By Susan Calter For The Dick Haymes Society Newsletter #54

To be there when Hollywood was being built brick by brick must have been as exciting as movie making itself.     A new Art Deco hotel opening, a dazzling restaurant next door, beautiful people everywhere.     Creativity was not only being  seen on the big screen but the people  involved in the film making industry  were living and breathing it daily. Set designers sometimes were found moonlighting as interior decorators in hotels and restaurants to   recreate that special  feeling that worked  so well on

the screen. It seemed was   fashioned   in could easily have been   This is why the Brown luminously into the remember one time or Derby’s walls filled with amusing atmosphere Very  few of us  can thirty years later legendary restaurant      I Love Lucy show. The

The Brown Derby

as if everything that  1920’s    Hollywood  part of a movie set. Derby restaurant fit so design scheme. We all another seeing the      it’s caricatures adding  to a movie moment. forget when almost television brought this into our homes on  the  all too famous interior

was the back drop for viewers to watch Lucille Ball harass William Holden when he was - just trying to have lunch at the Brown Derby.

It was Gloria Swanson’s husband, producer Herb Somborn who in the mid 20s came up with the idea for a restaurant like The Brown Derby. Herb’s friends, Wilson Mizner who was a screenwriter and restaurateur Sid Grauman did everything they could to encourage Herb’s ideas into fruition. The story has been told hundreds of times but the basic facts are that one night in 1925 the three were chatting with Abe Frank, who was the extremely successful manager of the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel. Somborn remarked, "You could open a restaurant in an alley and call it anything, you could even build it in the shape of a hat, and if the food and service are good, the patrons will come flocking." Mizner's version was that he said to Somborn: "If you know anything about food, you can sell it out of a hat and call it something as ridiculous as the Brown Derby." Like most successful ventures, everyone involved think that they were the brains behind it all. Some say that there was another partner in this equation who remained silent. He had the cash and panache that was needed to present to the public a perfectly choreographed dining experience. That person was studio head, Jack Warner.

Nonetheless, the first Brown Derby was opened on Wilshire Boulevard in 1926, just across the street sat the Ambassador Hotel. The restaurant immediately became a colossal success. Four years later on April 3, 1930, the Ambassador’s Cocoanut Grove became the sight of the second Academy Awards ceremony that previously was held at the Roosevelt Hotel. This was the first year that the golden ’Oscar’ statue appeared. I can’t help but think that the Brown Derby’s success had something to do with this change in location. The Hotel remained hosting the awards show off and on from 1930 through 1943‘s.

Even though the interior design was uncomplicated, the walls filled with caricatures of famous stars gave it a distinctive look that was copied by many other bistros throughout the country. The celebrities featured on the walls were extremely flattered, in fact when they dined there, many would ask to be seated by their likeness. Telephone jacks were installed in every booth so that the luminaries could receive their phone calls without having to walk through a crowded restaurant.

Everything at the Derby was of the highest quality. Even the finishing touches on the hamburgers were gourmet. The waitresses, who were hired for their beauty, wore hoopskirts that were starched to resemble derbies. Many of them were ex-Ziegfeld girls who’s hoopskirts became as famous as the stucco building itself.

The landmark dome shaped roof was not just for show. The Brown Derby was one of the first air conditioned buildings in Los Angeles. Water was pumped up to the top of the dome and then ran down the sides into a moat.

The restaurant also kept live poultry in cages on the premises. Their slogan that could be found on the menus read, "Chickens whose feet never touch the ground." Their bill of fare was a collection of down home cooking. Some of the Derby’s most popular dishes were corned beef hash, stew, pot roast and their pies were celebrated.

It was a wonderful place to dine after an important opening or to totter in after a late night awards show. The owners catered to their clientele’s needs staying opened until 4 o’clock in the morning. It is believed that everyone in Hollywood stepped into the Brown Derby, with the exception of Greta Garbo. The restaurant set the mood for Clark Gable to propose to Carol Lombard in 1939 .

With all of the success of the first restaurant, there were three more to follow. But, it was only the Brown Derby on Wilshire Boulevard that touted the big brown hat. It was however, the second eatery that opened on Valentine’s Day in 1929. built on Vine Street, just south of Hollywood Boulevard that was the most notable. Herb Somborn chose his good friend, Robert Cobb to run his new venture. Even though Cobb was only 26 years old, he was an excellent choice being raised in the restaurant business. He played a combination of roles when the first Derby opened, from food checker to buyer to cashier to wine steward and even occasionally working as a chef. By 1934 Mizner and Somborn had passed on and it was Robert Cobb, who took over the eateries.

Sid Grauman and Robert Cobb were great friends who were always looking for new items to add to their menus. One late night in 1937, hungry and tired Robert decided to raid the Derby’s refrigerator, dragging out lettuce, an avocado, romaine, watercress, tomatoes, some cold breast of chicken, a hard-boiled egg, chives, and cheese . Cobb put everything on his cutting board and started chopping. After all the food was cut into tiny pieces he added some crisp bacon (swiped from one of the busy chefs on duty) and topped the salad with some old-fashioned French dressing.

The Brown Derby

The next day, Sid Grauman, still tasting the midnight meal form the night before, dined at the Derby and ordered what he named at that very moment, a ‘Cobb Salad’. It was instantly added to the menu and this potluck dish became an overnight sensation. Movie mogul, Jack Warner dispatched his chauffeur daily to pick up a Cobb Salad. Today, many restaurants list a Cobb Salad on their menus, unfortunately they have no idea what a real Cobb is all about.. There is one exception and that is the recreated Brown Derby restaurant at MGM Studios in Disney World in Florida. Caricatures cover the walls and they present the best Cobb Salad.
          When Robert Cobb died in 1970 (his photo on left) he was still in control of his restaurants. In 1976, Cobb’s widow, Sally sold the chain.

The original location shut down in 1980, followed by the closure of the Beverly Hills address in 1982. The most celebrated Brown Derby on Vine Street locked its doors on April 3, 1985, justifiably marking the end of the greatest era in the history of Hollywood.

Research for this article was found on the Internet & Sally Cobb’s book - BROWN DERBY RESTAURANT - Publisher, Rizzoli SBN: 0847825175