Arguably the most famous landmark restaurant in Los Angeles is the Brown Derby. Though it was actually a chain of restaurants, most people think the first restaurant to open – the one that was shaped like a man’s derby hat – was the only one.Little remains of the famous LA landmark. But the Brown Derby Restaurant holds a special place in the hearts of anyone that was a loyal follower of the old I Love Lucy series. In the first episode when the show moved from its New York setting to Hollywood entitled, L. A. At Last, Lucy (Lucille Ball), Ethel (Vivian Vance), and Fred (William Frawley) have lunch at the Brown Derby. The friends are seated in a booth with Eve Arden on one side and William Holden on the other.
The misadventures start when the ever star-struck Lucy starts trying to peer over the back of the booth to get a better view of William Holden. Holden decides to give her a dose of her own medicine and begins to stare at Lucy who then finds it almost impossible to eat her spaghetti (finally having Ethyl cut the strands off with scissors so she could get it in her mouth.) This builds to the famous disaster scene where Lucy inadvertently causes a waiter to hit Holden in the face with a pie.
It was an adorable episode and can still be watched on the CBS website. It requires a CBS All Access membership, but you can get a 30 day free trial.
The first of the Brown Derby Restaurants at 3427 Wilshire Boulevard was opened by Wilson Mizner in 1926 across from the famed Coconut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel across the street. The chain was started by Robert H. Cobb (after whom the restaurant’s famed Cobb Salad was named) and Herbert Somborn (a former husband of film star Gloria Swanson) in the 1920s.
It was a fabulously successful restaurant through the sixties or longer. People wanted to dine where the stars ate and kept the place packed. Like many restaurants where the big attraction is celebrity clientele, the Brown Derby advertised their famous patrons by covering the walls with their caricatures.
In September 1980 the restaurant abruptly closed. Preservationists tried to stop the building from being bulldozed but failed. By November the restaurant had been replaced by a parking lot.
Somehow the dome and the seating area around it (which formed the brim of the hat) were spared. In 1985 the parking lot was replaced by a shopping center named the Brown Derby Plaza. The domed section of the restaurant was incorporated into the third floor of the center.
The Hollywood Brown Derby was located near Hollywood and Vine and the Hollywood Walk of Fame where all the radio shows were being broadcast from and is frequently confused with the original Brown Derby on Wilshire. Stars were always eating there and the restaurant was frequently mentioned on the shows contributing even more to its fame. There were several other Brown Derby locations around Los Angeles, but by the 80s they had all closed down. The only remaining Brown Derby is located at the Disney-MGM Studio theme park in Florida.
As you can see from the old photos with the new what remains of the original Brown Derby restaurant at 3427 Wilshire Boulevard is a sad effort of preservation. It sits far enough back in the shopping center that it would never occur to you that you are looking at the famous old Brown Derby restaurant that was such a favorite of celebrities for so many decades. But take the escalator up to the third level and walk on back and you can still see it. Note, that only the hat remains. The hat with the double doors was the entrance to the full structure that was once the restaurant.
Be sure to see our episode of Miss Kitty Fairlane in LA when she takes you to the Brown Derby Restaurant.
Photo credit: The top photo of the Brown Derby Restaurant in the 1960s was taken by Chalmers Butterfield. Other historic photos are in the public domain.
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