned as public transportation for the city of Los Angeles. “If you’ve seen the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that tells the story of the Red Car train. Basically, we had this amazing public transportation system and then the oil companies and big automotive decided to buy it at some point and dismantle it so people would drive cars. It’s an awful capitalistic story,” says Green. By 1936, the car was decommissioned, so owners Jimmy Bernstein and Lem Quon bought it, covered the cab in drywall and walled it in to look like part of the skeleton of the bar. “Turns out that train car was the oldest surviving Red Car train left in existence, which is pretty incredible when you think about the history of Los Angeles and the whole story, so I knew we had to restore this train car to be a train car, not just a long skinny room.”

Using a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Green dialed back the drywall and pulled the surrounding shell off the car to reveal its beautiful bones. “Inside the wall was the old ceiling and the old crow’s nest and windows. Now when you see it from the outside and inside you know you’re inside an old train car,” he says.

Features like the smoking patio, which arrived in the early 2000s when Los Angeles enacted its smoking ban, were totally overhauled when Green knocked out old bathrooms and part of the kitchen to bring the space indoors. He also rescued a temple feature from an old Chinatown bar called Yee Mee Loo, which now resides on the Formosa backbar as a nod to Yee Me Loo’s significance in Los Angeles bar history. Other elements were recreated from scratch with an aesthetic as close to the original as possible, like the wallpaper.

It turns out, Elvis’ manager Colonel Tom Parker was a regular there after Elvis died. Every time he was in town he would bring the newest decanter and give it to Lem Quon.

“During the restoration we stripped the place back to its raw bones, and we discovered so many layers of wallpaper. Three of them were a flowery, burgundy-ish wallpaper, but they were all different and none was that exciting,” Green says. “In my head I had q version of the wallpaper that was something that I couldn’t physically find inside the walls, so I got together with my friend Tina Charad, who does graphics for movies like Quentin Tarantino’s last film. She’s great with things like that, so we sat down and looked at L.A. Confidential and old photographs and we started piecing together a very similar image to what we could see in pictures.” The resulting wallpaper features the famous pagoda logo found on vintage Formosa napkins and menus. “It’s subtle, but when you’re looking at it, you notice it,” Green says.

The iconic red booths in the main bar area were also carefully restored. “I tried to keep as many raw elements in place, like the booths. They had to be recovered, and my upholstery guy said it would be way cheaper to make new booths from scratch, and I said no—this wood is old and dark and it needs some structural support, but you have to keep it because the spirits are living in that wood,” Green says.

The bar reopened earlier this summer, and the reception has been incredibly positive. “The feeling you get in there is the same feeling as before,” says Green. “There are people, old starlets, who come back and tell me the same thing: ‘It feels just the way it did when we used to hang out here.’ That’s priceless. When these buildings are torn down, the ghosts have to go somewhere else, so if you can keep everything inside the walls, I think they’ll stick around.”


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