When my Mr. Martin first came to visit me in Hollywood for the first time in 2014, he brought with him a page printout (single spaced, 12 point Times New Roman font!) of filming locations that he wanted to visit. He’d been to L.A. before, but in the company of friends and family who would wait, with forced patience, for him to make a pit stop at the corner of such-and-such where so-and-so filmed whatsitcalled. (A plight, I am sure, familiar to many of you reading this!)
This time around, one of his biggest goals was to visit as many old Hollywood watering holes as possible.
L.A. has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to vintage eateries, and we knocked out a slew of ’em: Yamashiro’s, Musso and Frank’s, Miceli’s, Canter’s, Cole’s (and Phillipe’s!), The Sunset Tower, The HMS Bounty, and The Prince…and plenty more we just couldn’t get to.
One place that we couldn’t get to was at 1628 N. Vine Street, just south of the iconic Hollywood and Vine street crossing. It’s a sanitized block of fairly recent developments that locals surely know well: the W hotel, a Trader Joes, and high-rise apartments all crowd the block and it’s safe to say that no one who rushes up and down that stretch of street has any idea of what used to reside there.
Of all the old Hollywood haunts, perhaps The Hollywood Brown Derby is the most fabled. After all, it is where Lucille Ball and William Holden had their legendary disaster of a lunch on the classic “Hollywood At Last!” episode of I Love Lucy:
The storied Brown Derby restaurant chain was owned by Robert H. Cobb–a legendary restaurateur who “would operate a hot dog stand with the same care and efficiency that he would in a gourmet paradise.” There were, in fact, 4 Brown Derby locations in all: all of which came to embody the idea of Hollywood “power dining”:
Built in 1926, the first Brown Derby’s location on Wilshire Blvd. across the street from the Ambassador Hotel in the heart of what is modern-day Koreatown. In 1926, the location choice was a status choice: at the time, Hollywood nightlife centered at the Ambassador Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove, and the Hollywood Elite had yet to migrate West to Beverly Hills. They’d settled in places like Hancock Park and Whitley Heights. The restaurant itself was erected in the form of an enormous brown derby hat, which was perfectly in keeping with the popular Progrommatic/Mimetic (“Novelty Architecture”) craze that swept Los Angeles.
THE HOLLYWOOD BROWN DERBY
On Valentines Day 1929, Cobb opened what was destined to become the most famous restaurant in Hollywood history. This is where Lucille Ball turned Willam Holden’s lunch upside down I Love Lucy. This is where famous caricatures of movie stars adorned the walls. (Where one’s face was found on the wall indicated their level of popularity.) This is where the Hollywood colony came to see and be seen and where Robert Cobb became one of the greatest hosts in the country: dapper, dashing, and a delight to all he catered to. Carl Jules Weyl, the architect, built an office upstairs for Mr. Cobb, and after going to work as an art director at Warner Bros, he did the same for Humphrey Bogart’s “Rick Blaine” in Casablanca‘s Rick’s Cafe Americain.
THE BROWN DERBY BEVERLY HILLS
By the early 1930s Beverly Hills had finally begun to become the center of the Hollywood elite, moving westward from its previous home (see above) along with the expansion of Wilshire Blvd. (Wilshire, that critical artery of Los Angeles, finally extended from downtown to Santa Monica in 1934.) In 1931, the Cobb’s opened a third location for their chain. While the Hollywood Brown Derby would always remain the most famous, Cobb’s Beverly Hills Brown Derby had the extreme good fortune of being located at the corners of Wilshire and Rodeo Drive: an intersection that would soon become one of the most famous in the world.
THE BROWN DERBY LOS FELIZ & CAR CAFE
Built in 1941, this was the last of Cobb’s Brown Derby restaurants. By the early 1940s, the Los Feliz neighborhood had emerged as one of the most exclusive in town and remains so to this day. (Pro tip: that’s pronounced “Lahs-Feeee-Liz” if you’re an actual local. Spot an implant a mile away by pronouncing it properly, “Los-Fuh-Leeez.” We Angelenos are good at not pronouncing things properly. Sepulveda Boulevard, anyone?) The standout feature here, was Cobb’s addition of a “Car Cafe.” Los Angeles was a driver’s town and invented the concept of drive-in eating– Cobb was quick to capitalize on the trend.
