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The Brown Derby

Brown Derby, Restuarant, Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles

Brown Derby Restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard, circa 1967. Photo by Chalmers Butterfield at Wikimedia Commons.

It was commonly believed that there was only one Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles. Actually, there were four. The Brown Derby was a actually chain of restaurants around Los Angeles. The Wilshire Boulevard and Hollywood locations, the most iconic and famous of the four, were often confused to be the same restaurant.

Brown Derby, Restaurant, Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles

Postcard of Brown Derby Restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, circa 1940. "Brookwell Photo" may refer to photographer and publisher Bob Plunkett. At Los Angeles Almanac Vintage Postcards.

Wilson Mizner, Herbert Somborn (once married to Gloria Swanson) and Robert Cobb opened the first and most famous Brown Derby in 1926 on Wilshire Boulevard. It was a small café, originally located at 3427 Wilshire Boulevard, across the street from the Ambassador Hotel (see image above). The owners introduced its iconic “Derby Hat” design, following whimsical architectural styles in vogue at the time, to capture the attention of passing motorists.

There were a number of stories about the origin of its name. Among these was that the L.A. restaurant was named for a restaurant of the same name in Long Island, New York, popular among vaudevillians. Another story was that it had been named for visiting New York Governor and presidential candidate Al Smith, known for wearing derby hats.

In 1937, the Wilshire restaurant building was moved about a block east to the northeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Alexandria Avenue.

The Brown Derby restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard closed in 1980. The structure was dismantled in 1985, but the dome of its “hat” was preserved, incorporated as part of a small Korean shopping center that was later constructed on the site of the former restaurant.

Brown Derby, Restuarant, Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles

Picketers march to save the Brown Derby Restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard from demolition, 1980. Photo by Bob Chamberlin in the L.A. Times Photographic Collection at UCLA Library.

Due to the Wilshire restaurant’s popularity among the Hollywood set, the Brown Derby opened its second restaurant on Valentine’s Day in 1929. It was located at 1628 North Vine Street (just south of the famous Hollywood and Vine intersection). The second restaurant, however, did not feature the same “Derby Hat” design, instead adopting a Spanish Mission architectural style that was favored by movie-mogul Cecil B. DeMille.

Because many of the film studios were located nearby, the Hollywood Brown Derby became even more popular among prominent film figures. Movie fans even sent mail to the stars there, simply addressed to “The Brown Derby, Hollywood and Vine.”

The Hollywood location became the “semi-official” headquarters for Hollywood columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. Scenes from the 1945 classic movie “Mildred Pierce” with Joan Crawford were filmed there. Clark Gable was reported to have proposed to Carole Lombard there. The walls came to be lined with drawings and caricatures of celebrities. In 1954, Lucille Ball filmed a scene in her “LA at Last” episode of “I Love Lucy” (season 4, episode 17) at the Hollywood Brown Derby. In that episode, Ball, Vivian Vance (“Ethel”) and William Frawley (“Fred”) lunched at the restuarant in hopes of seeing movie-stars. Her character accidently causes a waiter to land a pie in the face of actor William Holden.

A common story also credits the Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant as the birthplace of the “Cobb Salad,” a concoction of owner Robert Cobb.

Brown Derby, Restuarant, Hollywood, Los Angeles

Brown Derby Restaurant in Hollywood, circa 1930s. At Los Angeles Almanac Vintage Postcards.

In 1985, the Hollywood Brown Derby was closed for earthquake retrofitting. A devastating fire occurred in 1987, destroying almost everything. The restuarant never reopened. A fragment of the original restaurant was incorporated in a building renovation for the “Premiers of Hollywood” restaurant during the early 1990s, but that was also destroyed during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Today, the site of the former Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant is now occupied by an apartment hi-rise, that pays tribute to the Hollywood Brown Derby with a replica facade of the former restaurant.

The two other Brown Derby restaurant locations in the Los Angeles area were in Beverly Hills at 9537 Wilshire Boulevard, on the corner of Wilshire and Rodeo Drive (opened in 1930s; closed 1982; razed a year later) and in Los Feliz at 4500 Los Feliz Boulevard on the corner of Los Feliz and Hillhurst (opened in 1941 with Cecil B. DeMille; closed 1960). The Los Feliz building is the last remaining of the four structures originally built for the Brown Derby.