Charles Phoenix’s Slide of the Week: Brown Derby, 1949

brown derby
Brown Derby, 1949

I love to eat out. Always have and always will. Growing up, my family regularly went out to dinner on Friday and Saturday nights and out to breakfast on Sunday morning. And if you count going to McDonalds for lunch – going out -we did that too – a lot!

These days whenever possible I avoid chain restaurants and fast food stands and instead go for the vintage homespun-and-family-run dining experiences wherever I go. Perhaps you’re familiar with my two faves -Vince’s Spaghetti – “The World’s Largest Spaghetti House” – serving in my hometown of Ontario, California since 1945. And, of course there’s the granddaddy of all cafeterias, Clifton’s – “Dine Free Unless Delighted” – downtown Los Angeles at 7th and Broadway since 1935. In fact, I was at Clifton’s just yesterday. On the way out, to further enhance and prolong that special Clifton’s spell, I bought a three layer Chocolate banana crème cake, yes a whole cake, and took it to go. They have a bakery there too!

I do, however, occasionally slip and secretly enjoy an early morning Egg McMuffin on the way to a funky flea market or smart yard sale in hopes of finding slides to share with you such as this amazing shot of the Brown Derby.

This is indeed the giant stucco hat that became the most famous restaurant in the world. Built in 1926, it was the first of the four Brown Derby restaurants and the only one shaped like its namesake hat. The location was perfect- smack dab in the middle of the most fashionable neighborhood in Los Angeles -right across the street from the legendary Ambassador Hotel and ever-so-elegant Coconut Grove nightclub. Lucy led Fred and Ethel to the Brown Derby when they “came to Hollywood.”

By the mid-60s the glamour had faded and the novelty of eating a Cobb Salad inside a hat had all but worn off. The Brown Derby was just kind of sitting there baking in the sun – not much more than a relic form the early days of Hollywood.

Finally in the late 70s a developer came along, staked his claim and said he was going to demo the Derby to build a two story mini-mall. Preservations went mad. After going back and forth the developer agreed to preserve stucco derby by putting it on the roof of his little mini-mall. And that’s what he did.

Today the original Brown Derby could be called the Burnt Orange Derby because it is – but its not. I don’t know what it’s called. But I do know it’s a cigarette smoke-filled Korean restaurant pro-decorated in a bamboo-ish theme. I am so not above feasting on bul go ki and kim chi while breathing in second hand smoke swirling around the inside of a big, giant, famous hat! Are you? Um, pass the kim chi please!

Here’s to the Brown Derby, the Burnt Orange Derby and YOU!

Charles Phoenix

P.S. Speaking of the Brown Derby, The Southern California Restaurant Historical Society is presenting A TRIBUTE TO THE BROWN DERBY

Saturday Aug 19, 2006 from 10am to 12 noon
At THE DERBY (not the hat location)
4500 Los Feliz Blvd. Los Angeles

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