The Brown Derby
At one point, there were several of them in Los Angeles but only one (the one on Wilshire opposite the Ambassador Hotel) was constructed so that when you walked in the front door, it looked like you were walking into a giant hat.
That was the original Brown Derby, which opened on Valentine’s Day of either 1926 or 1929 (accounts differ) and moved one block away in 1937. The other main locations were (1) near Hollywood and Vine, (2) near Wilshire and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, and (3) at Los Feliz Boulevard and Hillhurst in the Los Feliz area. There were also a few short-lived ones in other spots. All served mostly American fare in a semi-plush manner with very attentive service.
Apart from the gimmick of the name and pretty good food, they had two things going for them. One was the Cobb Salad, which was invented at the Brown Derby, which was owned by the Cobb family. As the delicacy caught on in other eateries, there was much publicity as to where it had begun, and many people wanted to go and try the original. Many people also wanted to dine where the stars ate, and that was an even better reason to dine at the Derby. Like many restaurants where the big attraction is celebrity clientele, the proprietors advertised their famous patrons by covering the walls with their caricatures.
The Brown Derby near Hollywood and Vine was situated in area from which many network radio shows were broadcast, so stars were always eating there. It was not uncommon for the cast of a program to do a performance for the East Coast, then repair to The Derby for food and libation before returning to the studio for the West Coast transmission. This caused the Brown Derby to be mentioned often on their shows. When TV shows began to emanate from some of the same studios in the fifties, there were occasional live remotes from that Brown Derby. The Ralph Edwards show, This is Your Life, always began by surprising some celebrity, often in a location very close to the studio from which the program was telecast. During the years that This is Your Life came from the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, they often used the Derby, which was right around the corner. The night Edwards surprised Harold Lloyd there, Groucho Marx was in the next booth (on a break from filming You Bet Your Life at NBC’s nearby Sunset and Vine studio) and Marx began heckling Edwards as the latter attempted to hustle Mr. Lloyd across Vine Street. Well, who wouldn’t want to eat in a place where that kind of thing happened?
The Sunset-Vine Brown Derby also had a lovely banquet room and courtyard so it was the scene of many wrap parties and show biz press gatherings. All that “in” spot mystique spilled over to the Beverly Hills location and gave it a similar rep. On I Love Lucy, when Lucy, Fred and Ethel arrived in Hollywood and wanted to go somewhere to see the stars, they went to the Brown Derby…where Lucy caused a plate of food to be dumped on the head of Brown Derby regular William Holden. That was probably good for another five years of tourists flocking to the place.
Eventually though, business declined and Brown Derbies began closing down. I was an occasional patron of the Hollywood/Vine one in its last years, largely because I was working on a TV show that taped at the Sunset-Gower Studio a few blocks away. I recall being impressed with the history but unimpressed with the food…and somewhat bothered by the obsequious service. The host and waiters fawned over everyone who walked in the door like they were royalty and it seemed awfully antiquated and phony, at least to me. In any case, it was no longer the kind of place where Groucho and Bill Holden might drop by for a bite, so its main attraction was gone.
That Derby closed in ’85, the same year the Los Feliz branch turned into a night club. In the last few decades, much effort has gone into preserving the giant hat from the Wilshire location as a historical landmark. The only remaining Brown Derby is located at the Disney-MGM Studio theme park in Florida. I don’t know why they don’t buy the big hat and just ship it on down there.