Places like the Formosa Café are exceedingly rare today, and often threatened by development pressure, high rents, and ever-changing demographics that make it difficult to survive. Today, the beloved L.A. landmark and legacy business, Formosa Café is poised to share its cultural and historical traditions with the next generation.
A popular Hollywood hangout for nearly a century, the Formosa underwent a dramatic makeover in 2015. Its iconic black-and-red lacquered interior and gallery of celebrity headshots were stripped off in favor of a “modern” gray design. A public outcry erupted over the loss of the Formosa’s character, prompting a second makeover to undo the first. By the end of 2016, the Formosa had closed.
With its future uncertain, a search began for a new operator. In June 2017, 1933 Group was selected to take over the Formosa’s operations. 1933 Group had previously revitalized a number of historic landmarks, including the Highland Park Bowl and North Hollywood’s Idle Hour.
Among the interior design restorations, is the full reveal of the iconic and original red trolley car, dating back to 1904 and is confirmed to be the oldest surviving red train car in existence. Boxes of autographed celebrity photos and storage units of original memorabilia have made their way back into the Cafe.
The Conservancy worked with 1933 Group to secure a $150,000 grant from the American Express Partners in Preservation program, a partnership of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the American Express Foundation. The funding would be used to meticulously restore the restaurant’s vintage Pacific Electric trolley car.
From its wood paneling and terrazzo floors to its “Pacific Electric” and “913” gold lettering, the trolley was brought back to its original splendor. The project team sourced original parts and fabricated period-correct parts for those they could not attain. They removed the drywall covering the trolley’s exterior, revealing the stunning car inside the restaurant.
The team paid homage to the Formosa’s Chinese and Hollywood roots with Hollywood Chinese at the Formosa, a long-term exhibit curated by Arthur Dong, award-winning author, and Oscar-nominated filmmaker. The display includes photos, lobby cards, and headshots showcasing the contributions of Chinese Americans from Hollywood’s Golden Era. An ornate historic back bar from Chinatown’s now closed Yee Mee Loo bar was installed to help tell this important story.
The extensive rehabilitation also involved installing new systems, re-roofing, new electrical and plumbing, a full kitchen renovation, and new climate controls and HVAC ducting.
In 2019, the Formosa Café officially reopened for business. That same year, the City of West Hollywood designated the Formosa as a local cultural resource/landmark. The rehabilitation project earned a Conservancy Preservation Award in 2020.
In 1925, a former prizefighter from New York City purchased and renovated a retired circa 1902-06 Pacific Electric Red Car trolley (along Formosa Street at the rear of the Formosa Café) for use as a luncheon counter called The Red Post Cafe. Located along Santa Monica Boulevard and Route 66, and across the street from a major movie studio, the site expanded and was renamed Formosa Café in 1945.
Long associated with early Hollywood and organized crime, the walls were lined with 250 photos of stars who dined here. Mobsters Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel were regulars, with Cohen using a backroom on the trolley as a thriving bookmaking operation.
In 1991, the Formosa was threatened with demolition, prompting a campaign to save it. At the time, celebrities helped, with U2 frontman Bono saying, "It's dark in the daylight, you can't see very far/past ghosts of Sam Goldwyn in the old train car."
In 1945 Lem Quon, a Hong Kong-born chef became a partner in the business and ran the kitchen. Renamed Formosa Café, the restaurant now featured Cantonese-themed decorations. Quon took over the operation in 1976. When it was at risk of closure and demolition in 1991, Quon and Friends of the Formosa successfully rallied to save it.
Last operated by Quon's grandson, Vince Jung, the Formosa Café underwent a remodel in 2015 and the operation closed in December 2016. Following a two-year rehabilitation project by the 1933 Group, the Formosa Café officially reopened for business in June 2019.
The Formosa Café is a significant L.A. historic and cultural landmark. As one of old Hollywood's legendary and best preserved haunts, the Formosa Café has drawn a steady business since first opening.