Even though all of Robert Cobb’s glittery eateries have, sadly, gone the way of the bulldozer (there exists a lone marker to the original Wilshire Blvd Cobb: a brown derby shaped roof at the top of an otherwise forgettable strip mall) there is one aspect of Cobb’s legacy that is not only still very much alive. The Cobb Salad. This famous recipe originated at the original Brown Derby on Wilshire Blvd., a recipe of Mr. Cobb’s. The story goes:
Late one night, [Cobb] prepared himself a salad of chopped leftover chicken and some other ingredients. His palsJack Warner, Sid Grauman, Wilson Mizner, and Gene Fowler dropped by the restaurant after a movie preview just as Bob was enjoying his homemade supper. Mizner asked what he was eating. The four guys joined in with Bob and, after that, began ordering Bob’s “Cobb Salad.” Cobb added on to the original recipe, and when the Hollywood Brown Derby opened in 1929 it appeared as an official fixture on the menu.
I recently treated Mr. Martin to the original Cobb Salad recipe–complete with its famous homemade French Dressing–and have it here for you direct from The Brown Derby Restaurant book by Sally Wright Cobb. (The book is a must-own for any fans of Classic Hollywood and is the source used for much of this post.)
We recommend putting on the full episode of I Love Lucy’s “Hollywood At Last” (available streaming on Hulu) while you prepare this dish to put you in the spirit of things.
ROBERT COBB’S COBB SALAD
Serves 8 – 10 (Half this recipe if required!)
At the Brown Derby, the Cobb Salad was presented to the guests decorated as described, tossed well with the Old Fashioned French Dressing (recipe below), table side, served on an ice-cold plate and cold fork.
3 whole chicken breasts
1 head iceberg lettuce, trimmed, washed and dried
1 bunch watercress
1 bunch chicory
4 tablespoons chopped chives
4 medium tomatoes, peeled and seeded
2 ripe avocados
1 pound bacon
6 hard boiled eggs
Finely grated Roquefort cheese
Poach chicken breasts in a shallow pan, approx 10 minutes and chop finely.
Meanwhile, cook bacon until crisp. Chop well (by hand or by food processor).
Freeze Roquefort for 15 minutes, then grate.
Dice tomatoes and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Dice avocados and sprinkle with lemon juice.
Use a food processor to chop greens into fine 3/16 bits. (Careful! Do NOT reduce them to mush.)
Finely chop hard-boiled eggs.
Don’t skimp on the greens, OK? They are the bedrock of this dish.
(apologies…our NYC kitchen is, well, an NYC kitchen)
The ingredients are simple, but note: it IS time consuming.
Lookin’ good! Ok, next:
COBB’S OLD FASHIONED FRENCH DRESSING
Makes 1 1/2 quarts. (Half this recipe if required!)
1 cup water
1 cup red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 lemon (juice)
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon worcestershire
1 tablespoon english mustard
1 clove garlic (minced)
1 cup olive oil
3 cups salad oil
Blend all ingredients EXCEP the oils.
Using a whisk or food processor, combine the oils and add them in a thin stream, continuing until mixture is well blended. Chill and shake thoroughly before serving. NOTE: Herbs such as dill, tarragon, or rosemary can be added to taste.
Take it from me: follow this recipe TO THE LETTER, especially when it comes to Salad Oil. Stick with Vegetable Oil–I used Grapeseed oil and the result wasn’t quite right.
Now, let’s assemble the salad! Place greens in a bowl and toss. Then spread the greens evenly on a serving dish.
Arrange the bacon, egg, chicken, tomato, and cheese in long vertical strips across the greens. The avocado goes at the edge of the salad. Present the salad to the table with the dressing on the side and … TOSS! (Although it broke my heart to toss it, it was so pretty!)
As you can tell…we didn’t like it very much: