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RIP Formosa Cafe: Hollywood watering hole, creative touchstone for generations




The front door of the historic but closed Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood is held closed, kinda, with a rope.
The front door of the historic but closed Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood is held closed, kinda, with a rope.
John Rabe

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The Formosa Cafe on Santa Monica Blvd had been in decline for a long time. The drinks and food were pretty universally reviled. It was run down. The feng shui was way off and weird. It had started to look and feel like one of those open air tourist bars on Hollywood Blvd.

Outside seating at the now-shuttered Formosa Cafe. Boy, this must have been an inviting place to get broken up with, then sick drunk.
Outside seating at the now-shuttered Formosa Cafe. Boy, this must have been an inviting place to get broken up with, then sick drunk.
John Rabe

But you didn't go there for the food or the drinks. You went there because the Formosa was woven into the fabric of Hollywood History. Or, as crime writer Denise Hamilton says, "when you're sitting in those red banquette booths and getting sloshed because everyone from Frank Sinatra's to Orson Welles' to Marilyn's fanny has warmed that exact leatherette and sipped from those exact highball glasses with the red maraschino cherry, and therein lies the magic."

But for the time being, you'll have to warm your fanny elsewhere, because the Formosa closed last week.

It makes you sad just to look through the window of the gutted shuttered Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood.
It makes you sad just to look through the window of the gutted shuttered Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood.
John Rabe

As Chris Nichols reports in LA Magazine, there is hope for a rehab:

“My goal is to find someone that wants to bring back the history,” said Gabe Kadosh, vice president of leasing firm Colliers International. “This is not going to turn into a Sharky’s or something." Kadosh has assembled a group of candidates who have rehabilitated historic buildings and crafted elaborate theme bars, including the Houston Brothers of La Descarga and No Vacancy, Jared Meisler and Sean MacPherson of the Pikey and Jones Hollywood, and Bobby Green, Dimitri Komarov and Dima Liberman of the 1933 Group, who recently restored the Highland Park Bowl and the Idle Hour. “Those are the kind of caliber of people I’m talking to,” said Kadosh. “They have a history and a nostalgic feel, and they can bring it back. I think these days people want an experience.”

But in the meantime, I met Denise outside the Formosa ...

KPCC's John Rabe and crime writer Denise Hamilton outside the shuttered Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood.
KPCC's John Rabe and crime writer Denise Hamilton outside the shuttered Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood.
John Rabe

... to talk about the Formosa's role as a cultural touchstone, a creative shortcut, and the inspiration so many have drawn from it ... like Curtis Hanson, who filmed this scene in "L.A. Confidential" there:

She IS Lana Turner, Guy

Denise says the Formosa was a Hollywood elite watering-hole, "Today if you want to see movie stars, they are cloistered away behind gates in Malibu or in restaurants where the hoi polloi can't get reservations." This is what made the Formosa so magical, she says. "The Formosa was one of these very old Hollywood eateries where it didn't cost a fortune, you didn't have to be famous to get in ... and you might see Cher, Bono, or Jack Nicholson."

The Formosa also appeared in the hit film musical "La La Land," with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and Denise says "When you see that montage and you see the lit up neon sign. You don't have to say anything else. Everybody knows that is one of the quintessential, archetypal places."

Listen to the audio player for much more of our conversation.