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The Brown Derby

Photo by Chalmers Butterfield

There was not just one Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles, but several. The Brown Derby was commonly mistakenly to be a single restaurant and the Wilshire Boulevard and Hollywood locations were often confused. The Brown Derby was actually a chain of restaurants around Los Angeles. The restaurants on Wilshire Boulevard and in Hollywood were the most iconic and famous and were often confused.

Wilson Mizner, Herbert Somborn (once married to Gloria Swanson) and Robert Cobb opened the first and most famous Brown Derby on Wilshire Boulevard in 1926. It was a small café originally located at 3427 Wilshire Boulevard, across the street from the Ambassador Hotel (see above). The owners introduced its iconic “Derby Hat” design which followed the whimsical architectural style 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 were that it was named for a Long Island, New York, restaurant of the same name popular among vaudevillians or that it was named for visiting New York Governor and presidential candidate Al Smith who was known for wearing the derby hat. In 1937, the Wilshire restaurant building was moved about a block east to the northeast corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Alexandria Avenue. The restaurant closed in 1980. It was dismantled in 1985 and the dome of its “hat” survives and is incorporated as part of a small Korean shopping center on the site.

Due to the Wilshire restaurant’s popularity among the Hollywood set, the Brown Derby opened its second location in 1929 on Valentine’s Day at 1628 North Vine Street (just south of the famous Hollywood and Vine intersection). It did not feature the same “Derby Hat” design, but, instead followed a Spanish Mission architectural style favored by movie-mogul Cecil B. DeMille. Because many of the film studios were nearby, it became even more popular among prominent Hollywood figures. Movie fans sent mail to the stars simply addressed to “The Brown Derby, Hollywood and Vine.” It was “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” at the Hollywood Brown Derby, where she, Vivian Vance (“Ethel”) and William Frawley (“Fred”) lunch there in hopes of seeing movie-stars. In the episode, she accidently causes a waiter to land a pie in the face of actor William Holden. A common story also credits the restaurant as birthplace of the “Cobb Salad,” a concoction of owner Robert Cobb.

In 1985, the Hollywood Brown Derby closed for earthquake retrofitting but never reopened due to a devastating 1987 fire. Almost everything was destroyed. 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. The site, although featuring a replica facade of the original restaurant, is now occupied by an apartment hi-rise.

The two other Brown Derby restaurant locations in the Los Angeles area were in Beverly Hills (opened in 1930s; closed 1982 and razed a year later) and in Los Feliz (opened as the Brown Derby in 1941 with Cecil B. DeMille; closed 1960). The Los Feliz building is the last of the four to survive.