The Brown Derby restaurant was a very popular, very famous restaurant in its day. I have a few scenes that take place there in my novel so I thought I’d talk a little about it, especially as it was very much part of the social scene during the golden years of Hollywood.
There ended up being four Brown Derby restaurants but the very first one, which opened in 1926, was actually shaped like a brown derby hat. It became very popular very quickly and was known as a good place to get a good meal for good value. Apparently the waitress’ uniforms were also starched into a dome to resemble the shape of the restaurant. Sounds novel but oh my! Must have been a bit breezy for the girls! It was also open until 4am (unusual for those days) so it became a popular late night stop too. And it instituted the custom of bringing a telephone to the table which of course was a big hit with the self-important heavy hitters of Hollywood. You can see it in this newsreel of the 1920s. The restaurant did so well that they opened a second location near the corner of Hollywood and Vine. This is when the Brown Derby name really took off.
The advantage this one had was location location location: it was en route to many of the movie studios: Paramount, Columbia and over into the Valley to Warner Bros., Universal and Disney and so it quickly attracted a high-profile crowd. This Derby also became the kick-off point for Friday night boxing matches at the Hollywood Legion Stadium, a block behind the Derby. At 8pm the Derby would empty out, the crowd filed through the parking lot and then return after the bouts for late-night snacks. Its reputation was also boosted when gossip queen Louella Parson held weekly meetings of the Hollywood Women’s Press Club each Wednesday at noon at the Vine Street Brown Derby. (Note in the photo here of the Vine St Brown Derby next door was a gift shop owned by Eddie Cantor!)
This Brown Derby had two levels – there was the lower level for general seating and on the upper level were the booths. The booths were positioned for see-and-being-seen’ing and were reserved for the prominent customers: Katherine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Jean Harlow, William Powell, Joan Crawford and the like. On the walls behind the booths were hung the famous Brown Derby caricatures drawn by artist Eddie Vitch who, one night, asked the owner if he could complete some caricature drawings of the stars in the Derby that night in exchange for a meal. Cobb liked the results and a tradition was born.
But these days the greatest legacy of the Brown Derby restaurants is a salad. In 1937, owner Robert H. Cobb went into the restaurant’s kitchen to make something for Sid Grauman, operator of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. He browsed the refrigerator for ingredients, and chopped them up finely. Thus, the Cobb salad was born. From then on, Grauman often requested that a Cobb salad be prepared for him and word soon spread. It became such a hit that stars started requesting “Cobb’s salad”, and it was eventually added to the menu.
Like so many things in L.A., all the Brown Derby restaurants have closed and their buildings torn down. The site where the Vine St. Brown Derby once stood is now occupied by the W Hotel Hollywood which is at least doing its part to being the Hollywood and Vine intersection back to social and cultural relevance.